By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; B01
Seattle has Microsoft. Boston has Harvard. San Jose is higher-tech, New York more cosmopolitan.
But the Washington region has something those cities do not: the best-educated population in the nation.
Almost half of adult Washington area residents have college diplomas, and better than one-fifth have graduate or professional degrees. By either measure, the region has the most educated population of any large metropolitan center.
A study recently released by the Brookings Institution affirms the region's educational primacy, based on 2008 Census data for the 100 largest metropolitan areas.
To demographers, this was no revelation. The area has ranked as the country's best-educated metropolis for at least four decades. The suburbs of Bethesda and Arlington County occasionally surface on lists of smartest cities.
But the area as a whole is not particularly known for erudition. The "best-educated" claim is more readily identified with other places: Seattle; Boston, the nation's first college town; and collegiate state capitals such as Austin and Madison, Wis.
"When you think about, 'Where are the smartest workers?', you don't think of the federal agencies," said Alan Berube, a senior fellow and research director at Brookings who wrote part of the study, which was released in May. "You think of Microsoft, you think of Silicon Valley, you think of MIT."
Washington's smarts are subsumed by its deeper identity as the seat of federal government. That image overshadows many demographic traits that might define another city.
If there is some confusion over the identity of the best-educated city, that's partly a matter of how "city" is defined. The District, exclusive of its suburbs, isn't quite so well-educated as either Seattle or San Francisco. Even Bethesda can stake a claim as smartest city, if smaller jurisdictions are included in the list.
But as a metropolitan area -- city and suburbs -- Washington is without peer. The District is surrounded by the five best-educated counties in the country, as measured in bachelor's degrees, a necklace of demographic pearls: Arlington, home to the Pentagon; Alexandria, the upscale Colonial city, classified by the census as its own county; Fairfax County, headquarters of Sallie Mae and the CIA; Howard County, with its massive Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; and Montgomery County, home to the National Institutes of Health. There are Washington suburbs where seemingly every neighbor is a doctor or lawyer, scientist or spy.
"I remember when I was knocking on doors as a candidate: You get to talking to somebody and find out they're an expert in their field," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D).
Urban neighborhoods teem with 20-somethings, fresh from graduate school and drawn to the quintessential white-collar city.
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.