- An estimated 38% of Tennesseans age 25+ had at least an associate’s degree last year, and 31% had a bachelor’s or more – both higher than past years but lower than the national rate.
- Some differences in post-secondary education rates among white, black, and Hispanic Tennesseans are shrinking, but significant gaps remain.
- Over the last decade, median earnings have grown for Tennesseans at every level of education after adjusting for inflation.
The U.S. Census Bureau released new data in September on income, poverty, education, and health insurance coverage in 2021. These metrics paint a picture of the social and economic circumstances across America.
Here’s what stands out from the estimates of Tennesseans’ education levels in 2021.
Education Levels in Tennessee
Tennessee’s recent upward trend in the share of residents with post-secondary degrees continued into 2021, though it remains lower than the national rate. The majority of Tennesseans have at least some college (Figure 1) but most do not have a post-secondary degree (Figure 2).
An estimated 38.2% of Tennesseans 25 and older had at least an associate’s degree last year, and 30.5% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Both metrics have risen in recent years (Figure 3). (1) Meanwhile, state policymakers have also sought to increase the number of Tennesseans with technical degrees and certifications. However, the American Community Survey does not collect information on those credentials.
Demographic and Geographic Variation
Some differences in post-secondary education rates by race and ethnicity are shrinking, but significant gaps remain (Figure 3).[i] (1) From 2015 to 2021, the share of Tennesseans with at least a bachelor’s increased the most among Hispanics (up 6.9 percentage points), followed by white residents (up 5.3 points), and then black residents (up 3.8 points). Despite this progress, 20% of Hispanics and 22% of black Tennesseans had a bachelor’s or higher, compared to 32% of white residents.
Rates of post-secondary education in Tennessee also vary by geography. The Census Bureau’s September data release also includes 2021 estimates for counties with populations above 65,000. Among the 20 Tennessee counties with available data:
- Associate’s Degree or More — The share of adults 25 and older with at least an associate’s degree ranged from 69.5% in Williamson County to 26.7% in Greene County (Figure 4). The share increased in Shelby County. Due to the margins of error, the difference in all other 2019 and 2021 estimates is not statistically significant. (1)
- Bachelor’s Degree or More — Residents with bachelor’s degrees or more varied from 62.0% in Williamson County to 19.2% in Sevier County (Figure 5). Four counties saw a statistically significant increase from 2019: Anderson, Knox, Rutherford, and Shelby. (1)
See Table A1 in the Appendix for complete 2019-2021 county data.
Education and Earnings in Tennessee
Higher levels of education continue to be associated with higher earnings in Tennessee (Figure 6). In 2021, for example, Tennesseans with just a bachelor’s degree had median earnings of about $53,000. In other words, half of the people in that group made more and half earned less. For comparison, median earnings were 37% lower for Tennesseans with only some college or an associate’s degree — about $39,000.
Over the last decade, median earnings have grown for Tennesseans at every level of education (Figure 6). (1) (3) After adjusting for inflation, the greatest increase occurred for earnings of those with a high school diploma, which were 9% higher in 2021 than in 2010. Earnings grew more slowly for those with some college or an associate’s degree – up 4% – and those with a bachelor’s degree or with a graduate or professional degree – up 3% and 5% respectively.