Ann Arbor ranks No. 1 again in 150 most and least educated cities in U.S.

What could change how well these areas do in the future? One higher education leader proposes a radical change.
By: | July 28, 2022
Matthew Schwartz/Unsplash

Inflation is impacting every metro area of the United States, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Visalia, Calif. But are the best-educated cities—those that feature the most bachelor’s degree holders and have high levels of attainment in K-12 schools—better insulated from its impacts?

Perhaps. In WalletHub’s annual analysis of the Most and Least Educated Cities in America, the affluent city of Ann Arbor, Mich., came out on top again. Ann Arbor and nearby Madison, Wis., the No. 4 choice, are also likely better positioned to absorb the pains of rising costs because of educational attainment, high-paying jobs and, of course, their esteemed universities.

“Throughout the United States, cities or regions with higher education institutes are registering growth,” said Aneesh Aneesh, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Look at Madison in Wisconsin or Austin in Texas. Their high-tech growth cannot be imagined without UW Madison and UT Austin. A quick look at the map of education levels will reveal that high-growth areas are also highly educated.”

In the study, which looked at individuals 25 and over in the 150 most sizable metropolitan areas in the U.S., San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara ranked No. 2 this year, followed by Washington, DC-Arlington, VA. The rest of the top 10 includes tech-heavy centers San Francisco-Oakland (No. 5) and Boston (No. 6), along with Durham-Chapel Hill, NC (No. 7), Raleigh-Cary, NC (No. 8), Seattle-Tacoma (No. 9) and Austin (No. 10).

Not all cities in the Top 10 scored well in both of WalletHub’s overarching categories, which included “Education Attainment” (degrees, diplomas, some college) at 80% and “Quality of Education and Attainment Gap” at 20% (quality of public schools, the average quality of universities, enrolled students in the top 1,015 universities, summer learning opportunities, racial and gender education gaps and education income equality). For example, Madison was No. 2 in educational attainment but only 49th in the second category.

One of the largest differences was No. 11 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT, which encompasses both affluent and poor areas. While it ranked No. 8 for educational attainment, its education quality and attainment gap were near the bottom at No. 146.


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Many of the cities with low rankings were in agricultural regions in California or border and western areas of Texas. They included Visalia, a Central Valley city of more than 100,000 in California, at No. 150. Modesto to the north and neighboring Bakersfield came in at No. 146 and No. 147, respectively, while McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, followed. Interestingly, while McAllen ranked lowest in the nation on educational attainment, the quality of its education and attainment gap was No. 9 in the country, ahead of Honolulu, Austin and New York City.

Although it might take decades for some cities to climb the charts, Aneesh said transformational relief might be a start for those in the bottom half of the list.

“Eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities would be the most effective way for a country to develop a more skilled workplace and a better society,” he said. “This will also have a downward pressure on private school tuition. And it is not as expensive as people think. The estimated cost of tuition-free college in the United States is around $80 billion a year, which is the same amount that the US government spends on public prisons and jails. For comparison, military spending stood at $800 billion in 2021.”

The rest of the top 20

  • 12. Provo-Orem, UT
  • 13. Colorado Springs, CO
  • 14. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO
  • 15. Trenton-Princeton, NJ
  • 16. Portland, ME
  • 17. Portland, OR
  • 18. Tallahassee, FL
  • 19. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
  • 20. Albany, NY

Top 10 on Quality of Education and Attainment Gap

  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Fayetteville-Springdale, Rogers, AR
  • San Diego-Chula Vista, CA
  • Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
  • Lafayette, LA
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • McAllen, Edinburgh-Mission, TX
  • Honolulu, HI

Highest percentage of high school diploma holders

  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Madison, W
  • Provo, UT
  • Portland, M
  • Colorado Springs, CO

Lowest percentage of high school diploma holders

  • Brownsville, TX
  • McAllen, TX
  • Visalia, CA
  • Bakersfield, CA
  • Lafayette, LA

Highest percentage of associate degree holders (or some college)

  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Provo, UT
  • Madison, WI
  • Raleigh-Cary, NC
  • San Francisco-Oakland, CA

Lowest percentage of associate degree holders (or some college)

  • Brownsville TX
  • McAllen, TX
  • Visalia, CA
  • Bakersfield, CA
  • Lafayette, LA

Highest percentage of bachelor’s degree holders

  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • San Jose, CA
  • Washington, DC
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Boston, MA
  • Bridgeport, CT

Lowest percentage of bachelor’s degree holders

  • Visalia, CA
  • Bakersfield, CA
  • Modesto, CA
  • Brownsville, TX
  • Beaumont, TX

Highest percentage of graduate degree holders

  • Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Washington, DC
  • San Jose, CA
  • Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
  • Boston, MA

Lowest percentage of graduate degree holders

  • Visalia, CA
  • Modesto, CA
  • Beaumont, TX
  • Brownsville, TX
  • Bakersfield, CA

Highest average university quality

  • Trenton-Princeton, NJ
  • Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
  • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Ann Arbor, MI

Lowest average university quality

  • Anchorage, AK
  • Ogden, UT
  • Sarasota, FL
  • Bakersfield, CA
  • Brownsville, TX
  • Vallejo, CA

Largest racial gap (favoring Black people/bachelor’s degrees)

  • Worcester, MA
  • Oxnard-Ventura, CA
  • Riverside-San Bernardino, CA
  • El Paso, TX
  • Albuquerque, NM

Largest racial gap (favoring white people/bachelor’s degrees)

  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Austin-Round Rock, TX
  • Richmond, VA
  • Bridgeport-Stamford, CT
  • Milwaukee, WI

Largest gender gap (facing women)

  • Anchorage, AK
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Lafayette, LA
  • Durham-Chapel Hill NC
  • Asheville, NC

Largest gender gap (facing men)

  • Greenville, SC
  • Manchester-Nashua, NH
  • Buffalo, NY
  • Pittsburgh, PA
  • Albany, NY