William Byrd High School graduates at the Salem Civic Center. Courtesy of Roanoke County schools.

We were told last week that Virginians are more educated than they ever have been before.

This is true. 

A report by the Lumina Foundation found that 59.3% of working-age Virginians have earned a college degree or postsecondary certificate or credential in 2021. That’s up 2% from the last survey in 2019. More importantly, it’s up from 45% a decade earlier, in 2011, which shows just how fast the workforce is transforming. (Notice that these figures are counting pretty much any kind of degree obtained after high school, so an associate degree or a credential from a community college counts.)

Despite that increase, Virginia’s national ranking slipped from fifth to seventh, because some other states saw their educational attainment rates grow faster. Still, Virginia’s rate is a) getting better, b) one of the highest in the country, c) not that far behind No. 1-ranked Massachusetts, which is at 62%, and d) well above the national average of 53%. 

Since income is often tied to education, these are all good things. 

Furthermore, Virginia ranks well ahead of our peer states. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is particularly fond of comparing and contrasting Virginia with other states in the Southeast, typically our main competitors for economic development projects. Virginia ranks ahead of all them, often by wide margins. North Carolina, our bete noir, ranks 32nd in the country with 52.1%. 

For those curious, the state with the lowest educational attainment rate is Nevada at 43.9%, so North Carolina is closer to the bottom than it is to the top. Just sayin’. 

All these ought to be powerful talking points for the governor or anyone else pitching Virginia as a place to do business.

Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story and, unfortunately, it’s not quite as good.

Virginia’s high ranking is almost entirely due to Northern Virginia, with a nice assist from Charlottesville.

Out of 134 counties and cities in the state, only 10 are above that statewide average of 59.3% and six of those are in Northern Virginia. Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County add two more. The only two above the state average that aren’t in Northern Virginia or the Charlottesville area are York County and Lexington — the latter of which has its numbers distorted by its small size and two colleges. 

All the rest of the state is below average — much of it well below, with many rural localities in Southwest and Southside at the bottom. 

This chart shows the distribution of Virginia localities based on educational attainment. Source: Lumina Foundation.
This chart shows the distribution of Virginia localities based on educational attainment. The gray bar indicates the state average, meaning the 10 localities in green on the right balance out all the others on the left because they’re generally bigger localities. Source: Lumina Foundation.

Before I analyze much further, let’s look at the actual numbers. These are the 10 localities that rank above the state average:

1.  Falls Church 82.7%

2. Arlington 82.1%

3. Lexington 74.5%

4. Alexandria 72.0%

5. Loudoun County 71.2%

6. Fairfax (city) 71.1%

7. Fairfax County 70.8%

8. Albemarle County 66.1%

9. Charlottesville 64.6%

10. York County 61.2%

Now for the bottom 10 (actually 11, since two are tied):

1. Dickenson County 22.7%

2. Buchanan County 21.4%

3. Sussex County 21.2%

4. Emporia 20.6%

5. Covington 20.5%

6. Page County 20.0%

7. Lunenburg County 19.8%

8. Essex County and Lee County 18.7%

9. Buckingham County 16.3%

10. Greensville County 14.8%

I don’t mean to dwell on bad news any more than does the doctor who says your blood pressure is too high, but three of these localities — Buckingham County, Essex County and Lee County — all saw their educational attainment rates decline over the past two years. How can that be? One possible answer is that people with degrees moved out of the county (all three counties have lost population over the past two years); another is that people without degrees moved in and lowered the percentage of those who do have degrees. Or some combination of the two. Either way, the directional arrow is in the wrong direction. 

