Is a College Degree Worth the Cost? Neighborhood Data on the MAP

Alan Hoogasian, Research Economist

It will come as no surprise to regular MAP Dashboard visitors that the Tucson Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) does comparatively well when it comes to four-year college attainment. In fact, in 2016 the Tucson MSA outpaced the U.S., and many peer MSAs such as Phoenix, San Antonio, and Las Vegas, with 30.8% of the population age 25 and older in possession of a bachelor’s degree or higher. What may come as a surprise however, is that in terms of median household income, the Tucson MSA does worse than all of the MAP peer MSAs, with the exception of El Paso. While the presence of college graduates can positively impact the wages of even non-graduates, the demographic breakout of the population in the Tucson MSA sheds some light on why incomes are lower despite the high college attainment rate.

Educational attainment rates broken out by age group illustrate that high college attainment rates in the Tucson MSA are driven by the population over 65. The MAP indicator Working Age College Graduates illustrates that the Tucson MSA lags behind the U.S. in working age college graduates, which represents the percent of the population ages 25-64 that has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Perhaps more worrisome is the fact that the percent of working age college graduates in Tucson has not grown much since 2009, increasing by only 0.3 percentage points to 29.6% in 2016. By comparison, the percent of working age college graduates in the U.S. and Arizona have grown by 2.3 and 1.6 percentage points, respectively. The college attainment rate for the population 65 and over in the Tucson MSA was considerably higher at 34.0% in 2016. For more information on educational attainment by age click here.

As noted in our previous article on education and income, earnings by college graduates over a lifetime can outpace high school graduates by 70%. Providing access to educational opportunities in the Tucson MSA for the next generation will be key to ensuring that the benefits of an education are available to future residents. The next generation of working age college graduates will face additional challenges such as ballooning tuition prices and crushing student loan debt, as well as disappearing middle class jobs.[1] While these challenges can impact a graduate's ability to consume and spend like their parents, or become home owners, getting an education still seems a worthwhile risk. For example, a recent report by the Milken Institute found that adding a year of college attainment can boost real wages per worker for a region by 17.8%.

The map below displays educational attainment and various measures of income such as household and per capita income by Census Tract for the Tucson MSA (Pima County). Use the map to explore your neighborhood. Not sure which tracts make up your neighborhood? No problem, just click the “Draw Rectangle” tool in the sidebar and select your neighborhood. Results will be displayed below menu.

1. Secondary research has documented and termed this phenomenon “polarization” of the of the labor market into low and high wage jobs. For more information see David, H., Katz, L. F., & Kearney, M. S. (2006). The polarization of the US labor market (No. w11986). National Bureau of Economic Research.