Agenda for Alabama’s Third Century: Raising Educational Attainment for All

While Alabama continues to gain on other states in the percentage of adults with a high school diploma, it is falling further behind the national average when it comes to the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or better.

This is important because higher educational attainment is correlated with higher rates of labor force participation, higher personal income, and higher GDP per capita, as well as, better health outcomes.

The visualization below shows the correlation between a state’s per capita income and the percentage of adults (individuals 25 years or older) who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The greater the percentage of college-educated adults in the state population, the higher the state’s per capita income. And vice-versa. The correlation holds true for the percentage of the population with an associate degrees.

In response to changes in demographics and the economy, Alabama leaders launched a full-court press to raise levels of educational attainment, recognizing that as a cornerstone of future prosperity. The Success Plus initiative brings government, education, and business together around a coordinated effort to raise educational attainment and post-high school advanced skills training, with the goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers to the workforce by 2025. In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s all the more important to sustain educational momentum and prevent the exacerbation of educational inequities that have held Alabama back.

PARCA opened 2020 with an annual meeting in January that challenged speakers to sketch out a vision for our state’s third century. We’re revisiting the central themes explored at that meeting in the coming months, beginning with this installment on educational attainment.

From PARCA’s work with schools and governments, successful organizations follow a process in order to pursue a vision.

  1. Know where you stand and own your data.
  2. Make a plan for improvement, one that includes goals and evidence-based strategies for how to achieve them.
  3. Measure progress toward your goal. Analyze the results.
  4. Celebrate successes. Shift resources and strategy if tactics aren’t working.

This report, as a first step, describes where Alabama stands in comparison to other states in educational attainment.

Narrowing the Gap in High School Attainment

It’s not a surprise that Alabama trails other states. The state is dragged down by its historic underinvestment in education, by the legacy of racially-segregated, separate and unequal schools, as well as continuing inequities and de-facto segregation in some areas.

Here’s the good news: Alabama has shown it can produce dramatic change. When it comes to raising the percentage of adults with high school education, it has, according to Census Bureau data. 1

  • Between 1940 and 2018, Alabama ranked third highest among states in percentage point gain in high school attainment.
  • By 2018, Alabama had nearly closed the gap with the US average for the percentage of the state’s adult population with a high school degree.
  • In 2018, 87% of Alabama adults had a high school degree compared to 88%.

And while work remains to be done, Alabama has also made significant progress in closing the gap between Blacks and whites in high school attainment. In 1940, after decades of Black flight from the South and with segregation still in full force, only 4% of Black adults in Alabama had a high school diploma, compared to 22% of whites. Both races trailed well behind the national averages. By 2018, 82% of Black adults in Alabama had a high school credential compared to 89% of whites. Across the U.S., 85% of Blacks and 93% of non-Hispanic whites have a high school credential.

In spite of advances, Alabama still ranks No. 44 among the 50 states in the percentage of its population with a high school degree, thought the gap between all states is much narrower than it once was.

Falling Behind in Bachelor’s Degree Attainment

The gap is much wider when it comes to the percentage of the population with a four-year degree. When it comes to bachelor’s degree attainment, Alabama has failed to keep pace with the growth rates in other states.

  • In 1940, the percentage of the population with a college degree was small in Alabama (3%) and the U.S. (5%).
  • Since 1940, the percentage of the population with a college degree has steadily increased but Alabama’s growth rate has been slower than the national rate, resulting in the current gap of 7 percentage points.
  • Since 1940, Alabama had the ninth-lowest percentage point gain among states in bachelor’s degree attainment and ranks No. 44 among the 50 states in the percentage of the adult population with a degree.

Use the menu to select other states for comparison

Alabama’s bachelor’s degree attainment trails the national average for both Blacks and whites. Among Alabama whites, 28% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 36% of whites nationally. That’s a gap of 8 percentage points.

In Alabama, among Blacks, 17% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22% nationally. That’s a gap of five percentage points. Throughout this period, more students began enrolling and graduating from college. However, white students nationally and in Alabama seem to have been better positioned to take advantage of this major shift in higher education.

Nationally, the gap in bachelor’s attainment between whites and Blacks is 14 percentage points, compared to a gap of 11 percentage points in Alabama. For both races, the gap with the US average has widened between 2010 and 2018, according to the Census statistics. The percentage point growth in attainment was particularly slow for Alabama Blacks during the latest period, advancing only two percentage points.

These educational attainment measures are not solely attributable to the preparation levels and graduation rates from Alabama K-12 schools or colleges, though the performance of those schools has an effect. Also influencing the equation, particularly in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment, is where Alabama graduates move after college, which is often a function of where career opportunities are available, and the population and wages are growing. Data suggests that many of the states seeing rapid increases in the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees are drawing college-educated migrants from other states. Alabama research from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education also finds that the state exports college graduates.

If you want a closer look at how the state’s compare on educational attainment, the visualizations below present a more detailed view. The charts break down the population into segments based on the percentage of the population in each educational category. An individual’s category is determined by his or her highest level of education. The percentage represents the number of people at that level each attainment divided by the total population 25 years and older. In this chart, the states are sorted by the percentage of the population with an associate degree or higher. Use the tabs to explore the states ranked by the percentage of the population with bachelor’s and graduate degrees or the states’ data displayed in an interactive map.

How Does Educational Attainment Compare within the State?

Overall, Alabama’s educational attainment rates may trail the rates of other states, but measures of attainment also vary widely within the state. Educational attainment, as measured by the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees or higher, exceeds the US average in five counties: Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, and Baldwin. Five additional counties exceed the Alabama average: Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee, and Elmore Counties. Those top counties represent most of the major metro population centers plus the university towns. The exception is Coffee County which is home to Enterprise State Community College and includes the residences of many of the personnel, military and civilian, associated with Fort Rucker.

Within the top 20 are a few counties where educational attainment levels are higher than one might expect based on their rural character: Sumter, Pike, and Macon. On closer examination, all three have a university and a relatively small population. Macon County also has a large Veterans Administration Hospital. Pike County is home to some defense contractors and other manufacturing businesses that likely boost the county’s share of credentialed residents.

As in the national context, there is a relationship between education levels and income. In Alabama, the most predictive relationship can be found by comparing county per capita income and the percentage of the population with an associate degree or higher. In general, counties with higher levels of educational attainment have higher levels of income. Educated workers seek out locations where there are concentrations of higher-paying jobs. Higher-paying jobs generally require higher levels of education or training. Businesses seek out locations where there is an ample supply of educated residents so hiring will be easier. Higher incomes generate more business opportunities.

The quest to close the gap

For its first 150 years of statehood, Alabama intentionally operated separate and unequal schools for blacks and whites. And even for whites, the schools weren’t adequate to keep students on pace with the rest of the United States. Through the 1950s, Alabama’s population was predominately rural with an economy oriented to agriculture or blue-collar industry. Alabama’s primary recruiting tools were low taxes, low wages, and cheap land.

The lingering effects of this historic underinvestment in students become apparent in the period of record-low unemployment prior to the pandemic. Despite a booming economy and low unemployment, Alabama continued to have one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. Businesses struggled to find employees to meet the demands of more technologically advanced workplaces, while a disproportionate number of citizens, primarily those with lower levels of education, stayed stuck on the sidelines.

If Alabama is to reach its full economic potential, the state needs to continue to improve the equity, effectiveness, and efficiency of its educational delivery system. It needs to reach out to adults who need to advance their education. And it needs to retain the graduates its schools produce.