Skip to content

Gauging the gap in educational attainment in Georgia’s urban-rural divide

This post is the second in a series I’m developing as I rework my TIGC presentation for a mid-November symposium on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. In the first of this series, I took a look at the widening gap in premature death rates between Metro Atlanta and Georgia’s Other 147 Counties. Today’s topic is educational attainment.

I’ve covered some of this before but I don’t feel like I’ve ever stitched together the whole story, which I’ve come to view as the single most important driver in the division between my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region and the Other 147 Counties.

I’ll start with this graph, which I’ve just developed.

What this shows is the number of college graduates by region over the last half-century, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau and compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

The first takeaway from this data is that the Metro Atlanta/Other 147 divide is a relatively recent development. In 1970, according to the Census data, there were fewer than a quarter of a million college graduates in the entire state, and slightly more than half of them lived outside today’s Metro Atlanta region (much of which was also rural back then).

That balance had tipped in favor of my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region by 1980, but just barely. It was only as the state moved into the 1980s that the gap in the number of college graduates really began to widen. Based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data for the five-year period 2015-2019, more than 63 percent of the state’s nearly 2.2 million college graduates reside in the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

While I regard the educational attainment data as the most important metric in this area, the truth is it’s a lagging indicator — and there’s a leading indicator that forecasts even more bad news. Over time, I’ve stitched together 14 years of fall enrollment data from the University System of Georgia (USG). It’s reflected in this graph.

What this shows is that for the first four years of my study period, the Other 147 Counties were still sending more freshmen to USG colleges than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties. Look at the orange line and you’ll see that the Other 147 Counties peaked in 2009 when they sent a little more than 23,000 freshmen to USG institutions and then started a pretty dramatic six-year slide.

This is arguably the most significant of the Great Recession “aftershocks” I’ve written about in other pieces. Metro Atlanta continued to send growing numbers of freshmen to USG institutions for another two years before being hit by a comparable aftershock and suffering a two-year tumble before beginning to recover.

As the chart shows, Metro Atlanta continued to send more freshmen to USG institutions for the remainder of the current decade. One takeaway from the data is that — between 2006 and 2020 — the Other 147 Counties went from sending just over 15 percent more freshman to USG colleges and universities than Metro Atlanta to sending nearly 16 percent fewer — a swing of more than 30 points in 14 years.

But there’s a hint of good news at the end of the decade. After an odd, statewide downturn in freshman enrollment in 2019, both Metro Atlanta and the Other 147 Counties posted large and highly comparable increases in the fall of 2020. The Other 147 Counties may not have gained any ground on Metro Atlanta, but at least they didn’t lose any more.

Overall, the 12 Metro Atlanta counties sent about 54 percent of the total Fall 2020 in-state enrollees to the University System’s 28 institutions.

But the picture is much starker when you look at the four major research universities — Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. At those four institutions combined, just over 70 percent of the Fall 2020 in-state enrollees came from the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

At Georgia Tech, the percentage of Fall 2020 enrollees from Metro Atlanta hit 74 percent, and the 83 counties highlighted on the map at right didn’t send a single freshman to Tech that year. At the University of Georgia in Athens, the percentage of Fall 2020 in-state enrollees from Metro Atlanta topped 62 percent, and it pulled students from more of the state; only 20 counties failed to send a single freshman to UGA that Fall.

That this concentration of educational muscle in Metro Atlanta holds economic implications for the entire state should be obvious. But it also foreshadows major cultural and political shifts, which I’ll get into in a future post.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Donald Yates #

    Please do keep up your good work.

    October 14, 2021
  2. Jim Jones and the Koolaid #


    So what are the numbers per 1000 students? If Metro Atlanta has twice as many students as rural Georgia then as a percentage of students being sent rural Georgia is doing very well. What’s really interesting is that Metro Atlanta has twice as many graduates but only about 10-15% more students who are accepted. That really shows that rural Georgia students have more problems than metro Atlanta students at finishing college, which I suspect is the bigger issue.

    It wouldn’t surprise me that just as many rural Georgia students as a percentage of the total number of students are able to enroll in college, but a LOT more of them do not finish. Is that because of lack of academic skills? Lack of funds to pay for college? Etc. etc. Why do rural Georgia students do NOT do as well in college as metro Atlanta students?

    take care

    October 14, 2021
  3. armanidog #

    How much do you think the rise in education costs over the last 20 years plays into this?

    October 18, 2021
    • Charles Hayslett #

      I haven’t looked specifically at that but it’s a good question. The fact that enrollment took such a dive — especially outside Metro Atlanta — on the heels of the Great Recession would suggest a major economic driver. I’ll try to get into that, but it may be a while.

      October 19, 2021
  4. Don Brown #

    Great work, as always, Charlie.

    November 21, 2021
  5. That’s a heck of a statistic. Do you know how much of it is due to population growth the the city vs. depopulation in rural counties?

    November 21, 2021

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: