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Magazine / IN PERSPECTIVE

Education Driving Nation's Changes

To understand an increasingly divergent nation, look for that college degree.

September 11, 2010

Forecasting long-term economic trends can be a humbling exercise. The ascent of the Sun Belt, for instance, had long seemed inexorable. Fueled by booming real estate markets, sun-splashed cities from Fort Myers to Las Vegas to Phoenix were barely bruised by the economic slump that took place from 2001 to 2003. But these communities and many of their fellow Sun Belt highfliers have been among the biggest losers in today's savage downturn, which began with a collapse in housing and financial markets, as the graphic on pp. 14-15 shows.

So projecting which regions, and what sort of community, will thrive best in the years ahead is a daunting task. The competing visions of urban theorists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin that we examine in this issue -- the former predicting that the United States will concentrate into dense metropolitan "mega-regions"; the latter expecting SUV caravans to retrace the covered wagons into the heartland -- could produce a mixed result in practice. The country is big enough, and diverse enough, that among us we usually order every item on the menu.

 

But one prediction seems to me incontrovertible: The economic experience, political orientation, and daily rhythms of life in America's major metropolitan areas will continue to diverge. This trend will have challenging implications for a nation that is finding it almost impossible to reach consensus on how to confront its most pressing problems, beginning with reviving the economy.

Even allowing for regional variations in preference, it often seems as if every community from Maine to California offers a different entrance into the same global shopping mall. But in other, more fundamental ways, distinctions between the nation's largest communities are enduring and even deepening. Increasingly, education defines that fault line.

Economic fortune and political preferences correlate with educational attainment.

In a comprehensive recent study, Brookings Institution researchers discovered that the large metropolitan areas with the highest proportion of college graduates in 2000 added more graduates over the past decade than the communities that started with fewer graduates. As a result, the education gap is widening across our 100 largest metropolitan areas. In the 25 with the highest level of college attainment (places such as Washington, D.C.; San Jose, Calif.; Austin, and Seattle), 37 percent of adults hold at least a four-year degree. In the 25 least-educated communities (including Stockton and Fresno in California, and Toledo and Youngstown in Ohio), just 22 percent do.

Texas journalist Bill Bishop, author of the acclaimed 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, points out that this separation by education wasn't evident before the 1970s, but it has advanced steadily ever since. The sorting appears self-reinforcing: Concentrations of college graduates produce the economic, cultural, and even social opportunities that attract their peers.

Other differences follow this central divide. Communities with the highest proportion of college-educated whites are also more racially diverse than places where fewer whites have obtained degrees. Bishop says that all sorts of cultural indicators -- "from how families are formed, to when women get married, to when they have their first child" -- diverge along these same educational lines. Economic fortune follows, too. Although the current slowdown has left few places undamaged, unemployment remains much higher and per capita income much lower in the least-educated large communities than in the best.

And, yes, the political preferences of these places have splintered. In 2008, Barack Obama won more than 60 percent of the vote in the 25 best-educated big cities, but he ran slightly behind John McCain in the 25 least-educated. This November, the Republican tide is likely to be strongest in those predominantly white, blue-collar areas.

All of this points toward an era in which Americans lead increasingly separate lives: one part culturally cosmopolitan, racially diverse, and betting on the knowledge economy; the other part culturally traditional, less diverse, and struggling both to revive and to transcend the battered industrial economy.

As Bishop notes, the great social historian Robert Wiebe described late-19th-century America as "a nation of loosely connected islands." Communication and travel are easier today than ever before. But Wiebe's evocative description seems apt again for a nation that is pulling apart, even as the need grows for Americans to link arms against challenges that could submerge all of our islands.

The author is political director of Atlantic Media.

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