Population, Education, and the Changing American Landscape

| |

The internet gives us a great deal of freedom, but some freedoms we rarely use. You can attend college anywhere with major universities offering fully accredited degree programs online. You can work anywhere with remote workforces and telecommuting rapidly becoming the norm in many industries.

However, we still live, work, and go to school in primarily urban areas. Whether out of a desire for social connection or a false feeling of necessity. The population and employment shift is arguably one of the biggest factors in the current election cycle.

Education and Population

If we take the state of Arizona as an example, in Maricopa county, nearly 30% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is the most populous county in the state, containing Phoenix and Tempe where Arizona State University is located. Coconino county in Northern Arizona has a lower population and a higher percentage of individuals with degrees, but only slightly.

Arizona State stresses innovation and offers a number of its programs online, however most students at the University live locally, 74% percent of freshmen and 22% of students overall live on campus. The higher percentage of the population who has earned degrees is related to a higher population, local access to higher education, and local jobs in industries where a degree is required.

Arizona is still slightly below the national average of 31% of people that have bachelor’s degrees and above. But looking at the map below of the contiguous United States, the national numbers are skewed by the percentage of people in areas like Santa Clara, California and King County, Washington (Seattle area) where nearly 50% of the population possess a degree. These are both higher population areas where tech industries are based. The cost of living is also higher in these areas.

This map shows the percentage of people in each county who have earned a bachelor’s degree or above:

Map: MapMetrics via Washington Post.
Map: MapMetrics via Washington Post.

Adding another layer, this map shows population by county in the United States (2011 estimate, US Census Bureau).  Note that if these two maps were laid over each other, the result would show a correlation that the most populated areas are also the most educated.

Data: US Census
Data: US Census

Income, Cost of Living, and Population

This is illustrated by another set of maps. This map shows median household income by county.

Map: American Community Survey, US Census
Map: American Community Survey, US Census

Blending with this map showing the relative cost of living, we see some more interesting correlations.

Relative cost of living. Map: Business Insider with data from Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2014.
Relative cost of living. Map: Business Insider with data from Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2014.

The most populated locations where people have the highest education levels are the most expensive places to live. These are also the most likely places for those who owe student loans to live as well.

Nearly 7 in 10 college graduates leave school with nearly $30,000 in school loan debt. This does not count any other private debt they might have incurred while attending college to pay for cost of living and other expenses. Even if they can refinance their student loans, many graduates move into these areas to try and land jobs that make them eligible for student loan forgiveness or get hired by employers who will assist them in repaying their debt.

Politics and Population

It’s difficult to find these jobs in rural areas. Yet it is these rural areas who are suffering: as plants close, mining diminishes and local resources become exhausted, towns that don’t find another industry begin to sink economically. Children move on to college and beyond, and have nothing to return to.

Many of the people in these towns are angry. Their jobs have disappeared, many to plans overseas. Large cities can replace these industries with new ones, even with service jobs to serve other industries. Small towns have no such luxury.

Enter the map showing the split between blue and red, democrats and republicans. Voters who lean democrat tend to be in the population centers; these places make all the decisions about the direction of our country, our entertainment choices, and how we are governed. These cities, these urban areas are where the voters live.

Map showing which counties had the majority of democratic (blue) and republican (red) votes durng the 2012 presidential election. Source: M. E. J. Newman, 2012.
Map showing which counties had the majority of democratic (blue) and republican (red) votes durng the 2012 presidential election. Source: M.E. J. Newman, 2012.


People in populated areas tend to be more educated. This can be attributed to a number of factors:

  • Jobs requiring a college degree are more likely to be located in urban areas, and employees are not living in rural areas even if they take advantage of telecommuting or remote work opportunities.
  • Graduates take jobs near their alma matter even if the cost of living is higher than in other areas.
  • With the exception of Ivy League and specialty schools, students typically attend colleges in their local or regional area.

While incomes are higher in more populated areas, the cost of living is also higher. This cost of living is mitigated by opportunity and the variety of jobs available for college graduates.

Finally, the political landscape in these urban areas tends to be more liberal, while rural areas tend to be the home of more conservative voters, shaping state and local laws that influence the ability to attract jobs and industry to an area.

The American landscape is changing all the time, and it’s uncertain if or when we will see a shift back to more rural population and lifestyles. In the meantime, the divide between those in the country and city dwellers continues, even at the polls.

Related Articles


Enter your email to receive the Geography Realm newsletter: