An indicator correlated with many life outcomes, educational attainment profoundly affects individual and regional prosperity
Though the average Houstonian today has more education than they did 10 years ago, significant disparities across race/ethnicity persist.
Why educational attainment matters to Houston
The benefits of obtaining an education beyond the 12 mandatory years extend not only to earnings, health, and quality of life, but also to the collective well-being and economy of our region, and—potentially—future generations. People with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $1.3 million more over a lifetime compared to those with a high school diploma only.1,2 They also enjoy the lowest unemployment rates. Adults with stable, well-paying jobs are less likely to rely on the social safety net (nutritional assistance, subsidized housing, etc.) and less likely to interact with the criminal legal system.3 People with higher education tend to be healthier and live longer.4,5,6 Regions that are home to highly-skilled and educated workers attract and keep employers that provide good jobs, which attract additional skilled workers, fueling the cycle. A region thrives with revenue from additional investment and a growing population of skilled workers. People with higher education are also more likely to vote,7,8 which advances civic engagement in the region. Becoming the first person in a family to earn a college degree can positively affect the trajectory of their and their family’s lives, potentially for future generations.9
However, only a minority successfully walk through this door of opportunity for myriad reasons. This is partly because of discriminatory and illegal practices that have existed since our nation’s founding (such as redlining and school segregation), exacerbated by present-day inequities (segregation’s lasting impact, poverty, disinvestment in public schools). Compounded over generations, the result is educational attainment levels that vary significantly by race/ethnicity.
The more we work to improve overall levels of educational attainment — and eliminate disparities — the closer we get to a more vibrant region with opportunity for all.
Low Educational Attainment Hurts Economic Prosperity
Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education an individual has completed. As the shift continues toward a knowledge-based economy, higher levels of educational attainment have become increasingly important to social mobility.10 This doesn’t mean a bachelor’s degree is always necessary to secure a “good job,” but some kind of education beyond high school (also called post-secondary education) — such as a certificate, credential, apprenticeship, or associate degree — is critical to meeting the demands of the current workforce and to unlock future individual opportunities.
Workers with higher educational attainment tend to have the lowest unemployment rates, a trend seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the national unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher averaged 4.8% compared to 9.1% for those with a high school diploma only and 11.9% for those without a high school diploma. Not only are lower education levels associated with higher unemployment, they are also associated with lower annual earnings and lower lifetime earnings.11
Educational attainment rates in the region continue upward trend, but with significant racial/ethnic disparities
Educational attainment rates in Texas lag the nation. The state of Texas ranks second to last nationwide in the percentage of residents with at least a high school diploma at 84.6%, compared to the national average of 88.6%. Educational attainment levels in Harris County are lower than the state average, with 82.3% of adult residents having a high school diploma. Fort Bend and Montgomery counties fare better than the state and national averages at 90.7% and 88.2%, respectively.
Texas also ranks low in the percentage of the population over the age of 25 with bachelor’s degrees. Three out of 10 Texans (30.8%) have a bachelor’s degree or above — placing the state 28th among all states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) — compared to 33.1% at the national level. Nearly half of all adults in Fort Bend County have earned a bachelor’s degree (46.2%), the highest attainment rate in the three-county region. If Fort Bend County were a state, it would rank second in the nation — just behind D.C. (59.7%) and ahead of Massachusetts (45.0%). The proportion of adults without a high school diploma is highest in Harris County (17.7%). Adults in Montgomery County are most likely among the three counties to have some college education without a four-year degree (31.1%).
Educational attainment beyond high school has been increasing, however. Between 1990 and 2019, the percentage of adults without a high school diploma in Texas and the three-county area fell by 12.5 and 8.6 percentage points, respectively. Additionally, the share with bachelor’s degree or higher in the three-county area increased to 34.2% from 25.4%.
Educational attainment rates are unequal across race, ethnicity and gender
Because of a lengthy history of discriminatory and illegal practices since the nation’s founding, which have been exacerbated by present-day inequities, educational attainment levels in the United States vary greatly by race/ethnicity.The three-county region is no exception, and these disparities are the direct and intended result of harmful policies, compounded over decades and are not related to any group’s intrinsic talents or priorities.
