Huntsville continues its trajectory towards becoming Alabama’s largest city, while Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile continue to drift lower, according to the most recent city population estimates released by The Census Bureau. The two major college towns Auburn and Tuscaloosa continue to grow, as do several cities in Baldwin County.
The new estimates cover the time period between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018, and also look back to 2010, the year of the last official Census. Data from the same time period has already been released for state level, metro areas, and counties, and PARCA has published analyses and interactive tools exploring that data. The new cities data is below. Use zoom and drag tools to explore a particular area. Use the button in the bottom right corner if you want a full-screen display.
Huntsville and North Alabama
The city of Huntsville added more residents than any other Alabama city with an estimated 2,262 gain in 2018. If current trends continue, Huntsville (197,318) will surpass Birmingham (209,880) as Alabama’s largest city within the next several years. However, Birmingham’s metropolitan area population (1,151,801) is more than twice as large as Huntsville’s MSA (462, 693).
The Huntsville suburb of Madison ranked third in numeric gain adding 1,289. Huntsville has avoided the dilemma faced by many center cities: becoming hemmed in by and losing population to newer suburbs. In fact, Huntsville, through strategic annexation, has now completely surrounded Madison. While Madison can continue to add residents in its current footprint, it will not be able to spread out by annexing contiguous territory.
Though Madison County cities are capturing most of the North Alabama growth, nearby Athens in Limestone County appears to be receiving some of that inflow. In the farther reaches of the Huntsville orbit, Florence and Muscle Shoals had bigger gains in population in 2018 than in any year other in the decade.
In the Birmingham metro area, the core city of Birmingham was estimated to have lost over 1,000 residents between 2017 and 2018. Birmingham has bobbed up and down through the decade, but this most recent year saw the steepest decline.
However, there is population growth south and east of the core city, and the most recent estimates indicate that growth is shifting to suburbs farther south. In the most recent year, the suburbs immediately south of core city, Homewood and Mountain Brook show slight population losses, and Vestavia a slight gain. Hoover, while it did add 246 residents, is growing more slowly now than smaller cities to the south like Chelsea (+503), Helena (+457), and Calera (+393). Meanwhile, to the east of Birmingham, Trussville added 446 residents, according to the estimates.
The estimates show Montgomery losing 1,674 residents in 2018, while its emerging suburb of Pike Road gained 445. Suburbs to the north, like Prattville (+202), Millbrook (+133), and Wetumpka (+37) saw gains, but the Montgomery metro area as a whole has seen a population outflow.
Some of the population loss in the Montgomery area may be due to the strong growth being seen in Lee County, home to Auburn University. A separate Census survey tracks residential migration across county lines. A look at that data reveals that Elmore County had a net loss of 352 residents to Lee County. Nearby Tallapoosa and Macon County, which are not officially part of the Montgomery metro area, are also losing residents to Lee County.
Meanwhile, Lee County’s two larger cities have been among the state’s biggest gainers in population according to the estimates. Auburn is second to Huntsville in numerical gain, having added an estimated 12,000 residents since 2010. Over the same period, Opelika ranks No. 10 in the state with an estimated gain of 4,000.
The 2018 estimates have the City of Mobile declining in population by 953 residents. Census estimates the city has lost about 5,000 people since 2010. Some nearby communities in Mobile County like Semmes and Saraland have gained population over the past decade, but the growth in those communities isn’t enough to offset Mobile’s population loss. One might assume that the rapid growth just across the bridge in Baldwin County is being fed by residents moving out of Mobile. However, other Census data sets indicate that isn’t necessarily the case. While there is some movement from Mobile to Baldwin County, there is also a considerable residential movement back and forth between Baldwin County to Mobile. When moves to and from the county in question are accounted for, Jefferson County had a net gain of about 500 people from Mobile County, compared to a gain for Baldwin of about 250.
Other Urban Centers and the Rest of the State
Like Auburn and Opelika, Tuscaloosa and Northport both continue to grow, though at a slower pace than the rival towns to the east. Tuscaloosa remains substantially larger than Auburn, about 100,000 vs 65,000. Opelika is larger than Northport: about 30,000 vs. 25,000.
As mentioned, Florence and Muscle Shoals showed slight growth in 2018, according to the estimates, as did Phenix City. Dothan was flat, and Anniston and Gadsden both experienced net out-migration.
A scattering of smaller towns in northeast Alabama and southeast Alabama showed population growth. However, most smaller cities in rural counties lost population. Selma was particularly hard hit, with a net loss of almost 500 people in 2018. Since 2018, Census estimates Selma’s population has declined by 2,898 dropping from around 20,000 down to 17,000, a 14 percent population decline. Small towns in Black Belt counties, cities like Tuskegee, Eufaula, and Demopolis, continue to experience population declines, but so do towns in east central and northwest Alabama like Jasper, Alexander City, and Sylacauga.
Practices of Top Gaining Schools on the ACT
After publishing ACT results for the graduating Class of 2018, PARCA contacted several of the schools and systems in Alabama that showed the largest improvement in average composite ACT scores between 2015 and 2018. PARCA wanted to know what, if anything, the schools did, either specifically for the ACT or in general, to improve students’ college readiness levels.
We received responses from the Pike County School System, from Montevallo High School, Opp High School, and Homewood High School and System.
The schools are across the spectrum when it comes to the economic composition of the student body. Using the percentage of students qualifying for a free school lunch as a measure of economic disadvantage, Homewood (20 percent) and Opp (41 percent) have lower levels of economic disadvantage than the state average (46 percent). Meanwhile, Montevallo High School (54 percent) and the Pike County School System (73 percent) have a higher percentage of disadvantaged students than the state at large. In terms of per-pupil spending, Homewood and Pike County are in the top 20 in per-student funding, while Opp and Shelby County are closer to, but still above, the state average.
