A week or so ago I published a post that looked at South Georgia’s population trends. This was the first of what will likely be four or more posts updating a December 2016 comparison between my 56-county South Georgia region and Gwinnett County alone. For the past few days I’ve been mucking around in various buckets of education data for the purpose of updating that part of the comparison.
I swear I’ve been looking for some good news, but there’s just not much. The best I could come up with is that South Georgia, as a region, has seen a significant reduction in its population of adults (aged 25 and over) who never finished high school, and my best guess is that’s probably because a lot of poorly educated, older people died. Whatever the reason, estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicate that the number of South Georgia’s adult population who never finished high school dropped by more than 16,000 from the Bureau’s 2009-2013 average to its most recent 2014-2018 estimates.
South Georgia also made a little headway in growing its percentage of college graduates. From the 2009-2013 period to 2014-2018, it pushed that share of its adult population from 14.9 percent to 16.3 percent. By comparison, Gwinnett County grew its portion of college grads from 33.9 percent to 36.1 percent.
Indeed, college graduates comprise the largest share of Gwinnett County’s adult population while, in South Georgia, high school graduates comprise the largest single cohort: 36.3 percent of the region’s adults held a high school diploma as of the 2014-2018 period. As another point of comparison, Gwinnett County is home to nearly three times as many college graduates as high school dropouts (206,823 versus 70,656) while high school dropouts still outnumber college graduates across South Georgia (146,100 dropouts versus 123,424 college grads).
This column chart shows the population for each educational level — less than high school, high school diploma only, some college, and college graduate — in Gwinnett County and South Georgia.
Only six South Georgia counties can boast having more college graduates than adults who never finished high school: Bulloch, Lee, Lowndes, Thomas, Dougherty and Long. Sixteen have at least twice as many high school dropouts as college graduates, and four of those – Quitman, Telfair, Echols, and Atkinson – had more than three times as many dropouts as college graduates.
It’s possible to argue, of course, that given the nature of the economy across South Georgia, college degrees aren’t as important as they are in Gwinnett County – that, indeed, the more important metric is whether a sufficient share of the population has graduated from high school or perhaps has gotten at least some college education. And in fact South Georgia has made some improvement in both those categories.
But over half its adult population – 55.6 percent – still has no more than a high school diploma, while nearly two-thirds of Gwinnett County’s population – 64.9 percent – has at least some college.
A second education metric I follow is annual fall admissions to University System of Georgia (USG) institutions. This might be viewed as the pipeline of college-educated talent most communities arguably need to prosper, and it produced one of the biggest surprises I found in that first round of research back in 2016.
Through the first decade of this century, South Georgia was still sending substantially more high school graduates to USG institutions than Gwinnett County. But that began to change in about 2009. South Georgia’s admissions trajectory stalled while Gwinnett County’s continued to chug upward for a couple of years. They were basically tied in 2011 – 5,498 for South Georgia versus 5,493 for Gwinnett County.
But since then (as the chart below shows), Gwinnett County – even with a smaller population – has sent larger numbers to USG colleges and universities. The trend lines, however, are interesting, and I’ve come to believe they reflect one of the long-term impacts of the Great Recession on different parts of the state.
South Georgia’s admissions slumped pretty much immediately in 2009 and began what has turned into a decade-long slide; Gwinnett County’s upward trajectory was slowed and basically morphed into a plateau. It enjoyed a one-year spike in 2017 before falling back to its plateau level in 2018.
The Gwinnett-South Georgia contrast becomes even starker when you focus on total enrollment at the state’s two flagship universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. While South Georgia was still sending more freshmen to all 30-plus University System colleges combined through 2011, the 56-county region’s total enrollment at UGA and Tech had long since fallen behind Gwinnett County’s, as this chart illustrates.
In 2008, nine of the 56 counties in the TIGC South Georgia region didn’t have a single student enrolled at Georgia Tech, according to data pulled from the institution’s annual Fact Book; by 2018, that number was up to 19 — and those numbers seem certain to get worse.
In 2018, South Georgia couldn’t muster but 41 high school graduates to send as freshmen to Georgia Tech and 220 to send to the University of Georgia. Thirty-six of the 56 South Georgia counties didn’t send a single freshman to Tech, and 14 posted goose eggs at UGA. Gwinnett County, meanwhile, with about 80 percent of South Georgia’s population, sent 224 new freshmen to Tech and 627 to UGA.