To some extent, these numbers don’t tell us anything new. The fact that the lowest educational attainment rates in the state are in Southwest and Southside is hardly new. We hear a lot about the prosperous urban crescent; the flip side of that is what the state’s community college system has called the “rural horseshoe.” Former Gov. Gerald Baliles spent his last years calling attention to these educational disparities. “There is an arc that begins on and sweeps down Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across Southern and Southwest Virginia, and up the mountain range towards Winchester,” he wrote in Virginia Business in 2015. “It is a stylized horseshoe area that comprises 75 percent of our geography and contains more than 2 million people. If it were a separate state, it would rank 50th in the nation in educational attainment, tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia. That may surprise some people. It should be cause for alarm, a call to action, especially since the rest of Virginia would rank number two in the country.”

Still, a new set of statistics gives us reason to look anew at things.

Let’s dig a little deeper and, in the spirit of our current governor, make some comparisons with our neighboring states.

North Carolina: The Tar Heel state has only two counties that rank higher than the Virginia average: Orange at 70% and Wake at 65.1%. Both are in the Raleigh-Durham area, aka, the Research Triangle. 

North Carolina’s lowest county, though, isn’t as low as Virginia’s lowest counties. Tyrell County is 16.6%; two Virginia counties rank lower. That’s the only North Carolina county with educational attainment below 20%; Virginia has five. 

South Carolina: The Palmetto State doesn’t have any counties that come close to Virginia’s highest-ranked ones; its top locality is Charleston, at 57%, comparable to our Goochland County (56.9%). 

Where we have five localities less than 20%, South Carolina has two (granted, it’s a smaller state so has fewer counties). The lowest is Marlboro County at 15.3%, still higher than our Greensville County.

Georgia: The Peach State’s most educated locality is Fulton County in the Atlanta metro. With an education attainment rate of 66.9%, it would still be behind our Northern Virginia localities. 

On the lower end of the spectrum, though, it has 30 localities where educational attainment ranks lower than 20%, with the lowest being Wheeler County at 12.3%. In fact, Georgia has eight counties that are lower than Virginia’s lowest. 

Tennessee: The Volunteer State has just one county — Williamson County, in the Nashville suburbs — that comes close to Northern Virginia. It’s at 71.9%. To show the gap, Tennessee’s second-most educated locality is Davidson County (also in the Nashville metro), at 52.6%. 

Tennessee has 19 counties where educational attainment ranks lower than 20%, with three ranking lower than our lowest county. Lake County comes in at 13.1%.

What we see from those four states is that none of them has a metro area that rivals our Northern Virginia for educational attainment. Not even Silicon Valley is in Northern Virginia’s league. In Santa Clara County, it’s 63.7%, which would make it just the 10th-most educated locality if it were in Virginia. 

Even Massachusetts, the nation’s most educated state on average, doesn’t have localities that match Northern Virginia. Its top county, Middlesex County, comes in at 67.3%, which would put it at eighth place if it were in the Old Dominion.

On the lowest end of the educational spectrum, our low-attainment counties are unfortunate, but not unusual. If you want to feel better, try this: West Virginia’s least-educated county is McDowell County, where just 10.7% of working-age adults have any sort of educational attainment past high school. The two Virginia counties it borders are Buchanan County, at 21.4%, and Tazewell County, at 30.5% — so roughly two to three times higher. 

Across our southern border, comparisons are closer — and vary. Our Henry County is 30.0%; across the border in Rockingham County, North Carolina, the figure is lower: 27.4%. On the other hand, our Pittsylvania County is 27.4%; across the border in Caswell County, North Carolina, the figure is higher at 28.4%. Do those differences really mean anything? Probably not that much.

So what’s all this mean? It’s easy to drown in numbers so here are my takeaways:

  • Virginia’s high educational attainment is driven mostly by Northern Virginia.
  • None of our rival states have a metro area with educational attainment rates anything like Northern Virginia; economically speaking, Northern Virginia is a great asset.
  • Take Northern Virginia out of the picture and Virginia’s figures look very different (and not in a good way), but individual localities at the bottom of the scale are roughly in line with localities at the bottom of the scale in other states.

The figures we’ve seen cited are averages and it’s important to remember that averages are just that. Outside Northern Virginia (and a few other places), the rest of our communities are below average. We can’t all be like the mythical Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...