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Washington region ranks as the best-educated in the country
Washington and other educated cities are caught in a decades-long demographic "upward spiral," building an ever-greater concentration of educational attainment. The share of adults with bachelor's degrees in the metropolitan Washington area rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 22 percent in 1970, Berube said. San Francisco and Seattle have plotted similar gains. Those cities draw talent from less-educated cities, where demographic progress has stalled.
"To put it crudely, Washington, D.C., is parasitic on the rest of the country," said Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California. "Most of those people were educated somewhere else."
Consider Matt Drury. The Syracuse, N.Y., native completed a master's in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh last spring. He would have been a welcome addition to the labor market in Pittsburgh, where 28.7 percent of adults hold bachelor's degrees. But he moved to the Washington area to join an environmental consulting firm that contracts with the federal government. He lives in Tysons Corner and works in Chantilly.
"It came down to choosing whether to stay in Pittsburgh or go to D.C.," said Drury, 24. "And basically, the job opportunity was better in D.C."
Washington's economy is distinctive not just for what it includes -- government -- but for what it lacks, "like a big industrial base or a shipyard," Berube said.
While rival cities such as Seattle and Boston have vast numbers of well-educated adults, they also have an industrial heritage and a "concentration of jobs, that are good jobs, that don't require a bachelor's degree," Berube said.
Washington has no industrial anchor. It is the archetypal professional town, with few jobs in factories or warehouses.
Washington is also a college town. The District has 81 college students for every 1,000 residents, according to a 2009 study, a collegiate concentration comparable to that of Boston.
That was a draw for Cara Scharf, 25, who relocated to the area from Philadelphia with her boyfriend after college to work as an administrative coordinator at a small nonprofit. She lives in Adams Morgan.
"One of the things that everybody told me was, this is kind of a hot destination for people who have just graduated," she said.