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Geography of Educational Attainment in California

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This post is the first in a series examining how educational opportunities and outcomes differ across California.

Higher education has long been a driver of economic vitality in California. For individuals, a college degree confers wage gains and provides a degree of protection during downturns—including the current one. For the state, more college graduates means greater economic mobility, more tax revenue, and less demand for social services.

Yet educational attainment varies widely across the state’s diverse regions. While 34% of California adults age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, the interactive figure below shows that rates vary from 13% in Lassen County to 60% in Marin County. Generally, we see higher levels of educational attainment in coastal and higher-income counties and lower levels in inland and rural counties.

A closer look reveals even greater disparities at the local level. When we examine census tracts—neighborhoods of about 1,000 to 8,000 residents—we find bachelor’s-degree attainment varies from less than 5% to 96%. Notably, dramatic variation occurs even within counties, sometimes between adjacent tracts. For example, in Los Angeles County, education levels are very high along the coast in the South Bay and West LA. But rates in nearby Central, East, and South LA are among the lowest in the state. In most of these neighborhoods, less than a tenth of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

These differences partly reflect geographic variation in labor markets and economic opportunities. For example, many of California’s most highly educated neighborhoods are in the Bay Area, which has one of the largest concentrations of high-tech companies in the country. Silicon Valley’s reliance on highly skilled immigrants and workers from elsewhere in the US (in addition to California) helps explain high educational attainment in many Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda neighborhoods. At the same time, rates of educational attainment are relatively low in the Central Valley, where many agricultural jobs do not require a college degree.

Differences in educational attainment may also reflect uneven access to educational opportunities. There are long-standing racial disparities in students’ educational pathways, and we see similar disparities in bachelor’s-degree attainment.

Overall, Asian adults are the most educated racial/ethnic group in the state, with 53% holding a bachelor’s degree, followed by white adults (44%). In contrast, 13% of Latino adults (19% of US-born Latino adults) and 26% of Black adults have a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree attainment is similarly low among Native American and Alaska Native adults (15%) and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (20%). (Note that for most census tracts, the numbers of Native American and Pacific Islander adults are too low to provide reliable estimates on educational attainment.) And notably, while overall Asian adults have the highest educational attainment, rates vary widely within this group: about one in five Laotians hold a college degree, compared to roughly four in five Indian and Taiwanese Californians.

Patterns of education, race, and geography are a consequence of complex factors, including decisions about where people move to and from, and if they are able to move. More than a tenth of Asian adults in California live in Santa Clara County, one of the more highly educated counties in the state, compared to only 3% of Latino and 2% of Black adults. Conversely, Black and Latino adults in Los Angeles are especially concentrated in neighborhoods in Central and East LA with lower levels of educational attainment and where relatively few Asian adults live.

In almost all parts of the state, Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander adults are much less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than their Asian and white neighbors. This implies that structural factors beyond geography and residential segregation affect educational opportunities.

Increasing economic opportunity and mobility entails addressing the disparities that exist between and within regions. And while bachelor’s-degree attainment has risen markedly over time, these gains have been uneven across the state. Ensuring a wider swath of Californians can reap the benefits of a college degree means improving college preparation, access, and completion in places where these opportunities have lagged behind.

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