By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:48 PM
The stereotype is true: Washington is packed with lawyers, journalists and policy nerds with degrees in soft sciences and the humanities. But census data reveal remarkable new detail on the region's other identity - as home to engineers, computer scientists and biologists who mostly live and work beyond the Capital Beltway.
The picture that emerges from the 2009 American Community Survey, released last month, is of a Washington area unified in academic achievement yet diverse in the kinds of degrees residents have attained. Clusters of academic interest help define the character of each community.
The driving force is a job market that concentrates people with similar skills. Loudoun County, with its military contractors, has computer scientists and statisticians. Montgomery County, home to the National Institutes of Health and a bustling biotech industry, is heavy on the life sciences. Fairfax County's high-tech industries have attracted many engineers. Prince George's County, meanwhile, has become something of a bedroom community for the region's teachers, with a surplus of education degrees.
"The Washington [area] economy isn't monolithic. It's a real economy," said Stephen Fuller, a public policy scholar at George Mason University.
The data, drawn from questionnaires, underscore the academic primacy of the Washington area: 47 percent of adults - or nearly 2 million - hold bachelor's degrees, the highest rate among the nation's large urban areas. Six of the 10 best-educated U.S. counties are within commuting distance of the District.
Half of all degrees in the region are in natural and social sciences, well above the national average, under a broad Census Bureau definition of "science" that includes everything from nuclear physics to sociology. That's a starting point for looking at variations within the region: So-called hard sciences reign beyond the Beltway, soft ones within.
D.C. is indeed the center of the universe for political scientists, and economists fill jobs at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the World Bank. Many lawyers and lobbyists have social science training. And then there are the legions of political interns and pages, working their way up Capitol Hill.
In the inner suburbs of Arlington County and Alexandria, one-fifth of college degrees come in the social sciences, an academic pedigree similar to the District's.
"Everybody listens to NPR. Everybody reads four or five newspapers," Mike Panetta, a former political science major at American University who serves as shadow U.S. representative for the District, said of the city. "You can be at any sort of party, and somebody's talking about recent strife in some corner of the room, and everybody's heard about it, and everybody has an opinion about it."
The sprawling bedroom communities outside the Beltway have higher-than-average percentages of adults educated in the hard sciences, including math and engineering.
They feed distinct regional economies: federal science and research agencies in suburban Maryland; defense contractors and technology firms in Northern Virginia.
"The culture of those workers is so different," Fuller said.
So is the mix of academic degrees. In Howard County, 13 percent of degrees are in engineering. In Montgomery, 9 percent of degrees are in biology and environmental science. In Loudoun, 10 percent of degrees are in math, computers or statistics. All of the totals exceed national averages.
"I might be at an event serving meals to senior citizens, only to find out that the guy washing dishes next to me is an attorney at the defense department or a senior fellow at one of the think tanks, or something," said Tom Donegan, a real estate agent in the Dulles area.
Helene Winters works at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, a massive research-and-development complex where two-thirds of the 4,600 employees are engineers or scientists. She holds a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's in systems engineering, and she lives in the Howard community of Scaggsville, surrounded by science.
"You can just see it when you go to volunteer at the school," she said. "There are always lots of people from Goddard," the NASA space flight center in Greenbelt.
Many of her colleagues have pilot's licenses. "There are people who build their own rockets," she said.
Business is the most common academic major in the nation, representing one-fifth of all college degrees. And business ranks second among academic majors in the Washington area, but it's a distant second, representing 11 percent of the college-educated population.
Literature and languages rank third. Liberal arts and history rank fourth.
The data show "that D.C. is less business-focused than the country as a whole," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
There is no lack of big business in greater Washington. But the corporate towers have risen mostly in the suburbs. Several suburban counties, including Loudoun, Prince William and Prince George's, have relatively large shares of business degrees.
Prince George's, alone among the area's core suburban counties, has a higher share of women (30 percent) than men (28 percent) with college degrees. Its academic mix mirrors the nation's, with business and education as the leading fields. A concentration of computer and math graduates bespeaks the proximity of Fort Meade and the National Security Agency in Anne Arundel County.
Prince George's and Prince William "are alike in many ways: less-expensive housing, more middle-income people" compared with the region's wealthiest counties, Fuller said.
The Washington area is not entirely dominated by techies and wonks. Nearly one-third of all college degrees in the District are in arts and humanities, including visual and performing arts and communications. Those fields are more common in the District than in its suburbs or the nation as a whole.
Liberal arts majors tend to flock to Washington to work at nonprofit organizations and in socially oriented government agencies - and to partake of local culture.
"There's museums. There's art galleries. There's music performances," said John Sides, an assistant professor at George Washington University and one of 52,000 Washingtonians with social science degrees. "There's just a lot of opportunities you're going to have in these cities that you're not going to have anywhere else."