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Washington a capital of brainiacs

Arlington ranks at top of class, with 70 percent earning college degrees Arlington is home to more brainpower on average than any other county in the nation, with seven of every 10 residents earning college degrees. That achievement distinguishes the small pocket of government workers and defense contractors from the rest of a region ranked as the most educated nationwide.

New census data show that 70 percent of Arlingtonians sport college diplomas, well eclipsing the next-closest area, Howard County, where about 60 percent have at least a bachelor's degree.

Brainiest counties nationwide
Rank County Percentage with bachelor's degree in 2010 Percentage with bachelor's degree in 2000
1 Arlington County 69.9% 60.2%
2 Howard County 59. 1% 52.9%
3 Loudoun County 58.4% 47.2%
4 New York County 58.1% 49.4%
5 Alexandria 58.1% 54.3%
6 Boulder County, Colo. 57.5% 52.4%
7 Montgomery County 56.5% 54.6%
8 Fairfax County 56.1% 54.8%
9 Douglas County, Colo. 55% 51.9%
10 Marin County, Calif. 54.3% 51.3%
21 District 50.1% 39.1%
122 Prince William County 36.9% 31.5%
268 Prince George's County 29.4% 27.2%
Source: 2010 American Community Survey
Top 10 states
Rank State Percentage with bachelor's degree in 2010 Percentage with bachelor's degree in 2000
1 District 50.1% 39.1%
2 Massachusetts 39% 33.2%
3 Colorado 36.4% 32.7%
4 Maryland 36.1% 31.4%
5 Connecticut 35.5% 31.4%
6 New Jersey 35.4% 29.8%
7 Virginia 34.2% 29.5%
8 Vermont 33.6% 29.4%
9 New Hampshire 32.8% 28.7%
10 New York 32.5% 27.4%
Source: 2010 American Community Survey
Smartest metro areas in America
Rank Region Percentage with bachelor's degree in 2010
1 Washington 46.8%
2 Silicon Valley, Calif. 45.3%
3 San Francisco-Oakland 43.4%
4 Boston 43%
5 Raleigh-Cary, N.C. 41%
6 Austin, Texas 39.4%
7 Denver, Colo. 38.2%
8 Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. 37.9%
9 Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. 37%
10 New York 36%
Source: 2010 American Community Survey (populations greater than 100,000)

Loudoun County and Alexandria round out the top five, with Montgomery and Fairfax counties also ranking in the top 10 -- in other words, six of the 10 highest-educated local jurisdictions are in the Washington area.

The 2010 census figures are yet another feather in the cap for the Washington region, whose 46.8 percent college graduation rate remains the best in the nation. The Silicon Valley and San Francisco areas came in second and third, respectively, with 45.3 percent and 43.4 percent earning degrees last year.

The Washington area has long scored well on measures of educational attainment, but analysts said unique demographic advantages give Arlington a leg up on the rest of the region.

"Arlington is a very small, specialized area where an influx of people work in the District and have jobs that require a bachelor's degree," said Kevin Carey, policy director at the Education Sector think tank. "You could draw a line around a certain part of Montgomery County -- especially the portion closest to D.C. -- and get the same result."

Census data reveal that nationwide the most educated people are flocking to major metropolitan areas, further driving up median household income and educational levels.

Arlington County is also bolstered by an abundance of young professionals who improve its educational standing. Nearly half of Arlington residents in the 18-to-24 age group have at least a bachelor's degree, according to the census figures, dwarfing the next-closest place, New York County, at 33.6 percent.

Others were struck that Potomac rivals Montgomery and Fairfax counties ranked nearly the same in terms of educational attainment, at 56.5 and 56.1 percent, respectively.

"That's amazing," said Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, a member of the suburb's Education Committee. "We really do mirror each other."

As for the higher rankings for Arlington and Howard counties, Andrews added, "The larger a jurisdiction, the more meaningful the ranking and more significant the numbers."

Montgomery and Fairfax have populations of 1 million people, while Arlington has roughly 200,000 residents.

Observers have long had a chicken-or-egg dilemma when assessing the region's lofty rankings: Are the high measurements merely a reflection of the stiff qualifications needed to land a job here or are residents drawn to the area specifically for the nationally ranked public schools and institutions of higher learning?

Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette says it's a bit of both.

"I've been telling people for a decade we are the most educated community in America," he said. "At some level you self-select [when choosing where to live]. Arlington just works. It's an attractive place to live."

Partly because of the high educational achievement, the Washington region is also considered the nation's wealthiest. The area ranks as the richest metropolitan area in the country, with half of the top 10 -- and four of the top five -- highest median income levels located within Maryland and Virginia.

At the state level, Maryland and Virginia each made the top 10 when comparing bachelor's degrees. Maryland ranked fourth with 36.1 percent, and the commonwealth came in seventh place at 34.2 percent.

Both states saw their ranks of college graduates rise roughly 5 percent during the past decade.

Half of all District residents earned a college degree last year, a figure that jumped more than 10 percent in the past decade. If compared with the 50 states, the District's ratio of bachelor's degrees would be the highest in the nation.