Statewide, the average composite score has been basically flat since 2015, rising from 19 to 19.1 in 2018. That tenth-of-a-point gain statewide contrasts with improvements at the responding schools of between 1.2 and 1.7 points on a 36-point scale.
In response to PARCA’s query, school officials described the factors that they believe led to improvement. These are only observations and no underlying studies were performed to prove a cause and effect. However, the approaches described, while not uniform, had common characteristics that have been shown by educational research to lead to improved student performance.
While the details varied amongst the responding schools, the common themes would not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with education research:
Setting high expectations for all students.
Focusing on the delivery of strategic, high quality, standards-based instruction, not teaching the test.
Monitoring of student progress, providing aid for students who struggle and resources for students who want an additional challenge.
Teaching students to a level of depth expected at the college level, a level that goes deeper than recalling facts.
Emphasizing to students the importance of the ACT and providing access to ACT preparation materials and courses.
Critical Thinking Skills
While all four respondents, to varying degrees, provided targeted preparation for the ACT itself, all emphasized that the real foundation for success was an across the board dedication to a robust standards-based approach to instruction, an approach that challenged students to think beyond surface level of recall of facts, dates, and formulas, and to develop a depth of knowledge and the ability to apply what they learned.
All four viewed the adoption of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, standards that included input from the nationally-aligned Common Core standards, were a positive development. The adoption of the new standards provided each system an opportunity to engage faculty in a deep review of what should be taught at each grade level and whether the school curriculum was aligned with the standards. Professional development was provided to ensure teachers were prepared to deliver the content and level of depth called for in the standards.
Both Homewood and Opp pointed to the high quality of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Both systems have added courses and increased access to AP, which are college-level classes delivered in high school. School officials said the high-quality course content and the training teachers receive in order to teach AP classes results into a richer experience for students. That experience prepares them for the more complex level of thinking required to perform well on the ACT. The ACT is, after all, a test that seeks to measure student readiness for college-level work, and AP courses are designed to reflect college-level learning. Homewood emphasized that AP classes at Homewood are open-enrollment rather than selective. Their enrollment continues to grow, as do success rates on the AP test.
Pike County has adopted a different strategy for exposing students to college-level coursework: send them to college. Pike County will have 24 seniors graduating this year with over 60 hours of college credit earned at Troy University or through community college programs. That means those students enroll with enough credit to have earned an associate degree and plenty of experience with college-level work. Beyond the quantifiable results produced for students, the system is spending more efficiently, according to Pike County Superintendent Mark Bazzell. In a small school system, it is difficult to generate the numbers of students participating in AP offerings to justify the investment, especially when college-level courses are already available in the community at the local colleges. Because some national ranking systems look at AP participation as a marker of quality sometimes Pike County receives lower rankings than it deserves considering the opportunities it provides students through the dual enrollment option.
Below are observations from each school or system.
Pike County System
The Pike County School System continues to exceed expectations and draw attention with its attitude of high expectations, no excuses, and its methodical and creative approach to improving outcomes for students. Pike County has been featured in two Business Education Alliance (BEA) reports, Exceeding Expectations (2016) for exceptional performance on the ACT Aspire and in Leadership Matters(2018) for the system’s innovative approaches to improving college and career readiness. PARCA authored those reports, with support and consultation from A+ Education Partnership.
Pike County’s superintendent began the path to the current level of success more a decade ago. When he took over as superintendent, he began a campaign to build a faculty that uniformly believed that all children were capable of high performance. The second step was helping the faculty understand what students needed to know according to the national standards and providing teachers with the training in how to effectively teach those standards.
Bazzell found ACT Aspire, ACT’s suite of standardized tests for elementary and middle school students, to be a valuable tool for accessing student progress. The State used Aspire as its standardized test for accountability purposes but dropped it before the 2018 school year. Pike County now pays on its own for Aspire and uses data from the test to inform instruction. Continuing to use the Aspire exposes Pike County students early and often to ACT-designed standardized test, a test that predicts achievement levels on the actual ACT college readiness test.
Considering its level of student economic disadvantage, Pike County now generates consistent high performance. Bazzell provided the most detail on specific ACT preparation measures the two high schools in the system have adopted.
Encouraged students to start taking ACT earlier (9th grade)
Increased awareness of the importance of ACT through posters in the hallway, data analysis with students, parent meetings, etc.
Teachers’ use of bell ringers (quick questions to open class) that are aligned with ACT questions
Implemented Saturday ACT study sessions with content-area teachers
Utilized a Discovery Block (time set aside during day) for ACT and PreACT practice, with a schedule that rotated by content area
Utilized actcademy.org to create individual study paths based on a student’s PreACT score.
Encouraged students to put various ACT prep Apps on their phones and use them during free time at school and at home
Included ACT prep materials into a Southern Research Education Board-designed college readiness course, which is now mandatory for students who score lower than a 19 on the ACT
Montevallo High School Principal Brandon Turner, who arrived at Montevallo in 2015, emphasized that his faculty and staff function as a team. Learning targets are set by subject and grade level and formative assessments are administered to track student progress toward the targets.
Turner said a central emphasis for the school is improving instruction and adding depth of knowledge. There is a concept in education called the four levels of knowledge. The first is simple recall, the second level is connecting facts together as concepts or patterns. The third level, strategic thinking, applies concepts learned to novel situations, and the fourth level of knowledge is demonstrating the ability to draw from multiple sources to identify problems and construct solutions.
Questions on the ACT often go beyond recall, simple connections between points of data, and challenge students to think about the bigger picture.
“The depth of knowledge has to be embedded in all your classes,” Turner said. “If we aren’t practicing those things, they won’t succeed.”
Montevallo also offers a guided practice period during lunch that juniors are able to take advantage of, and the week before the administration of the ACT, all the junior classes focus on preparing for the test.
