Exclusive: South Carolina Metro Areas Gain in Educational Attainment

Richard Breen

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Brain drain? How about a “brain gain?”

South Carolina’s workforce is becoming a more educated one – particularly in coastal communities.

The State Science & Technology Institute recently examined U.S. Census Data for the 150 largest metro areas. It found that Charleston’s share of the total population with at least a bachelor’s degree grew by 5.5 percentage points between 2007-17, one of the healthiest growth rates in the nation.

“That brain gain is setting us up really nicely,” said Steve Dykes, Charleston County Economic Development director.

Dykes said educational attainment levels are closely linked to economic development in a community such as his, which recruits a mixture of industries from life sciences to automotive manufacturing. It goes beyond bachelor’s degrees, to promoting apprenticeships, training centers and technical colleges.

“It’s really kind of a full-on approach down here to keep this pipeline flowing,” he said.

The Myrtle Beach area was also strong, growing by 3.9 percentage points over the 10-year period. The Savannah, Georgia, metro, which borders the Palmetto State, grew by 4.9 percentage points.

Growth for other S.C. metros included Columbia (2.6 percentage points) and Greenville (2.2 percentage points). The Augusta, Georgia, metro grew by 2.8 percentage points and the Charlotte metro grew by 2.7 percentage points.

The most rapid growth in the U.S. occurred in nearby Asheville, which grew by 6.9 percentage points – more than double the typical 3.2 percentage point increase seen nationally. As of 2017, 34.1 percent of Asheville’s population had at least a bachelor’s degree.

Overall, Charleston has the largest proportion in South Carolina of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree, at 34.1 percent. Columbia is next at 31.9 percent, followed by Greenville (27.8 percent) and Myrtle Beach (24.5 percent).

Dykes said an influx of new residents is helping his community.

“We know that we are getting upwards of 28 people a day,” he said. “Sixty-three percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.”

Rates in border metros include 33.9 percent in Charlotte, 31.1 percent in Savannah and 24.9 percent in Augusta. Among the top 150 metro areas, Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage of people with at least a bachelor’s degree (49.9).

Beyond the top 150 metros, Boulder, Colorado, which is home to the University of Colorado, had the highest share of its population with at least a bachelor’s degree, at 60.4 percent.

Pickens County is home to Clemson University, which provides a constant flow of graduates with bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Ray Farley, executive director of Alliance Pickens, said education and economic development rely on one another.

“Education helps support economic development and economic development helps to fuel better education,” he said. “We’re both feeding off of each other.”

Farley added that specific skill sets – particularly those in science, technology, engineering and math – are often more important than simply possessing a degree.

“If the marketplace is demanding a skill, the marketplace doesn’t care whether that skill comes from an 18-year-old or an 80-year-old,” he said.

In Charleston, local university presidents are partnering to address the workforce development imperative, according to Dykes. So are school district heads and others in the educational establishment.

“We’ve got everybody on the same page,” Dykes said. “I’ve never been more upbeat about where we are, as far as our competitive posture.”