Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Education Burgh

Educational attainment is in the news.

Readers here have heard this from me innumerable times before. One of the most misunderstood metrics about Pittsburgh, however defined, is how 'educated' we are locally. You have to keep in mind two different observations. When most folks compare aggregate data on educational attainment they often create a metric that measures the number of folks who have achieved certain degrees for the population age 25 and above. Makes sense for the most part. Some folks are still studying past age 25 fo sure, but by looking at age 25 and over you generally catch the terminal education of most folks.

For most regions this will not make much difference, but now remember that we are an old region correct. Really old, like outlier old. Well, that means we have a disproportionate number of an older generation. That older generation grew up in an era where folks did not achieve anywhere near the same level of educational attainment we do today, by far. The proportion of folks going to graduate school, getting a bachelors degree, or even getting a high school degree were all much lower than today. So if you are say 70 today, the age cohort we really have a disproportionate number of folks locally.... That means you were graduating from high school in the mid to late 1950's. Literally a different era.

How big a difference does it make. In 2000 the region was roughly 18% age 65 and over. But the education metric is typically based on the population age25 and over. In 2000, over a quarter of the region's population age 25 and over were age 65 and over. That is a lot.

So for Pittsburgh, looking broadly at the population age 25 and over you are mixing up both that older generation and younger folks in a way that does not give you a great picture of educational attainment, but more reflects the age of the population. I argue all the time that such a metric says little about how well we are doing in recent decades and either educating the population, or as the argument usually goes, on how we are doing at both attracting and retaining folks with higher education. You need to look closer to make any statements about that. It's an obvious issue, but one that people don't think about I think because for most regions it just isn't an issue.

This was the argument I think that finally convinced one Economist reporter years ago that all the PR chaff he had heard was more than fluff. Remember: How Now Brown Town.

So.. taking that all into account. How educated is Pittsburgh. I say you want to look at narrow age slices of the population to begin to answer that question. Something I put together long ago and reflects the Census 2000 data now 9 years old. Take a look at what you get when you compare the educational attainment of those age 25-34 across the 50 largest metro regions in the country. and something I will stipulate up front is reflective of how small the city of Pittsburgh is within the region (although that observation cuts many ways when it comes to policy and is at least somewhat true of other cities as well... but hold that thought) take a look at similar benchmarks of just for the City of Pittsburgh.

Again, that is all data reflective of 9 years ago. There really isn't data with enough precision out there to say how those rankings have changed since then, but I would be surprised if we went down. What you see are some curious things. The region ranks pretty high on these.
But the city of Pittsburgh ranks really high. The proportion of population with a graduate degree is highest in 1) Wash DC, 2) Boston, 3) San Francisco and 4) Pittsburgh. I'd argue that the Washington, DC metric is a really artificial comparison due to the concentration of federal jobs there.

The 4 cities which have higher proportions of high school degree attainment are Virginia Beach, Colorado Springs and Honolulu. Virgina Beach and Honolulu I suspect are reflective of larger military populations which in 2000 had seen a decade of very high enlistment standards following the end of the cold war. Basically it was awfully hard if not impossible some years to get into the military during the 1990's without a high school degree. So you can make the case that among the current residents of the city Pittsburgh, we are close to being the most educated places in the nation.

Finally, just to anticipate how this arugment goes. This isn't even saying that our older generation was less educated than typical, quite the opposite. If you do a comparison of educational attainment just among our older generation and compare them to similar age cohorts elsewhere we rank higher than we do when compared to that 25 and over metric that lumps. Again, it all comes down to how the overall patterns of educational attainment have shifted in the last 50 years and the distortion I would call what happens when you don't take that into account.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis Chris. I would point out that Colorado Springs also has a huge military presence with the Air Force Academy and several bases and the NORAD headquarters in the area. So does that mean when you consider the other top cities for high school graduates Pittsburgh is on top when you take the cities with the high military population out of the mix?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Paz said...

Any thoughts on the metro ratings? The top 5 or 6 aren't terribly surprising, but Rochester? Buffalo? Is this because the raw number of people under the age of 34 is so low that those who are sticking around tend to be the cream of the crop? They don't seem to be in the city, that's for sure, considering Buffalo proper is only 30th while the region is 10th.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 1:13:00 PM  
Blogger n'at said...

I understand the lower bound of 25 years as filtering out non-resident college-age peoples: okay. Why set the upper bound at 34? Why not 40 or 44; include those gray-haired gen-Xers?

Would selecting an accurate upper bound require colloquial knowledge of each metro area to normalize the effects this country's cultural shift from an emphasis on primary and secondary schooling (blue collar) to an emphasis on post-secondary/post-baccalaureate education (white collar)?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 2:14:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

If I were better at explaining it would be clearer. It does not really matter what the age range is. The point is that looking at narrow age brackets makes for better comparisons… But the 25-34 bracket is just something easily computable from some census tables, that’s all. With a little work I could make a similar table for any age bracket, but again it does not matter for what I am talking about here. Might be interesting to look at a ranking just among folks in their late 20’s though.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:01:00 PM  
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