Opp High School, Opp City System
Standards and Active Learning
When Alabama adopted new learning standards, the Opp City System made a systemwide concerted effort to support teachers in understanding and teaching the standards. And it paid off. Opp was featured in 2016’s Exceeding Expectations report for showing the most improvement in math on the ACT Aspire.
Principal Aaron Hightower said the high school continues to focus on teaching that is grounded in learning standards and objectives but is also challenging teachers to innovate in how they teach in order to keep students engaged. For example, teachers at Opp Hike School are encouraged to compress lectures into the first 20 minutes of class and assign group projects to work on for the remainder of the period.
The faculty coordinates across grade level so each grade level subject matter team builds on what has been taught in the previous year and prepares students for the next year.
For Opp, AP courses have been especially beneficial in increasing the rigor and quality of courses. And, according to Hightower, all courses are supposed to challenge students to think beyond surface level learning.
To make sure all students stay on pace, Opp uses a diagnostic tool called Edmentum, which measures student skill level and identifies specific areas of weaknesses that need to be addressed. For struggling students, it then prescribes a personalized learning plan to address those weaknesses.
ACT Specific Preparation and Incentives
Opp started offering the PreACT to 10th graders the year before the State made it a requirement. That has allowed students to build familiarity with the kinds of questions the ACT asks.
And finally, to encourage all kids to put in the effort on the ACT, Opp offers incentives. If a student can document a two-point gain on the ACT, they qualify for a school trip to the new water park in Baldwin County.
“Now that creates a buzz,” Hightower said.
Homewood High School, Homewood City System
As with the other responding schools and systems, Homewood school officials first pointed back to the fundamentals of preparation that put students in a position to succeed. Patrick Chappell, the system’s director of instructional support, pointed to the academic focus created in the system by each school in the system having an assistant principal for instruction. Those principals regularly meet with each other and with their faculties during embedded professional learning time to ensure educational continuity classroom to classroom.
The system has teacher-developed learning targets for students, by grade and by subject. Those targets reflect but often exceed the state’s Alabama College and Career Ready Standards. Despite this tight definition of intended outcomes for students, Chappell said, teachers and students are given latitude on the style and pace of learning. They are not bound by pacing guides, for example. The emphasis is on mastery of standards, not flying through every bit of material.
Homewood offers an array of AP classes and, in recent years, has seen a continuing rise in the number of students and the percentage of students choosing to take those courses.
Teachers have received additional professional development to prepare for teaching AP classes, and the system also pays for students to take AP exams.
Access to AP classes is not restricted by GPA or participation in an “honors” program. Any student who wants the rigor and challenge of a college-level course can take AP classes. Even with the rising participation levels, the percentage of students earning a successful score on the AP exams continues to climb as well. With more students succeeding in college-level coursework, it stands to reason that ACT College readiness rates would rise as well.
Credit Recovery For Struggling Students
Students facing academic challenges have also received targeted attention through an enhanced credit recovery program, promoted by Homewood High School (HHS) principal Zack Barnes. Instead of simply issuing failing grades and having students repeat courses in summer school, the school directs students to online credit recovery programs that allow students to go back and address the specific standards they failed to master.
Test Taking Experience and ACT Prep
HHS Assistant Principal Amanda Esslinger added that Homewood pays for all 9-11 graders to take the PSAT, another college readiness test. This increases students’ comfort level with multiple standardized and timed tests. The multiple measures also create a greater awareness of each student’s strengths and areas of needed growth. That’s useful both to the individual student and to teachers and administrators evaluating the effectiveness of instruction.
Homewood offers an ACT prep class during the school day that any junior or senior can take, giving all students access to preparation that used to be only available to families who could pay for private courses.
Increasing student success on the ACT is important for individual students and can be an important measure of academic effectiveness for schools as well. Schools that generated improvement pointed to some measures that were directly aimed at the ACT such as raising student awareness of the importance of the test and providing access to ACT preparation resources. However, those schools and systems that improved first emphasized a commitment to delivering instruction that allows students to meet and exceeds expected standards of learning for their grade level. They also emphasized exposing all students to the deeper levels of learning expected for college level academic performance.
Alabama County and MSA Population Trends
The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show continued strong growth in the Huntsville metropolitan statistical area (MSA), slightly positive growth in the Birmingham MSA, and slight declines in Mobile and Montgomery metro areas. For 2018, Huntsville’s growth rate ranks No. 64 out of the nation’s 383 metro area. But Alabama’s other large metros lag behind peers in terms of percentage change in population, with Birmingham ranked No. 251 out of 283, Mobile, 324, and Montgomery, 327.
Meanwhile, only 22 out of Alabama’s 67 counties added population in 2018. Most rural counties lost population, while most counties connected to a metro area gained. However, three of the four most populous counties home to the urban cores of the major metros areas — Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile — experienced net losses in 2018 as outmigration to surrounding suburban counties continued. Madison County, home to Huntsville continued to gain.
PARCA has updated its interactive maps and charts that allow users to explore local population changes and trends. PARCA tools for state-level population estimates were updated earlier this year. Estimates for cities will be released this summer.
The Huntsville’s 462,693 person MSA includes Madison County, home to Huntsville (Pop. 366,519) and Limestone County (Pop. 96,174). Madison County is second only to Baldwin county in numeric population growth since 2010, and according to the estimates it added more people than ever in 2018, an estimated 4,854 in 2018. Limestone County is now the state’s second fastest growing county in percentage terms, adding 2,098 people in 2018.
Huntsville’s growth seems to be aiding population growth in other neighboring counties outside the Huntsville MSA. Marshall County has been steadily gaining population for most of the decade and now Morgan County, home to Decatur, has turned positive according to the estimates. That has caused the Decatur MSA to break a streak of population losses stretching back several years.
