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Where the brainpower is: Exclusive U.S. rankings, insights

G. Scott Thomas
Triangle Business Journal



It pays to have a college diploma — and preferably more than one.

A worker who holds a bachelor’s degree will typically earn 77 percent more than a colleague who didn’t go beyond high school, says a new U.S. Census Bureau report. And a person with a master’s degree will earn 17 percent more than an individual with a B.A. or B.S.

That’s good news for the workforce in Washington, D.C., which is the U.S. metropolitan area that boasts the strongest brainpower, according to a new study by The Business Journals.

The study analyzed 102 major markets, searching for the metros with the highest levels of collective brainpower, as reflected by the educational attainment of their residents. (Click here — or on the image to the right — for a slideshow of the top 10 markets.)

The Washington area is blessed with an employment mix that places a premium on education. The federal government remains the base of the local economy, but Washington also contains a wide array of jobs in the fields of accounting, architecture, engineering, legal services, medicine and high technology.

The result is a highly skilled and broadly educated workforce. Nearly half of the adults (47.6 percent) in the Washington area hold bachelor’s degrees, and 22.8 percent have master’s, doctoral or professional degrees, collectively classified as graduate degrees.

Both figures are the highest in the entire study group. The national averages are 28.5 percent of adults holding bachelor’s degrees and 10.6 percent with graduate degrees.

Rounding out the top 10 in the brainpower rankings are Madison, Wis.; Bridgeport-Stamford, Conn.; Boston; San Jose; Durham, N.C.; San Francisco-Oakland; Raleigh; Minneapolis-St. Paul and Colorado Springs.

The Business Journals’ study was based on data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Each market was rated on its percentages of adults (25 and older) with high school diplomasbachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees. All figures are from 2012, the latest year for which official statistics are available.

High-tech hubs, state capitals and university centers dominate the top echelon of the rankings. Some of the brainpower leaders, such as Madison and Boston, fit into all three of those categories.

The bottom of the list, on the other hand, features several Texas and California markets where college graduates are outnumbered by h

igh-school dropouts. Last place belongs to McAllen-Edinburg, Texas. Only 16.1 percent of its adults hold bachelor’s degrees, but 37.7 percent left high school prior to graduation.

The brainpower standings carry special importance because of the demonstrated link between education and earning power.

The following are the estimated average lifetime earnings for workers with different levels of degrees or diplomas, according to a Census Bureau report issued earlier this month:

• Professional degree, $4.2 million

• Doctoral degree, $3.5 million

• Master’s degree, $2.8 million

• Bachelor’s degree, $2.4 million

• Associate’s degree, $1.8 million

• High school graduate, $1.4 million

• High school dropout, $1.1 million

• Middle school dropout, $930,000

“How far one goes in school can mean a difference of about $3.2 million,” says the Census Bureau report, which contends that the personal level of educational attainment is the single biggest factor in determining the earning power of most individuals.

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