Last month, Wallethub released its 2023 list of the “Most & Least Educated States in America,” and Maryland ranked No. 2 in the nation, second only to Massachusetts. As they noted in their introduction of the rankings:
“For millions of Americans, a good education is the ticket to a better future. College opens doors to more career opportunities, higher earnings, and new social connections, among other benefits. But how much schooling one receives also matters to some extent. Generally, the higher the level of education one completes, the higher their income potential and the lower their chances of unemployment become.”
When we look specifically at Maryland’s progress in achieving higher levels of education, Lumina Foundation, “an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all,” released its 2021 Stronger Nation report earlier this year, which breaks down postsecondary attainment levels at the national, state, and county levels.
According to Lumina, Maryland only ranks 12th in postsecondary attainment (57.3 percent), trailing behind 10 states and Washington, DC. What is more concerning, however, is that postsecondary attainment – and poverty rates – vary significantly depending on where you live.
In Maryland, the highest postsecondary attainment rates for 25- to 64-year-olds are in Howard County, with 71.5%, and Montgomery County, with 66%. Attainment rates in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore lag far behind, with most of those counties having less than 40% of their 25-64-year-olds having earned some postsecondary credential.
Why does this matter? Because adult poverty rates rise with lower educational attainment.
According to the Census Bureau, Maryland’s poverty rate for adults aged 18-64 was 9.2 percent in 2021. That’s 341,700 Marylanders. And where were poverty rates the highest? On the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland, as well as the city of Baltimore. Somerset County, on the Eastern Shore, had the highest poverty rate in the state at 19.4% and the second-lowest postsecondary attainment rate of 25.4%. The poverty rate in Washington County in Western Maryland was 17% and the postsecondary attainment rate was 32.4%. In Baltimore, the poverty rate was 18.2% last year – more than 67,000 Baltimoreans – while the postsecondary attainment rate was 41.6%.
When you compare postsecondary attainment rates with poverty statistics in Maryland, what you find is that counties that have a postsecondary attainment rate of less than 44% have an above-average adult poverty rate in Maryland (except for Charles County whose poverty rate was only 5.6% in 2021).
Half of the counties in our state – most of which are concentrated in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore – have postsecondary attainment rates below 44%. Imagine if we were able to raise the level of education in those counties? What would it mean for lifting people out of poverty? What would it mean for Maryland leaving no one behind?
Maryland set a statewide postsecondary attainment goal of 55% by 2025, a goal that we have already surpassed. But that goal wasn’t achieved uniformly across our state. And 55% is no longer aspirational enough. Virginia has a goal of 70% by 2030 and claims the mantle of being the best-educated state in America.
Raising our goal to 70% would require dramatic change for how we deliver postsecondary education across the state, especially in our most rural and urban counties, but it’s a goal worth striving for.
Gregory Schuckman serves as a commissioner on the Maryland Education Council and previously served as a commissioner on the Maryland Higher Education Commission.