The Most and Least Educated States in America

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Course Lode

Who’s smartest and who has the most education are not the same thing, but having a lot of educated people around does tend to help states thrive — for starters, because there are probably colleges and universities drawing people to live there, providing an economic boost that just continues when students settle nearby and start businesses. A WalletHub study this year ranked the education levels of all 50 states based on considerations such as residents’ level of schooling, quality of school systems, and achievement gaps between demographics. We review some of the statistical reasoning behind the top and bottom 10 states in the nation just in time for this year’s crop of graduates to know where they stand. 

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Maclaurin Building Number 10 and Killian Court (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
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Most Educated: Massachusetts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the home of MIT and Harvard University — and virtually countless other colleges and universities — ranked first in the nation for educational attainment, with the highest percentage of both bachelor’s and graduate degree holders. Despite also having the highest average quality of universities, the state dips to third when it comes to quality of education overall.

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Annapolis on the Chesapeake

2nd Most Educated: Maryland

In addition to boasting the nation’s highest median household income, Maryland places very near the top of the pack for education, which has been an enduring priority in statewide public funding. The returns on all that investment were evident in the state’s ranking as first for the overall quality of education, as well as second and third respectively for the highest ratio of graduate- and bachelor’s degree holders.

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Historical building and Yale university campus

3rd Most Educated: Connecticut

New England has strong representation on the top end of this list, with Connecticut coming in third thanks to strong levels of educational attainment (fourth overall) and quality of that education (fifth). Home to the nation’s first law school and prestigious universities such as Yale, the state also places in the top five for percentages of bachelor’s and graduate or professional-degree holders.

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4th Most Educated: Vermont

The Green Mountain state may be mostly rural, but that doesn’t make it any less intelligent. It is, however, an outlier in this dataset for having a comparatively low median household income, 21st highest in the nation, relative to the other best-educated states. Nonetheless, as of 2017, Vermont spent more than $21,000 per public school student, and likely benefits from having one of the nation’s lowest ratio of pupils to teachers.

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Snowy Longs Peak and Downtown Denver Colorado skyscrapers

5th Most Educated: Colorado

Breaking away from the East Coast, the Rocky Mountain state rounds out the top five of America’s most educated states, ranking second in educational attainment, yet only 35th in quality of education. Colorado also placed first in the share of its population with an associate’s degree or other college experience, and second for the share of bachelor’s degree holders. Conversely, it placed third to last when it comes to average university quality.

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The Rotunda at the University of Virginia at dusk with Thomas Jefferson Statue in the foreground

6th Most Educated: Virginia

Virginia commonly earns above average marks for student achievement in biannual evaluations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise called “The Nation’s Report Card,” as reflected in WalletHub’s high ranking for the state as well. Some notable facts about their education system include that K-12 schools are operated by cities and counties rather than the state, and that they have one of the smaller racial gaps in high school graduation rates, thanks in part to having larger, city- to county-wide districts to mitigate funding disparities.

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Princeton University

7th Most Educated: New Jersey

Like Florida, this state may be a common punchline among some Americans, but New Jersey has the last laugh when it comes to education and earnings. As well as the nation’s second highest median household income, New Jersey was recognized in this study for having the fourth highest quality of education, 10th highest level of educational attainment, and the fourth highest percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees.

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Historic Portsmouth, New Hampshire

8th Most Educated: New Hampshire

According to WalletHub, New Hampshire has the fourth highest percentage of high school diploma holders, the sixth highest rate of educational attainment, and the 16th best quality of education. Home to a prestigious variety of both universities and university-preparatory schools, the Granite State ranks notably above average for rates of high school graduation and college education at 88.8 and 47.5% respectively.

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Minneapolis Minnesota

9th Most Educated: Minnesota

The first representative of the Midwest on this list, Minnesota made it into the top ten for having the eighth highest level of educational attainment and 18th highest quality of education. Also placing in the top five for rates of high school diploma and associate’s degree holders, the state frequently earns other distinctions for students’ performance on standardized tests and the literacy of its Twin Cities, owing to its robust slate of state universities and private liberal arts colleges.

