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Which Americans Are the Smartest?

There’s a well-known phenomenon in psychology where people tend to think they are smarter than the average person. For Americans, that belief may approach certainty. A 2018 study found that 65% of Americans believe they have above-average intelligence.

In addition to about 2 in 3 Americans saying they are smarter than most other people, the study found that certainty of one’s superior intellect increased with income and education but decreased with age.

If most of us have above-average intelligence, then that sort of dilutes what the word “average” means, and understanding where you rank means learning where others stand. Despite the risk of creating conflict and drama, we wanted to find a way to quantify which Americans actually are smarter than the rest by ranking the states according to how smart they are.

You can jump to the bottom of the page for our full methodology, but our formula takes into account college degrees, high school graduation, professional or advanced degrees and test scores to create a smartest states ranking.

Smartest States

Our analysis of the available data covering educational achievement and test scores found that the smartest U.S. state is New Jersey, and (sorry to this state) the dumbest one is Idaho.

New Jersey’s total score of 337.8 was safely ahead of No. 2 Utah, with its score of 324. Idaho had the lowest score at 79.5, with the next lowest being Oklahoma at 97.8. Among all states, the average score was 221, and 27 states scored above that mark.

The average score by region was mostly pretty evenly split, though the West had by far the lowest average score, owing largely to Idaho’s poor performance. Average scores in the Midwest were highest at 230, followed by the Northeast (228), South (227) and West (202). But even if Idaho is removed, the average score in the West would still be the lowest of the four regions at 213.

Here’s a breakdown of the states using selections of the data that went into the ranking. We’ll explore even more of the data we used to create our rankings later, but this gives you a good idea why your state placed where it did in this ranking.

Educational Attainment

It’s said that education opens doors, and a good education exposes a person to a world of knowledge they otherwise might not have accessed. But education goes further than simply broadening your horizons and empowering you with new skills; it actually raises your intelligence level. A 2018 meta analysis of education and IQ scores found that just one extra year of schooling added as much as 5 additional IQ points.

Our ranking included data on public high school graduation rates and how they’ve changed over time as well as the rate of adults who’ve earned bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees and how that rate has changed over time.

High school

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, young people may be finishing high school at record rates. For the Class of 2017 (the most recent cohort for which data is available), 85% of public high school students graduated, which is the highest this particular figure has been since the department began reporting the cohort-adjusted rate in 2011. This figure represents the percentage of public high school students who graduate on time and is calculated by identifying the cohort of first-time freshmen for a particular school year who graduate within four years.

Several states had much higher-than-average scores, including Iowa and New Jersey, which both graduated 91% of public high school students on time.

College

About 1 in 3 Americans over 25 have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That number has gone up every year since at least 1987, and it’s climbed about 16% in the past decade.

Census data indicates that the highest rate of bachelor’s degree holders (meaning those whose highest level of educational achievement is an undergrad degree) is in Colorado, where 26% of residents have a bachelor’s degree.

Graduate and professional degrees

Whether they’re earning a master’s degree, such as an MBA, or are attending law school or medical school, the U.S. Department of Education reported that about 3 million people were enrolled in post-baccalaureate degree programs in the fall of 2017. Enrollment in such programs has climbed by 39% since 2000 and is expected to rise even further in the years to come.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the District of Columbia has the highest concentration of residents 25 and older with graduate or professional degrees. Given its small population and focus on lawmaking as a profession, about 1 in 3 people D.C. residents in that age group have a graduate, medical or law degree. Our analysis looked only at those 25 and older who have such degrees, so no doubt that figure is even higher when looking at all adults.

Test Scores

Every year, millions of high school students spend months (and maybe their parents’ dollars) on getting themselves ready for college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. It’s a rite of passage for the potentially college-bound high-schooler, but it doesn’t come without potential downsides, and increasingly universities are moving away from such standardized testing to make their admissions decisions. Still, most of us who took these tests in high school, even if it was decades ago, remember our scores and the test prep methods we used to achieve those scores.

SAT

SAT takers in Minnesota and Wisconsin had the highest median scores for those who took the test in 2018-19, while the lowest scores were in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Among all states, the median score was 1,097.

While the ACT exam is less popular than the SAT, many colleges prefer it while some require both. Students may also decide to take both to boost their chances of admission. The highest possible composite score on the exam is 36, and students in Connecticut and Massachusetts had the highest average scores among test-takers during the 2017-18 school year.

Conclusion

Well, did we convince you that you’re not as smart as you think you are? Or maybe we just fed into your ego. While we believe things like having high test scores and earning academic degrees represent one way of understanding and quantifying how smart someone is, we acknowledge that we're not taking into account things like emotional intelligence or common sense. Still, if living in a state where it’s important that a lot of your neighbors went to college or where high-schoolers have impressive SAT scores, our smartest states ranking may be quite helpful.

Methodology & Data Sources

We used data from several sources to create our ranking of the smartest states. Here’s a look at the data sources and categories used for the total intelligence ranking:

U.S. Census Bureau

  • An average of the percentage of adults 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree and the percentage of adults 25 and older with a graduate or professional degree.
  • The rate of change in that figure between 2013 and 2017, which is the most recent available five-year period.

U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics

  • A figure referred to as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate for public high schools in each state for the 2016-17 school year, the most recent academic year for which data has been published.
  • The rate of change in that figure between the 2010-11 school year and 2016-17 (with the exception of Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma, where the oldest available data was from 2013-14).

The College Board

  • Median SAT score achieved by test-takers during the 2018-19 school year.
  • Percentage of test-takers who met college and career readiness benchmarks. This figure covers all test-takers, including those who are still in high school.

ACT

  • Average composite score achieved by ACT test-takers during the 2017-18 school year, which is the most recent available data ACT has released.
  • Average percentage meeting subject-matter benchmarks (average of four subject matter tests, English, reading, math and science).

In those eight total categories, each state was ranked from best to worst and a numerical value was assigned (51-1). Our formula more heavily weighted educational attainment than test scores in an effort to help adjust for differences in things like bias in standardized testing or availability of test prep. Rankings for four-year and graduate degrees was rated at double their value, while rankings for high school graduation was weighted at 1.5 times its value. SAT score rankings were weighted at half their value, and ACT score rankings carried one-quarter of their value.

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