With its abundant outdoor attractions, Chattanooga boosters brag that the Scenic City could become "the Boulder of the East."
But not when it comes to brains, perhaps. In a ranking of how smart people are in America's biggest metro areas, Boulder, Colo., ranks No. 1, and Chattanooga is near the bottom.
"Boulder is a very different environment as a smaller university town, and it's certainly not an industrial city like Chattanooga," said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who has a son who once lived in Boulder. "Every city that has an industrial heritage like Chattanooga will have a challenge in education."
Census data indicate more than three-fourths of those living in the six-county Chattanooga area don't have a four-year college degree, and nearly 17 percent of the adult population doesn't even have a high school diploma.
1. Boulder, Colo.
2. Ann Arbor, Mich.
3. Washington, D.C.
4. Durham, N.C.
5. Fort Collins, Colo.
Smartest cities in Mid-south
32. Lexington, Ky.
38. Huntsville, Ala.
187. Kingsport, Tenn.
TALE OF TWO CITIES
17 percent Adults who dropped out before high school graduation.
30.4 percent Adults who stopped their education at high school diploma.
30.1 percent Adults who attended college or earned a associate's degree but stopped without a four-year degree.
15.1 percent Adults who stopped education with bachelor's degree.
7.4 percent Adults who earned graduate or professional degree.
Metro Boulder, Colo.
6.2 percent Adults who dropped out before high school graduation.
11.3 percent Adults who stopped their education at high school diploma.
24.6 percent Adults who attended college or earned an associate's degree but stopped without a four-year degree.
32 percent Adults who stopped education with bachelor's degree.
26 percent Adults who earned graduate or professional degree.
Three times as many Boulder adults have graduate or professional degrees than the 7.4 percent share in metro Chattanooga, according to an analysis of census data by Portfolio.com, an online business publication. And more than twice as many adults have college degrees in Boulder than Chattanooga.
Metro Chattanooga includes nearly half a million people in Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and in Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia.
The Boulder metro area comprises fewer than half as many people, all of whom live in Boulder County, Colo.
Despite recent gains in Hamilton County high school graduation rates, metropolitan Chattanooga ranked 156th among the 200 top U.S. metro cities for educational achievement, Portfolio.com said. In the ranking of educational attainment, Chattanooga trailed most other major metro areas in the Mid-South.
"The study's objective was to identify markets that have the highest levels of collective brainpower, as indicated by their residents' educational attainment," said G. Scott Thomas, who wrote the report titled "Brain Bounty or Brain Bested?"
MORE EDUCATION, MORE EARNINGS
Lack of education can be a major drawback to worker earnings, according to census data.
Government figures show that a worker with an advanced college degree will earn 31 percent more than a worker with only a bachelor's degree and 128 percent more than someone who never went beyond high school.
"The higher your education, the more you earn — plain and simple," said Alan Richard, director of communication for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit organization that works with 16 Southern states to improve public education. "Increasingly, today's jobs require higher levels of training and skills than ever before."
In 1970, for instance, 26 percent of middle-class Americans had some college. Today, 61 percent of those considered middle class have at least some college training, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
Gov.-elect Bill Haslam said Tennessee needs to improve its residents' educational attainment. Last year an estimated 28,000 students dropped out of Tennessee high schools, the equivalent of nearly four school buses for every day of school, Haslam said.
"We need to do better, and I'm committed to helping us try to do better," Haslam said.
He cited the focus on education by Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey as one of the reasons he picked Ramsey to be his deputy.
Ramsey said he "is passionate about education" and speaks frequently with students, parents and community leaders about the need for students to stay in school.
"I'll always tell people that we've got to have an educated, trainable work force," he said.
Tennessee already is showing the most progress of any state in cutting high school dropout rates. A recent report by America's Promise Alliance, a national children's advocacy group, showed Tennessee's high school graduation rate rose from 59.6 percent in 2002 to 74.9 percent in 2008.
ROOM TO IMPROVE
But a report to be released today by the Southern Regional Education Board said only 22 percent of adult Tennesseans have bachelor's degrees, compared with the U.S. average of 27 percent.
Georgia's college graduation rate matched the U.S. average, the report showed.
Richard said Tennessee's new reimbursement to colleges for graduation rates, not just student enrollment, should help boost college completion.
"By any measure, Tennessee's progress is remarkable, and the challenge is to keep raising high school graduation to overcome some of the historic gaps among Southern states to help more students prepare for college and the jobs of the 21st century," Richard said.