Most college grads: Where Metro Detroit ranks

Detroit area’s proportion of college graduates ranks relatively low on list of large metros

Wayne State University to announce plans for fall semester amid pandemic
Wayne State University to announce plans for fall semester amid pandemic

DETROIT – In Metro Detroit, 32.4% of adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 33.1%.

That means out of all large U.S. metropolitan areas (53 of them), Metro Detroit has the 12th smallest proportion of college graduates, or 42nd out of 53.

The data

That’s according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. HireAHelper helped analyze the latest data to collect these statistics on America’s college graduates proportion per metropolitan areas.

Only metropolitan areas with at least 100,000 people were included in the analysis. Moreover, metro areas were grouped into the following cohorts based on population size:

  • Small metros: 100,000–349,999
  • Midsize metros: 350,000–999,999
  • Large metros: 1,000,000 or more

Here is a summary of the data for the large Detroit-Warren-Dearborn metro area compared with the national average:

While there are less Metro Detroiters with college year degrees than the national average, those with a degree are making more money than the national average.

Conversely, Metro Detroiters with only a high school education are making less money than the national average, albeit slightly less at $31,223 compared to $31,956.

College graduation rate increasing

Other data show college graduates tend to have higher lifetime earnings, more job opportunities, and better economic stability. The proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher has steadily increased over time, and according to Census Bureau data, currently stands at just more than one-third. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many potential two-year college enrollees to rethink their plans and hold off on college, enrollment in four-year institutions has actually increased slightly.

The proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 13 percentage points since 1995 when less than one in four adults had a college degree. In 2014, women surpassed men in college degree attainment, and that gap has continued to widen since then. In 2019, 36.6% of adult women had college degrees compared to 35.4% of men.

The data show overall enrollment in four-year institutions increased in 2020 compared to 2019, due only to increases in female enrollment. The number of men who enrolled in four-year colleges fell by 1.2%.

Here are the large metros with the largest proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher:

  1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA -- 52.7%
  2. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA -- 51.4%
  3. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV -- 51.4%
  4. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH -- 49.3%
  5. Raleigh-Cary, NC -- 48%
  6. Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, TX -- 46.2%
  7. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO -- 45.8%
  8. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA -- 44.1%
  9. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI -- 43.2%
  10. Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD -- 41.9%


41. Jacksonville, FL -- 32.5%

42. Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI -- 32.4%

43. New Orleans-Metairie, LA -- 32.3%

Ann Arbor rules midsize metros

It’s no surprise that the city of Ann Arbor (which is NOT considered part of Metro Detroit, to be clear) leads all midsize metros with a 55.9% proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. We’ve got some smarty pants over there in Washtenaw County. In fact, Ann Arbor’s proportion ranks it at No. 3 overall when all metros are pooled together, regardless of size.

The Lansing-East Lansing metro also made the list, ranking at No. 28 in the midsize metros category with a 34.1% proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo-Portage metro ranks 26th on the list of small metros with a 38.3% proportion. Obviously these are all college towns, so again that’s no surprise.

Annual Michigan college graduates

According to data from 2018, about 114,910 college students graduate annually in Michigan.

  • 26,780 or 23.3% of graduates have associate’s degrees.
  • 60,710 or 52.8% graduate with bachelor’s degrees each year.
  • 21,630 or 18.8% graduate with master’s degrees.
  • 5,790 or 5% graduate with doctorate or professional degrees.
  • Among disciplines, bachelor’s and master’s program graduates are most likely to have degrees in business.
  • 79.3% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate from public institutions.

How this ranks nationally:

Data source:

High school graduation rates note

A U.S. News report from April 2021 showed state of Michigan had an average high school graduation rate of 89% in 2019, ranking it 26th nationally, and slightly above the national average.

The high school graduation rate in the U.S. was 88% for the 2018-2019 academic year. State graduation rates ranged from an average of 75% to 94%.

View: High School Graduation Rates By State

What this means

A 2016 report from Bloomberg pointed out that a place like Metro Detroit does relatively well in retaining Michigan college graduates thanks to large nearby universities -- the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the rest of the large public universities in Michigan that attract Metro Detroit natives. A significant amount of them (70% according to 2016 data) stick around in Metro Detroit.

Michigan has a wealth of universities, yes, but the state appears not to be retaining out-of-state students who attend these universities or attracting graduates from out-of-state colleges and universities. Specifically, the state loses top talent graduates to the south and southwest, according to another 2016 report that pointed to a decades-long trend -- something you don’t need to tell native Metro Detroiters who have witnessed it with our own eyes.

The bottom line is large companies -- such as Amazon who skipped over the Detroit region during its decision on a 2nd headquarter -- will look for places with strong pools of college graduates and talent. Metro Detroit lost its bid for the Amazon HQ2 in 2018 reportedly due to this lacking talent pool. Dan Gilbert, however, said that was not the case.

Amazon ended up choosing Crystal City, a neighborhood in Arlington, Va., which is part of the Washington–Arlington–Alexandria metro area, for its H2Q campus. That metro has a college graduate population proportion of 51.4%, second place on the large metros list. A second Amazon H2Q campus was planned for Long Island City in Queens, N.Y.

Whatever was the case for Amazon’s Metro Detroit snub, the proportion of college graduates in a region remains super important to the region’s economy, making this a key data set that we’ll want to pay close attention to.


About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.