At 1.1 million and including seven counties, Birmingham’s MSA is more than double the population of second place Huntsville’s two-county MSA. In fact, Jefferson County, the central county of the Birmingham-Hoover MSA with 659,300 residents is significantly more populous
The estimates show Jefferson County with a slight loss in 2018, down 246 people. Since 2010, the estimates show Jefferson County with a net gain of 794 residents. Population change is driven by natural increase (births vs. deaths) and migration (net domestic migration plus net international migration). Jefferson County’s birth rate exceeds its death rate so the county adds people, 14,120 since 2010. But the county has a net outflow of residents moving elsewhere in the state or the country: 18,215 more people moved out than moved in. That would set the county up for net loss in population if it weren’t for a net inflow of international migrants. Jefferson County has added 5,335 of those since 2010, according to the estimates. While international in-migration has offset population loss in Jefferson County, and in other core counties as well, levels of international migration have dropped in the last two years.
Where are the leavers going? Adjacent Shelby and St. Clair Counties experienced net positive domestic migration adding 10,368 and 3,820 respectively since 2010. Walker, Blount, Bibb and Chilton County had more people moving out to other parts of the state or country than moving in according to the estimates. Blount and Chilton offset those losses with mild gains through natural increase and international migration. Walker and Bibb did not.
With 413,757, residents Mobile is the state’s third largest MSA and it consists of a single county, Mobile, the state’s second most populous county. The federal government determines which counties are joined together in metro areas. Mobile County lies adjacent to the state’s fastest growing county, Baldwin. Despite the obvious connections between the two counties, the level of commuting between the two counties isn’t high enough for the federal government to consider them a single metro.
Mobile county’s population dynamics mirror Jefferson, with a net outflow of domestic migrants offset by a positive natural increase and international in migration.
Baldwin, on the other hand, is growing, like no other county in Alabama. It has added an estimated 35,758 residents since 2010. The county is also a metro area of its own, known as the Daphne-Fairhope metropolitan statistical area. What is driving growth: heavy domestic in-migration, particularly from individuals over the age of 60.
Samford University sociology professor Don Bradley has analyzed late-in-life migration for unpublished white paper commissioned by Where to Retire Magazine. In his review of Census data, Bradley found that Baldwin County was receiving 1,798 new residents over the age of 60 each year. That ranked Baldwin among the top 30 areas in the country for receiving persons 60 and over. That same elevated growth pattern can be seen in many coastal counties from North and South Carolina, and Florida, as well as retirement hotspots in Arizona and Nevada.
Of the major metro areas, only Montgomery has seen a net population loss since 2010. Within the metro area, Montgomery County has lost an estimated 3,615 since 2010, and the slight gains in Elmore (2,594) and Autauga (1,027) have not been enough to offset the loss.
Perhaps influencing Montgomery’s population stagnation is the draw of Lee County, also known as the Auburn-Opelika MSA. It has the second fastest rate of growth and ranks third among Alabama MSAs in numeric growth, having added 23,641 residents since 2010.
In addition to the being home to Auburn University, Lee County lies between the two Korean automakers, Hyundai in Montgomery and Kia in West Point, GA. In terms of county growth, Lee’s neighboring county, Russell, is also adding residents at a healthy pace. Russell, home to Phenix City, is considered to be part of the Columbus, GA metro area, which has seen growth over the decade. The army base, Fort Benning, on the Alabama Georgia border is a major driver of population dynamics there.
Across the state, Tuscaloosa as a county and as a metro area continues to see growth, almost all of it concentrated in Tuscaloosa County, which has added 14,243 residents since 2010 according to the estimates. Pickens County has seen a slight gain in population since 2010 but Hale County also included in the Tuscaloosa MSA, has lost about 1,000 residents since 2010.
While the Dothan MSA is off the major interstate corridors, it has continued to post modest population growth. Houston County, home to Dothan, has added 3,168 since 2010, according to the estimates, while Henry and Geneva Counties have shown slight declines over the period. Houston’s population growth stemmed from positive natural increase and positive migration.
In the northwest corner of the state, the Florence-Muscle Shoals metro area saw about the same level of domestic in-migration as Dothan. But the two counties Lauderdale and Colbert both have negative rates of natural increase, meaning that more deaths are occurring in those counties than births. Negative rates of natural increase tend to show up in places where the population is disproportionately elderly.
The two remaining MSAs Anniston-Oxford, comprised of Calhoun County, and the Gadsden MSA (Etowah County), also have negative rates of natural increase. And both those counties have negative migration rates, more people move elsewhere than relocate to those counties. Both of the counties have lost population throughout the decade.
Among Alabama counties, Dallas County, home to Selma has had the steepest losses with an estimated 5,508 loss in population since 2010, a decline of 12.6 percent. Two other Black Belt counties, Perry and Macon are declining faster than Dallas in percentage terms. Perry County lost 13.6 percent of its population since 2010 according to the estimates, while Macon County lost 14 percent.
Alabama High School ACT Scores for the Class of 2018
Alabama public high school students’ performance on the ACT was down slightly in 2018, after hitting a high point in 2017. Alabama students’ average score was 19.1 on a 36-point scale, compared to 19.2 in 2017. Over the past four years, Alabama scores have been stable, roughly paralleling the slight up and down of national scores.
Interactive charts in this report allow you to explore the results by system, and school, by subject, and by year.
How Does Alabama Compare?
The ACT is a test of college readiness and is used by colleges as a factor in the evaluation of applicants’ qualifications for admission. Alabama is one of 17 states that gives the ACT to all public high school students, whether they plan to apply for college or not. Among the states that give the test to all public high school students, Alabama ranks 13th, tied with North Carolina. The average scale score among the 100 percent states is 19.5.
