The Washington region gained ground in its claim as the most highly educated metropolitan area in the nation, with local jurisdictions now taking the top four spots in the country for the percentage of their population that has a bachelor's degree or higher.

Arlington County, Howard counties, Alexandria and Fairfax County rank No. 1 through 4, respectively, as the jurisdictions that have the most highly educated populations, according to new census numbers. Arlington's lead is commanding -- seven out of 10 residents at least 25 years old have a bachelor's degree or higher. The other three jurisdictions hover around six in 10 residents who have at least a bachelor's degree.

Montgomery and Loudoun counties also rank in the nation's top 10, with a bachelor's degree held by 57 percent of Montgomery's residents and 56 percent of Loudoun's. These six local jurisdictions also ranked in the top 10 last year, but Fairfax County and Alexandria moved up in the rankings, giving the Washington region a claim over the top four spots for the first time since 2008.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Smarty pants
Higher education degrees held by residents 25 years and older:
Bachelor's or higher Nat'l rank Has B.A. Has M.A. Has Ph.D.
Arlington County 70.5% 1 33.9% 24.7% 3.4%
Howard County 60.1% 2 40.0% 18.9% 4.3%
Alexandria 59.5% 3 30.2% 19.5% 2.8%
Fairfax County 59.3% 4 30.6% 20.4% 3.2%
Montgomery County 57.0% 8 26.7% 18.0% 6.1%
Loudoun County 56.0% 9 33.7% 18.0% 1.8%
Washington 52.5% 14 23.3% 17.3% 4.0%
Prince William County 37.1% 118 23.2% 11.9% 0.6%
Prince George's County 30.1% 269 17.9% 8.7% 1.7%
U.S. 28.5% -- 17.9% 7.5% 1.2%

The District also gained ground over the last year, jumping from 21st nationally to 14th as more than 52 percent of its residents now have at least a bachelor's degree.

Christopher Swanson, vice president of research and development for Education Week, said the region's economy has thrived since the recession ended in 2009, especially in adding the kinds of jobs that attract highly educated professionals.

"Part of the big rankings changes that may be going on is D.C. is faring better economically than other parts of the country," he said.

Including Prince William and Prince George's counties, more than half the region as a whole has at least a college degree.

Montgomery County is the only local jurisdiction to rank in the top 10 for its concentration of doctoral degrees. About one in 16 county residents older than 25 has a doctorate, for the fifth-highest rate in the nation.

"The thing Montgomery County has is biotech, which is going to attract very highly educated scientists," Swanson said, adding that the county is home to the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology and other research giants.

Anirban Basu, president and CEO of Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, said people with a bachelor's degrees and higher are also now a more mobile population -- a trend escalated by the recession, when even those with bachelor's and master's degrees were given pink slips.

"Most educated people move to places where there's the most stable labor market, and that's Washington, D.C.," he said.

The region's job growth in recent years has been driven by steady government spending. But that spending trend is set to slow down as federal budget cuts are scheduled to kick in over the next decade, starting in 2013. However, Basu said that "more educated people are more able to handle downturns than less educated people."