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Regional Higher Education Gap Grows

Sarah Bohn July 28, 2016

Just as income gaps have grown across California’s regions, so too have disparities in levels of education. Because higher education is a major contributor to economic opportunity, these disparities have significant implications for the future well-being of the state and its residents.

Since 1980, personal income has grown at vastly different rates across the state. Workers in the Bay Area and Orange County earn substantially more (on an aggregate, per capita basis) than the average Californian. Residents in the Central Valley and Sierras, the Inland Empire, and the far north earn substantially less than the statewide average. These disparities have grown over time. In 1980, per capita regional income ranged from 80% to 111% of statewide per capita income. Today, this range is wider, with the Inland Empire at 66% and the Bay Area at 138% of the statewide average.

Regional income differences are tied to the industries and occupations that make up regional economies, as well as broad economic drivers that have accelerated growth in some industries but not others. These same factors affect individual workers’ decisions about where to live.

Given the importance of post-secondary education to economic opportunity, it is not surprising that regional differences in the share of adults with college degrees are similar to differences in income. In the Bay Area as well as Orange and San Diego Counties, the share of adults with four-year college degrees is much larger than the statewide share. The Central Coast region, Sacramento metro area, and Los Angeles County have roughly similar concentrations of college degrees as the state overall; the Central Valley, Inland Empire, and far northern parts of the state have substantially smaller shares.

However, the value of post-secondary degrees has been increasing even in occupations that traditionally have not required college education—including the jobs that comprise a larger share of the economy in lower-income regions of the state. So we might expect regional disparities in college degree attainment to be narrower today. But this is not the case.

In fact, the distribution of higher education credentials across California has become more uneven over time. For example, in 1980 the share of Bay Area adults with college degrees was 128% of the statewide average; today, that share is 138%. Over the same period, the share of college graduates in the Central Valley has fallen from 65% of the statewide average to 56%.

These widening educational disparities are a warning sign for the state’s future. Narrowing regional gaps in educational attainment probably won’t eliminate differences in income, but it could increase competitiveness across all regions and expand economic opportunities for individual Californians.

Note (TOP CHART):The “far north” region includes Butte, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Tehama, and Trinity Counties.
Source (TOP CHART): Author calculations from Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

Note (BOTTOM CHART): Share of regional population with a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to statewide share in each year. Source (BOTTOM CHART):Author calculations from the 1980 and 2000 Decennial Censuses and the 2014 American Community Survey, age 25–64 in California.

Learn more

Will California Run Out of College Graduates?
Income Inequality and the Safety Net in California

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