More Alabama students, a higher percentage of enrolled seniors, and more students of color took the ACT in 2018, according to data provided by ACT and the Alabama Department of Education. This was particularly notable among Hispanic students. Though small in total numbers compared to whites and blacks, the number of Hispanics taking the ACT increased from 1,867 in 2015 to 2,886 in 2018 (55% increase). Black students taking the ACT increased over this period from 16,602 to 16,968 (2% increase), and whites slightly decreased from 29,337 to 29,100 (less than 0% change). Alabama public schools give the ACT in the junior year of high school. The final reported results here are for the students who graduated in 2018. Those students would have taken the ACT in 2017 at their own high school. If a student took the test subsequent to the administration at their high school, the student’s highest scores in each subject would be counted.
School Systems That Have Shown Improvement
In 2018, 85 out of 137 school systems in Alabama posted higher average composite scores on the ACT than they did in 2015. The top 10 systems in terms of improvement on students’ average composite score between 2015 and 2018 are listed below. A more complete listing can be found in the interactive charts.
2015 Average Composite Score
2018 Average Composite Score
Keeping Demographics in Mind
On average, students from economically disadvantaged families tend to score lower on standardized tests than students who are not at an economic disadvantage. Similarly, schools where a higher percentage of the student body is economically disadvantaged, the average test score tends to be lower. Comparing schools that have similar demographics is a fairer way to evaluate relative performance. Scatterplot charts, like the one featured below, present score data and student poverty levels at the same time. The vertical position of the school or system is determined by the average test score, while the horizontal location of the school or system is determined by the percentage of the student body directly eligible for a free lunch under the national free lunch program.
ACT Scores and College Admission
Keep in mind that a composite score of 18 is considered a minimum threshold score for college admission at several state colleges. Others have lower thresholds, including open admissions. On the other end, a score of 25 or higher is expected at more competitive colleges, while 30 is the minimum threshold at some of the nationally elite schools such as Princeton. The table below lists the median entering ACT composite score students at Alabama colleges. Historically black colleges consider it part of their mission to admit students who may not have had the academic preparation to perform well on the ACT. The average ACT score for black students in Alabama is 16.5.
Revisiting How Alabama Taxes Compare, 2018
With just a few hours remaining to file state and federal taxes, revisit our 2018 analysis of state and local taxes, originally published in December 2018.
Alabama’s state and local governments collect less per capita in taxes than state and local governments in any other state in the union, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Annually, the U.S. Census Bureau surveys state and local governments across the country about their revenues and expenditures. This survey makes it possible to compare the finances of state and local government across the 50 states. In PARCA’s analysis of the data, How Alabama Taxes Compare, state and local revenues are considered together because states vary greatly in how they divide up the responsibilities between state and local governments for financing the operation of services like schools, roads, courts, health care, and public safety. In the end, the combined revenue from state and local taxes is used to provide government services. The data for 2016 is the most recent year available. An interactive version of the data is also available through PARCA’s data dashboard.
Rank in Per Capita Tax Collections, 2016
State and Local Tax Sources
Alabama's Rank Among U.S. States
Sales and Gross Receipts
- Alcoholic Beverage
- Public Utilities
- Motor Fuel
- Tobacco Products
- Other Selective Sales
Motor Vehicle License
The most glaring difference between Alabama and other states is our low reliance on property taxes.
Alabama ranks 50th in the U.S. in state and local property tax collections per capita.
If Alabama’s per capita property tax collections matched the average of other Southeastern states:
State and local governments would have an additional $2 billion to spend providing services.
Alabama’s overall tax revenue per capita would rank in the middle of Southeastern states, roughly equaling Mississippi’s tax revenue per capita and putting Alabama above Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee in per capita collections. Alabama would still trail Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Georgia.
As it stands, Alabama’s traditional preference for low property taxes leaves state and local governments more reliant on other taxes for revenue. Alabama has among the highest sales tax rates in the U.S. Alabama also has some of the highest taxes per capita on alcohol and public utilities. Despite those higher rates, Alabama doesn’t make up the difference created by its low property tax collections.
Other unusual features of Alabama’s tax system include:
Alabama is one of three states that continue to apply sales tax fully to food purchased for home consumption without providing any offsetting relief for low- and moderate-income families.
Alabama’s sales tax is not as broad as other states and doesn’t apply to most services. Consequently, despite high rates, Alabama’s sales tax isn’t as productive as some other states.
Alabama threshold for taxing income is the lowest in the nation. Most states set a higher income threshold than Alabama in order to allow poor households to keep more of the money they earn.
Alabama is one of three states that allows taxpayers to deduct from state income the full amount they pay in federal income taxes. Since federal income tax rates are higher the more you earn, the higher your earnings the larger the deduction for state tax purposes.
As a bottom line, Alabama governments operate with less revenue on a per capita basis than governments in all the other states.
This is not a new finding. This has been true since the early the 1990s. And it underlies the difficulties we face when trying to provide to our citizens the level of government services enjoyed by citizens in other states.
Jefferson County Mayors Cooperate on Pact to Prevent Intercity Business Poaching
Mayors from 22 cities in Jefferson County signed a “Good Neighbor Pledge” Wednesday, committing their cities to a set of economic development ground rules designed to prevent incentive bidding wars and counterproductive poaching between the patchwork of municipalities that comprise the county.
With the Good Neighbor Pledge, the mayors hope to end divisive competition and encourage cooperation in recruiting new business from outside the region. Recruiting businesses from one Jefferson County city to another with incentives costs both cities and results in no net gain for the region.
The Pledge is an outgrowth of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham’s efforts to encourage regional cooperation and job growth in Jefferson County, an effort that began by commissioning PARCA to research and report on models of cooperation from across the country. The resulting report, Together We Can, provided information that the Jefferson County Mayors Association built upon to craft the Pledge.
“In the past, our cities tended to compete rather than cooperate,” said Hoover Mayor Frank Brocato. “Today, economic development favors metro areas that work together better as a region.”
