U.S. States with the Highest Levels of Education

By Jake Schroeder
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As of 2019, 90% of the United States population over the age of 25 has a high school education, but only 34% of those graduates have earned a bachelor's degree. The extremely high cost of a college education is a problem no matter where you live, but negative factors preventing college certainly seem to have more impact in some areas. Depending on the state, the level of education can vary significantly.

Besides the number of educated people on a state-by-state basis, the quality of education also seems to vary. A recent WalletHub survey compared all 50 states according to education attained and quality of education. Here's what they found.

Massachusetts

Two of the top internationally recognized institutions for higher education in the world — Harvard and MIT — are located in Massachusetts. The state is also widely known to have the best public school system in the country. Only 2% of high school students drop out in Massachusetts.

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The push for achievement starts early. Fourth graders in Massachusetts are the most literate in the country and have been for decades, which sets students up for success at a young age. Considering these factors, it’s not surprising the state boasts the highest number of bachelor's and graduate degrees in the country.

Maryland

Maryland ranks just behind Massachusetts for the highest percentage of residents who have earned graduate-level or higher degrees, coming in at 12%. The state is home to several highly-ranked institutions of higher education, including Johns Hopkins, the U.S. Naval Academy and Towson.

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Considering that Maryland is so close to Washington D.C., all those educated people are not lacking options for putting their degrees to good use right next door. It might even be Maryland's proximity to the nation's capital that created their drive for excellence in the first place.

Vermont

Bernie Sanders' home state is also a leader in education. Vermont boasts a college savings plan to help parents start saving for college early. Their institutions of higher education also collaborate with the Vermont Higher Education Council to make sure students are getting what they need from the education system.

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All of that effort and attention to education really seems to be working. Vermont may be one of the smallest states in the country, but it offers some truly great schools, such as Middlebury College, University of Vermont and Champlain College.

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Connecticut

Connecticut is home to Yale University, but that's certainly not the only reason it ranks so highly on the list of most educated states. Its ranking is also a reflection of the availability of quality public education that is accessible to everyone. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont credits the state's educational success to outstanding teachers.

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The governor also pointed out that Connecticut puts a lot of effort into every school to ensure things like family income and neighborhood issues don't get in the way of children receiving a quality education. The state recognizes the importance of quality learning at all ages for achieving success later in life.

Colorado

The beautiful state of Colorado is more than just a pretty place to hang out. It has the highest percentage of residents with an associate degree and the second-highest percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree. The state ranked high in terms of graduation rates, test scores and school quality.

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High school students in Colorado typically score among the highest in the country on college entrance exams. The state also tied with six others for the number one spot in lowest gender gap in educational attainment. Colorado is the most highly educated state located outside the Northeast.

Virginia

With 172 institutions of higher learning, it's no wonder Virginia is considered one of the most educated states in the nation. It also happens to be home to the second oldest college in the country, The College of William and Mary. Virginia Tech, a nationally renowned school, is another of its many recognized schools.

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For the fourth year in a row, Virginia ranked highest in the nation for business, according to a national study. This ranking is undoubtedly a reflection of the state's highly educated residents and its overall status.

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New Hampshire

Nearly 10% of all residents in New Hampshire have a master's degree. Among the many reasons New Hampshire ranks so highly in terms of education is its status as the home of one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country: Dartmouth.

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Perhaps this is a contributing factor in New Hampshire’s position near the top of the nation (tied with four other states) for the lowest rate of unemployment. Along with Vermont, the state's commitment to learning starts with a College and University Council that contributes to strengthening its system of higher education.

Minnesota

Minnesota has quite a few high-ranking higher education institutions that make it one of the smartest U.S. states. Schools like Carleton College, Macalester College and University of Minnesota attract students from all over the country.

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Another important factor is the state's amazing public school system, which is one of the best in the entire country. Falling right in with its status as one of the top 10 most educated states in the U.S., Minnesota also ranks in the top five states for most inventor patents issued. Considering it takes really smart people to invent things, that says it all.

Utah

Utah has more adults with an associate degree or college experience than all but one other state in the country. On top of that, 92% of Utah’s residents have a high school diploma or equivalent, and the state ranks at number 10 for education overall.

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Could the state’s status as the "Wall Street of the West," as stated by Goldman Sachs, have something to do with its highly educated residents? It’s probably a good bet. In 2017, Utah's GDP growth was the second highest in the nation, and it’s one of the states with the most startup companies.

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Washington

In 2019, Washington was given the amazing title of "best economy" in the nation. In that realm, the state has the highest number of STEM workers in the U.S. and also employs more high-tech workers than most states. Both Microsoft and Amazon call Washington home.