Asian Americans — a group of people originating from about 50 different countries with distinct political and immigration histories — report the highest education levels at the national, state, and regional levels. However, it is important to note that there is significant variation even within this large population. According to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center, 75% of Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of Laotians and 15% of Bhutanese do. Indian Americans make up the largest Asian-American origin group in Texas, which contributes to the high levels of educational attainment for Asian Americans in the state.
More than 42% of Black adults in Fort Bend County have a bachelor’s degree or higher — 20 percentage points higher than the national average for Black adults (22.5%). However, that figure falls to 26% in Harris County, a rate on par with that of Texas overall, according to 2019 estimates.
Consistent with national trends, Hispanic/Latino adults in the Houston area report lower levels of educational attainment. About 26% of Hispanic residents in Fort Bend County, 36% in Harris County, and 35% in Montgomery County do not have a high school diploma. For comparison, the national average is 29.5%.
Because the general terms “Hispanic” or ”Latino” are used to describe a group of people who originate from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking or Latin American countries, and who understand their identity in different ways, the diversity within that broad group can often go unnoticed. There are differences in the levels of education between Latinos who are foreign-born versus native-born. For example, 12% of Hispanic immigrants in the three-county region have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 20% of Hispanic adults born in the U.S.12 Research from the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Houston found that recent Latino immigrants are more likely to be better educated than those who arrived before them — 27% of immigrants who arrived in the last five years had a bachelor’s degree or higher. For those who have been here for at least 11 years, less than 10% had a degree.13
As educational attainment levels within each racial/ethnic group have increased in the three-county area, so have high school diploma attainment rates. Between 2000 and 2019, the percentage of residents in Houston’s three-county region with a high school diploma increased the most for Hispanics, rising to 65% from 44%. The percentage of Black residents who completed high school also increased to 92% from 78%.
In 2005, for the first time in the nation’s history, women were more likely than men to have an education beyond a high school diploma. By 2020, 65% of women had some post-secondary education compared to 61% of men.
The trend of women being more likely to pursue and attain higher education is also occurring in Houston’s three-county region and in Texas overall.
In 2000, women lagged behind men in the share of the population with a post-secondary education. However, by 2010, the share of women in the three-county region with post-secondary education was slightly above that of men (57.7% compared to 56.2%). Women have continued their progress in postsecondary educational attainment, increasing five percentage points between 2010 and 2019 compared to a three-percentage-point increase among men.
- There are, of course, differences across age, gender, race/ethnicity, and occupation.
- Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Rose, S. J. (2021). The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/the-college-payoff/.
- Ewert, S., & Wildhagen, T. (2011). Educational characteristics of prisoners: Data from the ACS. Presentation at the Population Association of America. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/working-papers/2011/demo/SEHSD-WP2011-08.html.
- Raghupathi, V., Raghupathi, W. The influence of education on health: an empirical assessment of OECD countries for the period 1995–2015. Arch Public Health 78, 20 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-020-00402-5
- Zajacova, A., & Lawrence, E. M. (2018). The Relationship Between Education and Health: Reducing Disparities Through a Contextual Approach. Annual review of public health, 39, 273–289. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044628
- Roy, B., Kiefe, C. I., Jacobs, D. R., Goff, D. C., Lloyd-Jones, D., Shikany, J. M., Reis, J. P., Gordon-Larsen, P., & Lewis, C. E. (2020). Education, Race/Ethnicity, and Causes of Premature Mortality Among Middle-Aged Adults in 4 US Urban Communities: Results From CARDIA, 1985-2017. American Journal of Public Health, 110(4), 530–536. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305506
- Milligan, K., Moretti, E., & Oreopoulos, P. (2004). Does education improve citizenship? Evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom. Journal of Public Economics,88(9–10), 1667–1695.
- Sondheimer, R. M., & Green, D. P. (2010). Using experiments to estimate the effects of education on voter turnout. American Journal of Political Science,54(1), 174–189.
- Kaushal, N. (2014). Intergenerational Payoffs of Education. The Future of Children, 24(1), 61–78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23723383
- Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Three Educational Pathways to Good Jobs: High School, Middle Skills, and Bachelor’s Degree, 2018. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/3pathways/.
- Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Rose, S. J. (2021).
- Understanding Houston analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) for the population 25 years and older.
- Sánchez-Soto, Gabriela. (2020). The Latinx Population in Greater Houston. Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Houston. Retrieved from https://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/july-2020/07212020cmas-latino-report.php.