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Talent in Virginia: Where is it coming from and where is it going?

Looking further than Educational Attainment

When viewing regional profiles, it is typical to see statistics for educational attainment – the highest level of education obtained by a person currently living in an area – as the predominant metric for talent. This is commonly depicted as the percent of the population with a college degree (bachelor’s degree or higher). Talent is key to a region’s economic wellbeing and development but unfortunately, it is often said that talented youth is among the largest exports in many areas of rural Virginia. This trend is not unique to Virginia, but is omnipresent across all rural areas in the U.S.

However, talent can also be measured by an area’s capacity to build its workforce through degree and certificate completions. Looking closely at the number and type of degree and certification completions in conjunction with the workforce needs of the area can help regions plan more carefully to ensure their residents have the right skills to meet the area’s workforce needs rather than relying on outside talent (this is particularly important as migration is declining).

Figure1: Educational Attainment in Virginia

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

Educational Attainment 

Educational attainment (figure 1) is a long-term indicator of the investment that a state or region has made in both developing and attracting human capital. In Virginia, about 90 percent of its residents have at least a high school degree, which is on par with the national average. However, when it comes to the number of individuals with more than a high school degree, Virginia is well above average – 38.7 percent of the population age 25 and over earned more than a bachelor’s degree in 2017, compared to 35 percent in the U.S. as a whole.

Within Virginia, educational attainment varies significantly by region. In Northern Virginia, just over half the population has earned a college degree, which is one of the reasons why Amazon decided to move to the area. The second highest region, Central Virginia, is more than 15 percentage points lower, with just over one in three residents having a bachelor’s degree or higher. In both Southwest and Southside Virginia, 15 percent of the population has a college degree, which is less than one in six residents.

College graduates are mostly concentrated in urban areas, whereas in the more rural areas of the southern and western portions of the state, residents have lower educational attainment. The reason for the division began many years ago but continues into the modern day. In the early days of the Commonwealth, timber, textiles, mining, and agriculture provided the citizens of rural Virginia with a comfortable living; higher education was not a necessity. Today, however, many of these industries are on the decline and the current population, which is aging, is less likely to have earned the level of education necessary for the changing job market.

Increasing a region’s educational attainment levels has gained attention as a proactive economic development strategy.  Many executives cite local workforce skills as an important factor in making company location and relocation decisions. Also, higher educational attainment typically leads to higher income levels, increasing both personal wellbeing and the local tax base.

Educational Awards

The number of educational credentials (degrees and certifications) awarded in a region is key to growing educational attainment and building a talent pool, contributing to the quality of the workforce and its earnings potential. The number of degrees and certificates awarded by a higher education institution is a measure of educational completion and is an indicator of the investment that a state or region has made in developing human capital.

Figure 2: Educational Completions in Virginia

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

The regions outside Northern Virginia produce significantly more total credentials (degrees and certifications) when adjusted for population. Schools in the West Central region awarded nearly 4,800 degrees or other credentials per 100,000 residents, growth of nearly 100 percent in the past 10 years. The Valley has large numbers as well, with a rate of about 2,400. However, Northern Virginia awarded around only 860 credentials per 100,000 residents, the second lowest rate in the state.  When looking specifically at the rate of Bachelor’s degrees earned, the number of awards mirrors this trend, with West Central and the Valley producing the greatest numbers.

However, the story is a bit different when it comes to the number of certifications awarded. In 2017, Virginia as a whole awarded just over 20,000 certifications (classified as awards of less than 4 academic years, not including associate’s degrees) with rates being highest in the rural areas of the state. Southside’s certification rate was highest with 416 graduates per 100,000 residents. Southwest Virginia was not far behind, awarding nearly 400 certifications per 100,000 residents.

Educational Awards by Student Origin in Virginia

An alternative view of educational awards is to examine graduates by their region of origin. The number and type of degrees earned by native Virginians at Virginia schools by their origin – or hometown – provides a picture of where students are from as opposed to where they obtain their degree.

Figure 3: Educational Completions by Student Origin

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), LD05: Total Degrees Awarded, by Student Origin

In 2017, Southside had the most students obtaining a degree or certificate in Virginia at 1,081 per 100,000 residents.  Students from the Southside region earned the most certifications (530) and associate’s degrees (389). The Northern region had the fewest certifications (143) and the Central region had the fewest number of associate’s degrees (118).  Conversely, the Northern region earned the most bachelor’s degrees per 100,000 residents (514), while the Southwest region had the fewest (183).


Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly the flow of students around the state – from hometown to college to career – a few broad observations can be made.

  • Students from all regions of Virginia earn educational credentials at a relatively high rate. Northern Virginia may source the bulk of students with bachelor’s degrees in Virginia, but students from the Southside and Southwest regions earn more certifications and associate’s degrees. Residents from rural areas of the state may not have the financial resources, familiarity with the college process, or proximity to major Universities, to acquire a bachelor’s degree at the rate of Northern Virginia; however, they are building valuable talent and gaining labor market value. Credentials lower than bachelor’s degrees are critical in filling many “middle skills” jobs, which are well paying and in high need.
  • The West Central and the Valley regions are the education powerhouses of Virginia, producing the greatest number of graduates per capita. This is due to the number of large universities in those regions. Students come from around the state and the country to attend these schools which is an indicator of the quality of the state’s K-12 and higher education resources. However, based on educational attainment data, these students are not sticking around.
  • It is apparent that the rural regions of Virginia are producing graduates, yet where are they going? The answer seems to be to Northern Virginia and other urban areas of Virginia based on the educational attainment data. The large number of graduating students from areas such as Southwest Virginia and Southside is promising; however, the degree to which these students return to these regions is small. Much of south and southwest Virginia are seeing population decline through aging and outmigration. An important factor in developing talent in parts of rural Virginia is to motivate and enable residents to return to their hometowns after graduation.

It is not an easy task to get graduates to stay in their college towns or return to where they grew up. Studies show that many would want to live in rural areas, but can’t afford to do so. Many carry student debt and have to move to cities where they can work in higher paying jobs. There are many efforts underway to increase talent retention: expanded broadband, increased amenities, revitalization of small towns, and other programs. With urban areas facing affordability issues, the expansion of telework and broadband capability, and the growing desire to live in small towns, the rural areas of Virginia may soon become the place to get an education and stay for a while.