A first look at some new educational attainment data for Georgia’s counties (it ain’t pretty)


Lately I’ve been wallowing around in about a dozen different datasets and working on at least as many posts without getting any of them finished. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are moments when I miss having an editor yelling at me. So, now I’ve started yelling at myself and have given myself firm instructions to break things down into manageable chunks and start cranking them out. Otherwise, I may have to fire myself.

Today’s manageable chunk involves educational attainment and the first installment in a broader set of county rankings. The dataset I’m working with is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates for the period 2016-2020. The ACS provides estimates on 3,142 U.S. counties for the number and percentage of adults in each county who a.) never finished high school; b.) only finished high school; c.) earned some college credits and perhaps got a technical degree, and d.) earned a four-year college degree or higher.

I’ve written about educational attainment before. In my earlier efforts, I judged a county’s educational attainment levels based solely on the percentage of the adult population with a four-year college degree. I got some criticism for that — a fair complaint that my equation failed to give credit for the part of a county’s population that had gotten some technical training and was qualified and able to hold down good-paying jobs.

I decided that was legitimate criticism and have adjusted my calculation to factor in valuations for each educational attainment level, as follows:

A.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that failed to finish high school is worth -1 point;

B.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that only finished high school is worth 1 point;

C.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that earned some college credit and perhaps got a technical degree is worth 2 points, and

D.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 with at least a four-year college degree is worth 3 points.

The resulting calculation yields what I call the Trouble in God’s Country Educational Attainment Index. It looks like this (with the letters — A, B, C and D — corresponding to the educational levels shown above):

TIGC EA Index = ((A x -1)+(B x 1)+(C x 2)+(D x 3))

To provide a couple of examples, Forsyth County earned Georgia’s highest TIGC EA Index for 2016-2020 period and Telfair County scored the lowest. Here’s how their numbers shook out.

County% adults with less than HS diploma% adults with HS diploma only% adults with some college/perhaps associate degree% adults with at least four-year college degreeTIGC Education Attainment IndexTIGC National EA Rank
Forsyth County6.615.323.254.8219.6639th
Telfair County28.249.715.17.072.573,132nd

Now, with all that background out of the way, here are some key takeaways from this analysis.

One is that Bill Shipp is still right. When I first took a crack at this a couple of years ago (using the now-discarded college graduates-only formula), I took a look at an old claim by Bill Shipp, a legendary former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, that Georgia without Metro Atlanta would be worse off than Mississippi. I found that Shipp was correct. The 147 counties outside TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region had a lower percentage of college graduates than Mississippi (and wasn’t far ahead of West Virginia). The Great State of Notlanta finished next to last in that ranking.

My new equation doesn’t change that. Shipp is still correct. The 147 counties that make up Notlanta still comes in next to last, behind Mississippi but ahead of West Virginia. The 12-county Great State of Atlanta ranks 3rd behind Colorado in 1st and Massachusetts in 2nd. In that previous analysis, I suggested changing the state’s name to Massassippi. I think that still holds.

This map breaks Georgia’s 159 counties down into national quartiles based on their TIGC Educational Attainment Index scores. Counties shown in dark green are in the top national quartile; those in light green are in the second quartile; those in salmon are in the third quartile, and those in dark red are in the bottom national quartile. Eighty-one Georgia counties are in the bottom national quartile.

Another key takeaway has to do with the extent to which Georgia’s out-state population centers have lost ground in educational attainment over the past half-century. I’ll get into this further in a later post, but this is important enough to throw out a little teaser: Since 1970, all the state’s major population centers outside Metro Atlanta have suffered some erosion in their educational attainment standing.

To be clear, all these counties have improved their educational attainment metrics over the past half-century — but at a pace that, with a couple of exceptions, lagged significantly behind Metro Atlanta generally and the northern suburbs in particular. In 1970, nearly all the major out-state population centers ranked among the top 15 counties in the state for educational attainment, and all have suffered some slippage in rank since then.

Among the hardest hit, Richmond County plunged from 7th place in 1970 to 48th for the 2016-2020 period while Dougherty County dropped from 9th to 50th. Floyd County, in northwest Georgia, ranked 23rd in 1970 but had fallen to 61st in the latest rankings; Tift County, on I-75 in south Georgia, has seen its ranking drop from 27th to 71st.

Of the major out-state counties that were in the top 15 in 1970, only two have managed to stay in that top tier: Clarke County, site of the University of Georgia, fell from 2nd to 7th place as large portions of its professorial population migrated to neighboring Oconee County, and Chatham County, home to a revitalized Savannah and the state’s largest port, slipped from 11th place to 13th.

This overall deterioration, I submit, is important for this reason: Any meaningful rural revitalization strategy will have to begin in these major regional population centers. I’ve thought this since fairly early in my TIGC research and haven’t found anybody who disagrees with me. You can’t throw enough money directly at impoverished rural counties to fix their problems, and if these regional centers slip into some kind of irreversible decline, they’ll take their neighboring rural counties down with them. This kind of decline is arguably already underway in Dougherty County and its rural neighbors in southwest Georgia (stay tuned for more on this).

Finally, a word or two about national rankings and their usefulness. I like to use national datasets whenever possible because they provide a good sense of how Georgia counties stack up against peer counties in other states, and they give us a good way to gauge the gap between Georgia’s top and bottom performers.

In the case of educational attainment, there are 3,093 counties between Georgia’s top-performing Forsyth County and Telfair County at the bottom. Only a handful of states have bigger gaps between their top and bottom performing counties, including Texas, Tennessee and Indiana.

Several months ago I did a good bit of research on Georgia’s per capita income performance and found that Georgia has more of its population stuck in the bottom national quartile for that metric than any other state in the country. I’ve got a little more analysis and number-crunching to do on this education data, but it looks like this picture is similar, if not quite as grim. Georgia has 81 counties in the bottom national quartile, but 44 of those are in the bottom 10 percent of U.S. counties nationally. Based on the analysis I’ve done so far, only Texas (which has more than 250 counties) has more counties in that bottom 10 percent.

Stay tuned for more on this subject. In the meantime, here’s a searchable, sortable list of Georgia’s counties and their TIGC Education Attainment indexes and rankings.


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