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The results of a recent study conducted by WalletHub ranking the most and least educated cities in the country for 2023 were dismal for Hidalgo and Cameron counties, but local experts say that those results may not paint an accurate picture of the current state of the Rio Grande Valley.
The report, which was published on July 17, ranked the 150 largest metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, in the United States with the highest number of educated people. The information was collected using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, GreatSchools.org, GreatSchools.org – Education Equality Index, Yelp and WalletHub research.
The data collected included adults aged 25 and older with a high school diploma, some college experience, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, as well as quality of public school systems and a few others.
Based on those 11 key metrics, the report ranked the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA at 148 and the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA at 149 out of the 150 largest MSAs.
Furthermore, the report showed that the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA ranked 150 and the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA ranked 149 in the percent “of High School Diploma Holders” category as well as the percent “of Associate’s Degree Holders or College-Experienced Adults” category.
In the category of percent “of Bachelor’s Degree Holders,” the Brownsville-Harlingen MSA ranked 146. The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA was not in the top or bottom 10, and therefore was not listed.
While those results may seem troublesome, they may not be telling the full story.
Dr. Kevin M. Peek, professor of economics at South Texas College, said that while the data presented in the study is accurate, they tell an incomplete story of the state of the Rio Grande Valley and the direction that it is heading.
“So I do have some problems with this methodology, and I think two important adjustments would be first, it would compare our progress through the years in the different educational and socio-economic indicators that it uses rather than adopting a static comparison,” Peek said. “Second, it would adjust the age of the comparison group to better reflect recent trends in educational attainment.”
He explained that the percentage of individuals who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher in the United States is 29.1% while in Hidalgo County it is 19.5%. He said that over the last decade, that stat has only increased from 28.2% to 29.1% in the U.S., whereas Hidalgo County has seen an increase from 15.1% to 19.5% during that same timespan.
“In other words, the number of persons with a bachelor’s degree in the United States increased by … only 3% in the last 10 years,” Peek said. “But in Hidalgo County, it increased by 28% over the same time period. From this perspective, it was always on a much more favorable trajectory than the national average. And I can assure you that this applies to other major educational indicators.”
He said that the Valley has been in the process of a massive transformation over the previous 25 years, something that is not taken into account in the WalletHub report.
“One of the indicators of transformation is the level of education,” Peek said. “Unfortunately, if we compare the level of education of all persons over the age of 25 in the Valley as done in WalletHub study with all persons over the age of 25 and the rest of the country, this transformation that I just mentioned is not clearly seen.”
He added that the population in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA has boomed from 569,463 in 2000 to nearly 900,000 in 2020, of which 59% is under the age of 35. Another data point he shared is that the average household income for Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties has increased by 89%.
“Moreover, if you consider the premise of the underlying argument that people are reluctant to relocate to an area with minimal economic educational opportunities, well, that’s not us because our population has grown, the level of education has grown and economic growth and development has grown,” Peek said.
Mario Reyna, chair of the Hidalgo County Prosperity Task Force, explained that the Valley has a 46% negative migration, which means that the majority of individuals who are moving out of the area are those with higher education.
With the Prosperity Task Force, they are fighting to create more human capital while also attracting more businesses to the area in order to retain those highly educated individuals.
“I would say the progress that we have made throughout the last 25, 26 years is tremendous and we see nothing but good growth here in the valley for our population here in Hidalgo County,” Reyna said.
Jose Olivares, chair for South Texas College Business Administration Department and economics lecturer, said that he took particular issue with the methodology used to determine the rankings of the WalletHub report.
“Something that this study did that I find quite troubling is that they kind of bulk anybody without a bachelor’s degree into the same category,” Olivares said. “They do not take into account any certifications, associate’s degree or anything.”
He explained that many industries in the area are not seeking out individuals with four-year degrees, but rather individuals with particular certifications and associate’s degrees.
“It’s a longitudinal study of seeing how cohorts are better off as the years go by,” Olivares said. “You just don’t simply take a snapshot of regions and just compare them. That’s not going to tell you much about all the progress our region has done.”