Related: Best Colleges for Seniors in Every State

Cross of Pine street and the 3rd Ave in Seattle

10th Most Educated: Washington

And the West Coast breaks into the top 10 — just barely. In this study, Washington was ranked as 9th in educational attainment and 19th in education quality, with the third highest percentage of residents with an associate’s degree or other indeterminate college experience. Despite these positive outcomes, the Evergreen State ranked 39th on spending for education at $9,246 per K-12 public school student, according to data from 2016.

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Close Encounter

Least Educated: West Virginia

As 50th in educational attainment and 39th in education quality, West Virginia is the bottom of the barrel for education in America. Perhaps not coincidentally given the trends, it’s also among the poorest states, with the second lowest median household income of any state at $43,469. Sadly, the confluence of factors related to income and education contributes to the state’s subpar prospects in other critical economic areas such as employment, workforce education, and entrepreneurial activity.

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Jackson Mississippi Skyline

2nd Least Educated: Mississippi

It’s a common theme in national rankings that Mississippi will often place in or near last place, and education is no exception. With the absolute lowest median household income in the country, Mississippi also ranked in the bottom five for rates of residents with high school diplomas, associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate-degrees. The state is also home to the largest percentage of black Americans of any state in the union, and corporal punishments such as paddling remain a relatively common fixture in public schools to this day. 

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Gibson Hall Tulane University
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3rd Least Educated: Louisiana

Across the River, Louisiana also earns dismal marks for its educational attainment and quality, in the bottom five for percentage of high school diploma or secondary education degree holders of any kind. Yet again, this consistently below-average evaluation for the state’s schooling coincides with other worrisome demographic trends, such as exceptionally poor health outcomes and high rates of homicide and drug addiction. Despite all this, Louisiana is home to several nationally regarded universities, most notably Tulane in New Orleans. 

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City view of West Markham Street in Little Rock, Arkansas

4th Least Educated: Arkansas

Arkansas ranks 47th both overall and in educational attainment levels, but 31st in quality of education—so it’s got that going for it, which is (comparatively) nice. Despite recent decades’ notable strides in reform, the state’s public education history is fraught with underfunding and political meddling related to opposition to racial integration and evolution-based curricula, contributing to its lower population of high school and college graduates.

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Hargis Hall at Auburn University
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5th Least Educated: Alabama

Though education accounts for a fair share of its economic activity, Alabama still places in the bottom five of WalletHub’s rankings, as 45th in educational attainment and 41st in education quality. While the low rates of high school graduation and high rates of in-school corporal punishment hold true here as in neighboring states, Alabama also boasts several highly-ranked universities within its borders such as Auburn University and the University of Alabama. 

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William T. Young Library

6th Least Educated: Kentucky

Despite having the 14th highest quality of education according to this study, Kentucky still ranked in the bottom 10 given its low rates of educational attainment, with the fourth- and fifth-lowest share of associate’s and bachelor’s degree holders respectively. Interestingly, in 1990, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the state’s public school system was unconstitutional based on per-student spending disparities for poorer districts, sparking more than a decade of reform measures that, thus far, have failed to significantly elevate Kentucky’s nationwide educational standing.

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Black Wall Street and N Greenwood Avenue street signs - closeup - in Tulsa Oklahoma with bokeh background
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7th Least Educated: Oklahoma

Next up is Oklahoma, which was ranked 43rd for educational attainment and 36th for quality. It also spends the fourth least amount of any state per public school student, and ranks 48th in college participation for low income pupils, according to the Pell Institute. Some bright spots in their record include high investments in early childhood, pre-kindergarten education and the presence of tier 1 colleges like the University of Oklahoma and University of Tulsa.

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8th Least Educated: Nevada

As the worst educated state firmly outside the Southeast, Nevada ranks 44th for educational attainment and 24th for education quality. It’s also an outlier in the bottom 10 for its middle-of-the-pack ranking of 27th when it comes to median household income. This could have something to do with its public education expenditure of $9,417 per pupil, the nation’s eighth lowest. 

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Charleston south Carolina
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
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10th Least Educated: New Mexico

And capping off the bottom ten we have New Mexico, with the fifth lowest ranking of high school diploma holders and educational quality. Echoing other states’ fraught paths to reform, a state judge ruled in 2018 that New Mexico had failed to provide adequate schooling and thus violated the constitutional rights of at-risk students, calling upon the governor and legislature to draft a more equitable and functional system. 

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