The One Minute Geographer: Massachusetts (3): The Education State

Jim Fonseca
4 min readMar 20, 2022
Students at MIT from

Higher education is important to Massachusetts in several ways. Strengthening the skills of its population enables the state to keep and attract high-tech businesses and initiate startups. Higher education institutions attract people from all over the United States and the world who come for degrees and stay for jobs. Lastly, higher education is big business in Massachusetts.

A little background: Harvard was the first university established in the United States (1636) and the campus still has buildings dating from the 1720s. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass compulsory education laws. Massachusetts became famous for the quality and the number of its colleges.

But good undergraduate colleges are everywhere now, and Massachusetts only ranks fifth in college students per population. Iowa, Arizona, Utah and Rhode Island have a higher ratio. But Massachusetts still specializes in expensive (should we say elite?) private colleges that primarily serve undergraduates.

Land owned or leased by Boston area colleges. Map by Bill Rankin, on Wikipedia.

Let’s look at the list of those with the highest annual tuition — over $70,000. I’m sure you’ve heard of almost all of them: Amherst, Tufts, Brandeis, Boston College, Wellesley, Smith, Williams, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Holy Cross and Harvard. Tuition at the state’s dozen or so public colleges comes in at between $25,000 and $30,000 with the largest operation (29,000 students) at the main UMass Amherst campus in the western half of the state.

While some other states have caught up in undergraduate numbers per state population, Massachusetts still excels in graduate education. Take doctoral degrees. Massachusetts universities granted a little over 3,000 doctoral degrees in 2019. Although three of the more populous states granted more, the Massachusetts rate of doctoral degrees granted per resident was double that of New York and almost triple that of California and Texas.

International students are a big part of the business. The state ranks fourth in number of international students — 74,000 — most of those in Boston, especially at Northeastern and…

Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.