The Stark Education Divide Between ‘Atlanna’ and ‘Notlanna’

Probably the biggest question spawned by the ever-widening divide between the two Georgias is, simply, how did this happen? What forces set in motion the economic deterioration that has seen so much of rural Georgia fall into the nation’s bottom ranks for per capita income and poverty?

It’s a complicated question, of course. A big part of the answer rests with the mechanization of agriculture and the loss of manufacturing jobs throughout rural and small-town Georgia. But I have come to believe that an even bigger part of the answer lies in what can only be viewed as the failure of Georgia’s education system.

The education metric I pay the most attention to is educational achievement. These are estimates generated over the past half-century by the U.S. Census Bureau of the percentages of local adult populations that: A) never finished high school; B) earned their high school diploma but went no further; C) got at least some college education and perhaps a technical degree, and D) earned at least a four-year college degree. I figure it’s a fair proxy for both the effectiveness of the local education system and the overall capability of the local workforce. To analyze the most recent data, I’ve developed what I call the Trouble in God’s Country Educational Achievement Index—the TIGC EA Index, for short. That index is based on an equation that awards a county -1 point for each percentage point of its adult population that didn’t finish high school; 1 point for each percentage that got its high school diploma; 2 points for each percentage that earned at least some college credits, and 3 points for each percentage that graduated from a four-year college. I like this approach because I can use it to score and rank just about all the counties in the country and then sort them into groups—quartiles, in most cases. It gives me a good snapshot of how Georgia stacks up against other states in various categories.

In last week’s look at economic performance, I focused on our hypothetical Great State of South Georgia, the 88 counties from the gnat line south. Today, I’m shifting focus and comparing my 12-county TIGC Metro Atlanta region (which I now call “Atlanna”) with Georgia’s other 147 counties (“Notlanna”). This gives us the best illustration I’ve found so far of the extent of the divide between the Atlanta area and the rest of the state.  

Bottom line: If “Atlanna” were a state unto itself, it would have the second-highest TIGC Educational Attainment Index in the country, a little behind Colorado and just barely ahead of Massachusetts. If “Notlanna” were a state, it would have the second lowest score, worse than Mississippi but a little better than West Virginia.  

It’s based on these results that I’ve decided we should quit worrying about the “two Georgias” and just accept the fact that we’re the new state of “Massassippi”: Our best-educated 12 counties in Metro Atlanta are better educated than Massachusetts, and the other 147 counties combined are more poorly educated than Mississippi.

Overall, 86 of Georgia’s 159 counties are in the bottom national quartile, as measured by my TIGC EA Index, and some 1.1 million adult Georgians live in those bottom quartile counties.  Only Texas and California, with populations three and four times the size of Georgia’s, have more adults living in their bottom quartile counties.  

A final datapoint: The 86 Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile are home to 50,000 more high school dropouts than college graduates. As we’ll detail in a future report, that level of educational failure comes with a high price tag.