Atlanta Might Be Getting Dumber

Maybe it’s the traffic?

Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images

On the whole, educational attainment is rising among America’s young adults. That trend holds true in the vast majority of large cities. But there could be one big exception lurking in the heart of the New South.

Earlier today, I was looking at a 2014 report by City Observatory on trends in college-degree completion among 25-to-34-year-olds in metro areas with at least 1 million residents. Out of the 51 cities analyzed, Atlanta was the only one where a smaller percentage of that demographic had earned at least a bachelor’s than in 2000, according to Census Bureau data. The city’s concentration of brain power, it seems, might be thinning out ever so slightly.  

Emphasis on the word might. The 0.3 percentage point decline is well within the American Community Survey’s 1 percentage point margin of error. So the fall may not, in fact, be a fall.1 Still, these figures suggest that the education level among Atlanta’s twenty- and thirtysomethings is, at best, stagnating, even compared with other cities at the bottom 10 of City Observatory’s ranking. As the New York Times noted a while back, the total size of the city’s “young, educated population has increased just 2.8 percent since 2000, significantly less than its overall population.” How come? The paper theorized that the region “is suffering the consequences of overenthusiasm for new houses and new jobs before the crash, economists say.” In blunter terms, Atlanta rode a wave of hype and is kind of over.

Personally, I don’t want to overinterpret these numbers, for now at least. But I can’t imagine they bode well for the city.

1 Just to reinforce that point, City Observatory relies on the the ACS one-year estimates, which are a little  volatile. The ACS three-year estimate for Atlanta, which includes data from 2010 to 2012, says 35.2 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds in Atlanta have a college degree, a tiny bit above the 2000 number.