Monroe County's rate of adults with college degrees is better than the national and state averages, as the number has tripled in the U.S. in the past 40 years, a new study reports.
In 2010, 29 percent of adults age 25 and older in the Florida Keys had completed college. In 1970, the figure was 9 percent.
The national average in 2010, when the U.S. Census released its data, was 28 percent. Florida's college-educated rate is 26 percent.
At issue for the researchers is how rural areas are measuring up to the country's urban centers.
They aren't, according to the report released this week by Robert Gallardo, an associate professor at Mississippi State's Southern Rural Development Center, and Bill Bishop, editor of the online news site DailyYonder.com.
Rural areas in the U.S. are lagging behind urban cities by almost 2-to-1, having risen just a bump since 2000. Small cities also have a higher rate of college-degree holding adults than rural areas.
"There's just a straight line connection between education and income," said Bishop, a journalist in Austin, Texas, over the phone Thursday. "A lot of this is, who do you want to attract? Who is moving into the community?" Austin's tourism industry is growing, said Bishop, noting the comparison to the Florida Keys.
"So the new job creation is waiters and bed-makers, cooks and bartenders," Bishop said. "They also don't pay well."
Keeping college graduates in rural places such as the Florida Keys is a national problem that is enduring, the researchers found.
"One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people often have to leave," Judith Stallmann, an economist at the University of Missouri, told Gallardo. "Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left."
Rural areas, however, have caught up with the rest of the nation when it comes to another educational milestone: the high school diploma or its equivalent.
In 1970, about 8 percent of adults in rural counties had some education after high school, but less than a college degree.
That rate had increased to 27 percent by 2010. The national average was 28 percent.
In 1970, 11 percent of adults in the Keys had taken some college classes. The rate jumped to 32 percent by 2010, while Florida's average was 29 percent.
The study doesn't take into account the Florida Keys' population growth over the past 40 years.
In 1970, the Keys had 28,000 adults age 24 and over.
These days Monroe County's nearly 30,000 households include 56,600 adults age 25 and older, according to the 2010 Census data.
More than 16,200 adults that age are high school graduates, or 29 percent, while 19 percent, or 10,600, have a bachelor's degree.
About 10 percent of adults, or 5,600, have graduate or professional degrees.
Just over 9 percent, or 5,179 adults, have an associate degree.
Unless one enrolls in online courses or commutes to the mainland, the associate degree is the highest degree available in the Keys, and only from Florida Keys Community College on Stock Island.
Monroe County's adults 25 and over include 3,800 who attended grades 9-12 but didn't finish, and 1,946 adults who have less than a ninth-grade education.
Overall, Stallmann says, the trends show that "rural people have responded to the demand for increased job skills by the increasing their post secondary education."