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Coming in at number 10 for states with the most residents with a college education, Washington does well at employing its population in high-quality jobs. With all those intelligent people residing in the state, it's no wonder it was in a four-way tie for first for the number of patents filed every year.

New Jersey

Home to Princeton and Rutgers — two Ivy League colleges established during colonial times — New Jersey has maintained its reputation for top-notch education since the 18th century. Nearly 37% of its adult population over the age of 25 holds a college degree, with almost 16% of them with an advanced degree.

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New Jersey also ranks at number two for the best public schools in the country. The educated residents of the state don't have to worry about finding a job that puts their brains to good use either. Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Honeywell are all located in New Jersey.

New York

You wouldn't be able to maintain the world's largest stock exchange without ranking as one of the most educated states in the U.S. New York is known for many things, and one of them is its highly qualified and highly educated population.

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Its two Ivy League schools, Cornell and Columbia Universities, are just a fraction of what this state has to offer in terms of educational opportunities. One out of every four New York residents has an advanced degree. Considering that the state includes the most populous city in the country (19.5 million), that's a lot of smart people walking around.

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Oregon

Oregon is the 13th most educated state in the U.S., with just shy of 13% of its residents holding a graduate degree or higher. This is still true, even though it ranks among the worst in the nation for its public school system. Just imagine what Oregon could achieve in terms of education if it improved in that area.

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Still, the fact remains that Oregon's residents are highly educated, and they make sure their education stays valuable, in part because huge companies like Nike and Intel have their headquarters there. For now, Intel is the largest employer in Oregon.

Hawaii

What smart person doesn't want to live in a tropical paradise? This could be the reason Hawaii is a state with some of the most highly-educated residents. More than 30% of its residents over age 25 have a college diploma, and that number is on the rise.

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Many of Hawaii's residents with bachelor's degrees are working in the tourism sector, which brings in almost $2 billion in tax revenue each year. On a similar note, Hawaii is tied for first place with four other states for having the country's lowest unemployment rates.

Illinois

Illinois' Northwestern University is nationally recognized as one of the country's top private research universities. The state has 127 universities and colleges in total and is also home to two of the top ranked school districts in the country.

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More than 13% of Illinois’ residents have advanced degrees, and the state is one of the industry leaders in clean energy, an important sector for the future. Plus, its major corporations, such as Allstate, Boeing and Walgreens, make sure all those intelligent people in the state are putting their education to good use.

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Delaware

Delaware ranks as the seventh highest in the nation in terms of the quality of education available, and 31% of its adult residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree. Considering that Delaware is one of the smallest U.S. states, these are very impressive accomplishments.

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At one point, Delaware's schools were among the most desegregated in the country. While they have since lost that title, the state has been putting a lot of work into getting it back to maintain integrity in the system.

Maine

Maine has a lot more than just great lobster to offer. The state also has great K-12 schools. In fact, Maine ranked fifth in the country for most high school graduates in 2018, thanks to a superior school system. Just over 91% of adults in Maine have high school diplomas.

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Additionally, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics came in at number two for best high schools nationwide. About 30% of these high school graduates then go on to get bachelor's degrees, and 11 percent go on to obtain even more advanced degrees.

Montana

U.S. News & World Report ranked the top 500 high schools in the nation, and six of Montana's schools ranked with silver scores. More than 29% of Montana's adults have a four-year college education. Thanks to the beautiful natural landscape of the state, lots of jobs are available in the tourism industry, and this attracts educated people to reside in the area.

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In fact, Montana's fastest growing sector is tourism, thanks primarily to national treasures like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. However, if the outdoors isn’t your thing, plenty of jobs in government and health services are also available.

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Kansas

Just like its geographic location in the U.S., Kansas is somewhere near the middle in terms of being a highly educated state. Maybe all that farmland is encouraging people to stick with farming instead of going to college. That being said, more than 30% of its adult population has a bachelor's degree.

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The University of Kansas is particularly noteworthy in terms of high-quality educational opportunities in the state. It offers world-renowned specialty programs in many areas, including special education and city management. On a national level, it has 46 programs ranked in the top 50 in their field.

Wisconsin

According to a 2018 study, Wisconsin's high school students scored top in the nation (tied with one other state) for highest median SAT score. This has remained true, despite large budget cuts for education in recent years. Wisconsin has always been known for top-notch public schools.

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Out of all public institutions of higher education in the U.S., the University of Wisconsin ranked at number 13. This just proves that they take education very seriously in the Dairy State, although it may be just a nudge below cheese — and the infamous Packers — on the importance scale. (Kidding.)