The 22 cities represent over 75 percent of the county’s population, including the City of Birmingham, Bessemer, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Trussville, Argo, Brighton, Center Point, Clay, Fairfield, Graysville, Lipscomb, Midfield, Mulga, Pleasant Grove, Sylvan Springs, Tarrant, Trafford, Trussville, Vestavia Hills, Warrior, and West Jefferson. The signing of the pledge took place in the Jefferson County Commission chambers and featured Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Ammons, and Jefferson County Mayors Association president, Center Point Mayor Tom Henderson. They were joined by other commissioners and mayors from cities big and small.
The agreement grew out of conversations within the Jefferson County Mayors Association, which were facilitated by the Community Foundation. Of the various cooperative approaches described in Together We Can, the mayors found Denver’s model for encouraging cooperation as the most promising and achievable first step.
In Metro Denver’s effort to unite its sprawling and fragmented region around a unified approach to economic development, one of its first steps was creating a Code of Ethics that spelled out what is acceptable and what isn’t when cities are working to recruit businesses. Denver’s agreement aimed to stop cities from fighting over local business relocation and focus instead on a collective approach to attracting new business from outside the region.
In addition to the Code of Ethics, Denver developed a Metro Mayors Caucus, an issue-oriented regular meeting of area mayors which facilitates communication and cooperation among the region’s cities.
Both ideas helped launch the effort that bore fruit Wednesday. The conversations at the Jefferson County Mayors Association spawned a committee chaired by Mountain Brook Mayor Stewart Welch, which examined Denver’s Code and gathered other examples from across the country including local government agreements in place in Milwaukee, San Diego, Dayton and Cuyahoga County, Ohio; and the Fort Wayne region of Northwest Indiana. The committee then drafted a version for Jefferson County.
The Pledge is not a legal document but an agreed upon set of principles and protocols. It establishes an Advisory Consulting Committee to serve as a forum for interpreting the pledge in real-world situations and resolving disputes that might arise.
The mayors pledged not to initiate contact with a business located in another Jefferson County city with the intention of enticing that business to relocate. And if a business is seeking to move from one Jefferson County municipality to another, the mayors pledged not to offer financial incentives to encourage the move.
On the other hand, the Pledge encourages mutual aid in efforts to recruit businesses that are new to Jefferson County.
The Pledge does not apply if a local business is expanding and establishing new operations that will not result in job loss in the original municipality.
Lower Percentage of College Freshmen in Need of Remedial Education
The percentage of first-time college students assigned to remedial education before embarking on college courses continues to drop, according to the latest data provided by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).
The data follows Spring 2017 graduates of Alabama high schools who enrolled at Alabama public colleges in the fall after graduation. The data indicate that 28 percent of those who enrolled in higher education were required to take a course in either remedial math or remedial English or both.
A remedial course is designed to bring students up to the educational level needed to succeed in a college course. That percentage needing remediation is down from 34.6 percent in 2011. This drop in remedial rates is occurring at a time when high schools have driven up graduation rates and have sent additional students to college.
Remediation rates are calculated for two subjects: math and English. The most progress has been made in decreasing the percentage of students having to take remedial English. In 2017, the percentage of students needing remedial courses in English dropped to 14 percent, down from 17 percent in 2013.
The percentage of enrolled students taking remedial math also declined to 24 percent in 2017, compared to 26 percent in 2013.
Why the Remediation Rate is Important
With the implementation in 2012 of Plan 2020, the state’s strategic plan for higher education, K-12 educators set a goal of driving down the number and percentage of students required to take remedial education. Providing remedial courses in college duplicates cost to the state, and remedial education drives up the cost of college for students and families. Remedial courses, since they cover high school level material, don’t count toward a college degree.
The continuing progress on rates of remedial education is noteworthy since it has come during a period in which high schools are charting higher graduation rates. Those higher graduation rates have prompted concern that, in some instances, schools might be lowering standards for graduation in order to show higher graduation rates. However, this data suggests that the students who are going on to college are entering better prepared.
When high schools do a better job of preparing students for college-level work, it produces savings for the student, their parents, and the education system in general.
Higher Education Working to Lower Remediation Rates
The decline in the remediation rate may also be influenced by changes taking place at colleges. Both two and four-year colleges are implementing measures aimed at decreasing the number of students needing remedial courses.
Approaches include using new assessments that identify students’ areas of weakness and prescribe specific remedial material rather than requiring a whole course. Colleges are also developing extra aid courses that can be taken in tandem with college-level English or math. The supplementary course can provide the extra help that some students need while allowing the student to proceed on the regular college track. The community college system is also partnering with some high schools to offer college prep courses in high school. If high school student earns a B in that college prep course, he or she is considered qualified to start college-level work.
Explore on Your Own
In the visualization below, you can explore the statics for remediation for local schools and systems. You can sort each column from low to high or in alphabetical order by using the tool on top of each column.
Bear in mind that the ACHE report only captures high school graduates who enrolled in the fall after their graduation in Alabama public colleges. The remediation rates for schools that send significant numbers of students to private colleges or to out-of-state colleges will not necessarily reflect the outcomes for the entire graduating class.
College-Going Rates for Alabama High Schools
The college-going rate for Alabama public high school graduates declined in 2017, and for the first time in three years, the number of high school graduates who went on college declined as well, according to new data provided by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).
The data, drawn by ACHE from the National Student Clearinghouse, follows Alabama public high school students who graduated in the spring of 2017 and enrolled in higher education in 2017 or the spring of 2018. The data includes records for in-state and out-of-state institutions, both public and private.
In 2014, the first year this set of statistics was produced, 65 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college the year after their graduation. In 2017, 62 percent of graduates enrolled. While the college-going rate has edged down, the number of high school graduates has been going up, as high school graduation rates have climbed. So though the rate was lower, more students entered higher education.
But in 2017, for the first time since 2014, there was a dip in the number of students enrolling. One factor was that the graduating Class of 2017 was smaller than the Class of 2016. Also, the number of students going to community colleges experienced most of the decline, something that tends to occur when unemployment is low, and graduates are drawn directly into the workforce. The number and percentage of high school graduates not enrolling in higher education the year after graduation also increased for the Class of 2017 when compared to previous years: 38 percent of high school graduates did not enroll the year after their graduation.
