I can’t remember whether he wrote it or said it, but years ago the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Shipp opined that if you lifted Metro Atlanta out of Georgia, what was left would be worse off than Mississippi. I remember it because I’m from Mississippi and my first reaction was: Really? There might be an area that was dumber and poorer than my home state?
That was long enough ago that it was difficult to round up and analyze the data you’d need to prove Shipp’s point one way or the other. Now, though, all you need is an internet connection, a spreadsheet and a little time, and recently I found myself plowing through a fresh batch of education data and decided to put the Shipp thesis to the test.
And guess what? On at least one count, he was — and is — right: Mississippi has a slightly higher percentage of college graduates than the 147 Georgia counties that lie outside Trouble in God’s Country’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region.
In Mississippi, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), 21.8 percent of adults 25 and older hold college degrees. For Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties, the figure is 21.3 percent. If those 147 counties constituted a state unto themselves, it would rank next-to-last nationally for this metric. West Virginia stands dead last, with 20.3 percent of its adult population holding college degrees.
All of which begs the question: If Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties are, collectively, so close to the bottom of the college education pile, where would the Great State of Metro Atlanta stand?
Pretty dang close to the top, it turns out. For TIGC’s 12-county region, the share of adults holding college degrees is 41.1 percent, which would put it No. 3 nationally — behind the District of Columbia (57.6 percent) and Massachusetts (42.9 percent). Colorado would be No. 4 at 40.1 percent, and no other state tops 40 percent.
It wasn’t always this way. The 1970 Census found that there were fewer than a quarter-million college graduates living in the entire state of Georgia — and a slight majority of those lived in the 147 counties outside TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region.
According to the latest ACS estimates, which cover the period 2014 through 2018, the state is now home to more than two million college graduates. Metro Atlanta, with 47.2 percent of the state’s adult population, claimed 63.2 percent of those college graduates — 1.32 million. The other 147 counties are home to 52.8 percent of the adult population but only 36.7 of the college graduates. TIGC’s 56-county South Georgia region still has more high school dropouts than college graduates, according to the ACS data.
It’s now been more than 40 years since the state’s political and civic leaders began fretting about “the two Georgias.” Today, I’d submit we’ve moved well beyond that split and are looking at a mash-up of the states of Mississippi and Massachusetts — the Schizophrenic State of Massassippi. That kind of tortured combination may be difficult to comprehend, but it could be our future — and the educational divide is just the beginning. It already extends demonstrably to economics, population health, politics and a range of cultural issues.
To understand the impact of the educational differences on economic performance, we need look no further than the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s data on county-level gross domestic product (GDP). According to that data, Metro Atlanta produced 62.43 percent of the state’s GDP in 2018 and generated more than 76 percent of its economic growth over the previous five years. Today, fully three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP is produced north of the gnat line.
As bad as the educational divide is, it’ll probably get worse before it gets better — if it ever does. One disturbing trend previously unearthed here at TIGC is a stunning drop-off in enrollment at University System of Georgia (USG) institutions from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties. Based on an analysis of a decade’s worth of USG fall enrollment data, the non-Metro Atlanta counties were sending more new freshmen to USG institutions up through 2009.
But that changed in 2010, as the Great Recession began to take its toll: fall enrollment from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties fell off a cliff and started a five-year slide, as the graph here shows. Metro Atlanta took a one-year hit in 2011, then began a slow and mostly steady recovery and got back to its high water mark in 2018. The other 147 counties finally enjoyed a little recovery in 2015 but then plateaued and have been flat since then.
The contrast gets to be even starker if you look only at the state’s two flagship institutions of higher education, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. In 2018, as the graphs here show, Metro Atlanta overwhelmingly dominated enrollment at both universities. Some 71 Georgia counties didn’t send a single new freshman to Georgia Tech that year; at UGA, the same was true of 22 counties.
Georgia’s current crop of politicians are, of course, concerned with the divide and its implications. Governor Brian Kemp launched a “rural strike team” in 2019, and he and the General Assembly may begin investing some money into rural broadband this year. Earlier this month Kemp announced a public-private initiative that would plow more than $200 million into providing hardwired internet service to 80,000 locations in 18 mostly Middle Georgia counties. Whether that bet will pay off remains to be seen, of course — especially without improvements in more fundamental local education needs.
They had better hope they do. Otherwise we may have to bring Shipp, the old Constitution editor who regularly used an old manual typewriter like a sledgehammer, out of retirement to start warning that we’re closing in on West Virginia.
(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021