Rhode Island

Rhode Island is home to one of the eight Ivy League schools in the country: Brown University. It also boasts one of the best art schools in the country, the Rhode Island School of Design. Between those two prestigious factors, you can expect to bump into some smart and talented people in Rhode Island, especially considering it’s the smallest state in the U.S.

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Furthermore, roughly 9% of Rhode Island residents have an advanced degree. Somehow, it feels like it means just a little bit more when you're graduating from such highly-acclaimed schools as Brown or RISD.

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Nebraska

About 90% of Nebraska's high school students graduate with a diploma or equivalent, which puts the state at 15th in the nation for this metric. However, 30% of Nebraska's adult residents have bachelor's degrees. Combined with a number of other factors, this puts them pretty close to the middle in terms of being a highly educated state.

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Nebraska could have come out farther ahead for its intellectual prowess, but it seems that many of its residents obtain bachelor’s or advanced degrees and then leave. One researcher suggested the reason for this has to do with Nebraska's limited number of high paying jobs.

North Dakota

Sixth in the nation for high school graduation rate as of 2018, North Dakota may have more to offer than meets the eye. The state also has more than 28% of adults with bachelor's degrees, which is a high number. So, why is it ranked near the middle in terms of highly educated states?

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It might be because of the low percentage of adults with advanced degrees, which is one of the lowest in the country at slightly less than 8%. Compared to states like Massachusetts, with nearly 19% of its adult residents holding advanced degrees, the score just doesn't compare.

Wyoming

Wyoming's K-12 education ranks sixth in the entire country, according to research done in 2019. That's not too bad for a middle-of-nowhere state with such a low population. A ranking this high for this educational metric must have a reason behind it.

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As it turns out, Wyoming topped the nation in School Finance in 2019, just as it did in 2018. The moral of the story here is that when you invest in education, you get what you pay for — and then some. Wyoming K-12 students are some of the most prepared in the country to achieve success.

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California

It’s shocking to most people that California has the most residents age 25 or older who never got past ninth grade. The state also ranks last out of all 50 states for its percentage of high school graduates. You would think those two terrible statistics would land them much lower than the middle of the pack of highly intelligent states, but that isn’t the case.

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The reason for the anomaly is there are many extremely educated people in California to balance it out. In fact, some of the top institutions of higher education in the country are in California, including Stanford, UC-Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Iowa

Many students in Iowa graduate from high school, and the state ranks ninth in the nation in that category. Almost 28% of those students go on to graduate with four-year college degrees. After that, the numbers fall off, and only 9% of Iowa's adult residents go on to earn advanced degrees.

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U.S. News & World Report, which had Iowa ranked as the top state in the nation overall in 2018, dropped the state to number 14 on that list for 2019. That’s quite a dip, but there are still many opportunities available throughout the state for all of its educated residents.

Alaska

Alaska ranks close to the top nationally on how much it spends on its K-12 students, and it shows in their high school graduation rate, which is fifth in the country. Alaska's percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree isn’t too shabby either at 29%.

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Still, the state leaves a little something to be desired in terms of being highly educated, but plans are in the works to fix that. Alaska’s leaders just passed an education ballot initiative that promises to provide quality public higher education to all Alaska residents.

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Florida

For the third year in a row, Florida has ranked number one as the top state in the nation for higher education. Aside from having a number of excellent colleges and universities, those institutions also focus on being affordable and accessible to as many students as possible from Florida and around the country.

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Given the top-notch higher education in Florida, it should go without saying that the state is highly educated overall. Its much lower ranking on this list likely has to do with the state's high school graduation rate coming in at only 87%.

Pennsylvania

Although the University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League school, and the state also has several other quality institutions of higher education, including Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania ranks in the lower half of highly educated states. The lower percentage of high school graduates and advanced degree holders likely has something to do with that.

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Aside from that, other potential factors that kept Pennsylvania so far from the top of the list include low use of renewable energy, inadequate health care and slow economic growth in the state. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania, Super Bowl wins were not part of the metrics.

Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan, ranked as the number one most educated city in America in 2019 by WalletHub, the same research site that ranked the state as a whole at number 30 for most educated. There are a few reasons: Ann Arbor's metro area is the city with the most advanced degree holders, and it’s the third best for university quality and the fifth best for overall education quality.

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Michigan as a whole didn’t score nearly as well. Between a mediocre high school graduation rate and low scores in economy and job possibilities, the state could learn a lot from its own highly-revered Ann Arbor.

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