The intersection of high school graduation and college-going is an area of keen interest as Alabama has set a goal of improving the education and skill levels of its workforce. It benefits the state to have more of its students graduating high school, rather than dropping-out. But those graduates need to have either earned a meaningful occupational credential while in high school or have graduated high school prepared for advanced training or higher education.
Alabama’s public high school graduating class of 2017 totaled 49,764, about 200 students less than the Class of 2016. Among those graduates 15,738, or about 30 percent, enrolled in a two-year community college, according to the data. That’s about 600 students fewer than the previous year.
The number and percentage of students enrolling at a four-year college increased to 15,804, up 128, accounting for 32 percent of graduates. The total number going to public 4-year colleges in Alabama dipped by 122, but that dip was offset by an increase in the number of students going to in-state private colleges or going to four-year colleges out of state. Still, the overwhelming majority, 91 percent of those who enrolled, went to Alabama institutions and 92 percent of those who enrolled went to a public college or university.
The remaining 18,826 high school graduates, 38 percent of graduates, were not found to have enrolled in higher education. Data for individual schools and for school systems is available by exploring the tabs about the data display.
Why is this important?
Alabama trails most other states in educational attainment levels. Higher levels of education generally translate into more job stability, higher pay, and better health. As the economy continues to shift toward jobs requiring a higher level of education and training, the need for a better-educated population grows.
Alabama has set a goal of adding 500,000 new highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025 in order to meet and exceed the anticipated demands of the evolving economy. To reach that goal, virtually all high school seniors need to graduate ready for college or career, ready to go into advanced training related to employment or into college, prepared for college-level course work.
Alabama’s public high school graduation rate has increased substantially since ACHE began providing this data on college-going rates. During the period since 2014, the number of high school graduates has increased, as has the number of graduates enrolling in higher education. However, the number of students not enrolling has also increased. In round numbers, high school graduates have increased by 4,000 a year, the number of students going to college has increased by 1,000, and the number of students who don’t enroll in the year following graduation has increased by 3,000. This produces a dip in the college-going rate, or percent of graduates attending college.
Other observations from deeper in the data
The new data from ACHE and Student Clearinghouse allows comparisons between Alabama school systems and schools. But when making comparisons, it is important to keep in mind socioeconomic factors that affect college-going. College is expensive. Systems with higher levels of affluence will send a greater share of the students to college. At the same time, some less affluent schools and systems achieve a high college-going rate by sending more students to two-year colleges, a more affordable alternative. Research shows a number of factors can play into a student’s decision to attend a two-year college. Examples include (from Community College Review):
Open admission policies at many schools that allow students who did not perform as well in high school the opportunity to pursue a higher education
A lower tuition rate that can reduce the cost of earning a four-year degree
A flexible schedule that provides both day and night courses for students who have families and must work full time
Technical training that provides a more direct route to particular careers
Proximity to to home
Two-year colleges were originally created in part to provide assistance (a second chance) for students who did not become college ready and could not get into the four-year college of their choice. Four-year colleges know this and prepare to help them transition into their college when they arrive, or they should. This will include a number of students from lower economic backgrounds, but others too.
For instance, the number one school system for college-going is Mountain Brook, with 92 percent of graduates enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Almost all of those students enroll in four-year college or university. Students in Mountain Brook are more likely to come from a college-going family with expectations or goals for attending a four-year college than in other systems. Some systems and schools are likely to be more richly resourced and focused around this objective. By contrast, the system which posted the second highest college-going rate this year, the Oneonta City System, sent 50 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and 36 percent of its graduates to two-year college, for an overall college-going rate of 87 percent. While two-year colleges have historically been a choice because of needed academic catch-up or cost, with new ideas around a changing workforce they may increasingly become the first choice for students in a variety of systems.
The college-going data also highlights the high-performance levels of magnet high schools. For instance, as a system, Montgomery County Schools have an overall college-going rate of 56 percent among its graduates. However, three of its magnet high schools, Booker T Washington, Loveless Academic Magnet Program, and Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, have college-going rates above 90 percent, which ranks all three in the top 10 among Alabama high schools for college-going.
The data is also presented for schools and systems in statistical form or as represented on a map. Look for selectors on each of the data visualizations that allow you to change the statistic, the schools or systems in the comparison, or the year of the data.
College-going rates are a building block for educational attainment, though entry into college is only one step on the journey to a degree. The rate at which student persist in and graduate from college is also important. Alabama lags behind other states in terms of educational attainment, according to statistics generated by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Educational attainment levels also vary widely by county. Half the adult population of Shelby County has an associates degree or higher, the highest level of educational attainment in the state.
On the opposite end of the rankings is Conecuh County, where only 14 percent of the adult population has an associates degree or higher, according to Census estimates.
Leaders in the Shoals Seek Greater Collaboration
Energized by a climate of opportunity and a burst of positive attention for the region, civic leaders in the Shoals have launched a new effort to improve the economy and quality of life through cross-community collaboration.
More than 150 people attended the launch of the effort, which is organized by the Committee for a Greater Shoals, a group of Shoals business leaders. The event featured the release of A Greater Shoals: a Pathway, a report authored by PARCA on the current state of the region and avenues of opportunity.
Shortly after the event, 110 people had signed up for one or more of six committees:
Broadening the Definition of Economic Development
Developing High-Tech Infrastructure/Recruiting
Quality of Life
Workforce Development and Education
Government Cooperation and Structure.
Off the Interstate corridor and tucked away in the Northwest corner of the state, the Shoals is often described by residents as a well-kept secret. That is part of the region’s charm, but it’s also a frustration.
