New England's Educational Advantage: Past Successes and Future Prospects

Article excerpt

Any enumeration of New England's competitive strengths is likely to include the high education levels of its work force. The growing availability of highly educated workers in the region has permitted the development of industries that make use of advanced skills and raised the average standard of living during the past several decades. This article investigates the sources of New England's educational advantage historically, examines recent trends in key determinants, and discusses prospects for the future.

The first section presents the basic facts on educational attainment. New England has the highest percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree or more of any region of the country. The region's ranking among the nine Census divisions went from third in 1970 to second in 1980 to first in 1990. Although New England continues to rank first in the nation, its advantage over other regions narrowed over the course of the 1990s.

The article then investigates the sources of New England's educational advantage. A 20-year longitudinal survey is used to classify college graduates by region according to where they attended high school and college. This analysis shows that New England's high educational ranking is the result of sending a high share of its own schoolchildren to college and drawing college students from other locations. These sources account for a large proportion of the region's college-educated adults. New England is closer to average in its share of college-educated adults without previous educational ties to the region.

The study extensively investigates what might have caused the gap between college completion in New England and other regions to narrow in the 1990s. Throughout much of the nation, young adults currently are more highly educated than middle-aged adults. Yet, for New England residents, bachelor's degree attainment among young adults is only marginally higher than among the next older group. Analyzing these discrepancies entails piecing together different types of information, some focusing on regional differences at given points in time and others focusing more directly on regional trends over time. Specifically, the study examines dues from regional data on college attendance, bachelor's degrees, and migration by the college-educated.

To the extent New England has faced growing challenges in maintaining its educational advantage during the past decade, this is due to shrinkage in the number of bachelor's-level graduates at the region's colleges and universities, and to diminished success in drawing college-educated adults from outside the region. Although enrollments at New England colleges and adult population flows into the region have begun to show more favorable trends, the numbers continue to indicate slippages from prior peaks.

I. Educational Attainment: Basic Statistics

New England has the highest percentage of college-educated persons of any region of the country. [1] As of 1998, 29.7 percent of New England residents aged 25 years and over had a bachelor's degree or more, compared to the U.S. average of 24.5 percent (Table 1). The next-highest Census divisions were the Pacific (26.9 percent) and the Middle Atlantic (26.0 percent).

Despite the long-standing prominence of its universities, New England did not rank first in previous decades. In 1970, college degrees were much rarer than they are today; only 10.7 percent of the nation's adults had a four-year college degree. The rate in New England was 12.1 percent, third highest among the nine Census divisions. The Pacific area had the highest rate, 13.2 percent, followed by the Mountain states, 12.9 percent. By the 1980 Census, New England moved into second place, surpassing the Mountain division. The 1990 Census indicated that New England had become the most highly educated region.

Between 1970 and 1990, each of the New England states advanced in educational attainment relative to the other 49 states. …