Taken together, the four cities at the heart of the Shoals — Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia — have a population of over 70,000. A combination of the four adjacent cities would rank as Alabama’s 7th largest city. Leaders in the Shoals have long wondered if the region was held back by the fragmented nature of the Shoals, with four principal cities, and six school systems spread across two counties.
Building off research PARCA performed on the Birmingham metro area, PARCA found evidence that fragmentation did have discernable negative effects in the Shoals but also identified cooperative structures the Shoals has developed to pull the region together.
The report recommended building on those existing cooperative structures to capitalize on immediate opportunities, while embarking on a longer-term process to decrease governmental duplication and work toward greater unity.
The report found success to build on in the area of education. According to PARCA’s analysis, when the K-12 school systems in the Shoals metropolitan area were considered together, they produce a higher college and career readiness rate among high school seniors than any other Alabama area.
The Shoals also has the second highest college-going rate among Alabama MSAs, thanks in part to a local civic initiative, Shoals Scholar Dollars, that provides scholarships for residents of Colbert and Lauderdale counties. The Shoals is home to a community college, Northwest-Shoals Community College, and a four-year university, the University of North Alabama, both of which are poised for growth.
The Shoals has developed vehicles for bringing its counties and cities together in pursuit of economic development, including a unified economic development authority, a unified economic development fund, and a united two-county Chamber of Commerce.
Those cooperative structures create a strong competitive position for the Shoals in pursuing industrial projects, like suppliers for the Toyota-Mazda Manufacturing plant under construction in Huntsville. But they also provide a framework for cooperation on further developing the Shoals natural and cultural assets.
With the Tennessee River running through its heart, the Shoals has unrivaled natural assets, ripe for further recreational development. On the cultural front, the Shoals has enjoyed a surge of national and international attention to the Shoals’ historic and contemporary contributions to American music. That’s drawn a stream of tourists to the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Florence has emerged unexpectedly as a fashion hub, serving as home base for designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin. That new interest builds on top of tourist attractions like Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia and W.C. Handy’s in Florence. Traditional down towns in Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia have been revitalized with local investment.
A coordinated cooperative effort to build on these strengths would bring more resources and reach, the report observes. Though traditional economic development has focused on developing sites and luring employers with incentives, contemporary economic development includes a focus on developing an ample and high-quality workforce and providing a high quality of life that benefits locals and attracts new residents and businesses.
Making the Workforce System Work for Alabama
Alabama has a record low unemployment rate, with employers hungry for employees. It is a moment of great opportunity to move more Alabamians into the workforce with the skills and education they’ll need to succeed in the 21st-century economy.
“As we look to our future,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in her keynote address, “more than ever before, now is the time that we must be sure that our workforce is well-equipped to face the opportunities and the jobs of tomorrow.”
That opportunity and the state’s response were the central themes at PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting: Does Our Workforce System Work?, held Feb. 15 at the Harbert Center in Birmingham.
Bostic laid out the challenge by noting that while many signs point to economic prosperity for Alabama other measures are more vexing:
Alabama has one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. A smaller share of the population participates in work than in most states.
Alabama has one of the highest rates of disability among U.S. States. That’s true across all ages, non-Hispanic ethnicities, and education levels, and in both urban and rural areas.
Bringing those discouraged and disadvantaged workers into the workforce presents a prime opportunity for economic growth, Bostic said. If Alabama’s labor force participation rate matched the national average, the state could add 200,000 workers, helping to counter current and anticipated shortages.
If the workforce system can reach those individuals and help them build the knowledge and skills needed to earn a decent living, the whole state benefits through higher tax receipts and lower spending on public assistance, incarceration, and other programs, Bostic said.
Lumina’s Lennon focused on the need to raise educational attainment levels in Alabama, placing a particular emphasis on the value of earning high-quality certificates or credentials as a way to get individuals into the workforce quickly and without the debt and delay that often accompanies a four-year degree.
The number of good jobs available to those with just a high school degree or less is shrinking, but good jobs are growing for those who’ve completed advanced training or an associates degree. According to Lumina, 62 percent of Alabama working-age adults lack education beyond high school, compared to 53 percent nationally. Providing affordable, accessible, and meaningful training and education for those without education past high school is key to improving Alabama’s competitiveness.
Alabama is in the midst of a multi-year effort to re-energize and better coordinate its approach to education and workforce development. That has been clear in the K-12 system, with its renewed attention to college and career readiness, career technical education, dual enrollment with the community college system, and an improved connection between schools and the business community. PARCA described noteworthy success stories in those efforts were inLeadership Matters, a 2018 report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance and produced in consultation with A+ Education Partnership.
In response to challenges laid out by Bostic and Lennon, a panel of state agency leaders described ongoing efforts to reach untapped populations and to better coordinate workforce development across state agencies.
To quarterback that cross-agency effort, Gov. Ivey created the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation, headed by her education policy advisor Nick Moore. Moore was joined on the panel by Lori Bearden, Assistant Director of Federal Workforce Programs, Department of Commerce; Nancy Buckner, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Human Resources; Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services; and Fitzgerald Washington, Secretary, Alabama Department of Labor.
These agencies, along with K-12 and Higher Education, are being challenged to expand cooperation with employers and with each other to grow the size and improve the quality of the workforce. That’s the fundamental premise of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the latest effort by Congress to improve the responsiveness and performance of state workforce development systems.
WIOA challenges states to build:
A workforce system that better serves individuals by providing a complete set of supports and opportunities leading to successful training and employment. Those services and resources might be drawn from multiple agencies depending on the needs of the individual.
A workforce system that is more engaged with employers in matching them with appropriately trained employees. WIOA encourages innovative approaches to directly supporting trainees and business through work-based learning and apprenticeships.
A workforce system that is more reflective of and responsive to the needs of the local economy. Alabama has responded to that challenge by forming new workforce councils and workforce investment boards.
Throughout the meeting, PARCA shared videos highlighting workforce strategies in place around Alabama: