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America’s smartest states in 2016

America's education hot spots

Students react as they prepare to receive their diplomas at commencement at Harvard University.
Suzanne Kreiter | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

More than ever, the key to competitiveness is a strong workforce. And one of the keys to a strong workforce is education. Our America's Top States for Business study grades the states on more than a dozen education metrics, from kindergarten through college. The Education category is worth 200 out of 2,500 possible points. You can see our full study and learn about our methodology here. These 10 states are America's smartest.

Full coverage of Top States 2016

9. (Tie) Nebraska

An exterior of one of the buildings at the University of Nebraska’s new state-of-the-art research park.
Nati Harnik | AP Photo

Bucking the nationwide trend of states reducing support for higher education, funding in Nebraska has increased by nearly 10 percent in the last five years, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. At the elementary and secondary levels, the rural state offers small class sizes. That seems to translate to strong performance. (Pictured here: University of Nebraska's new state-of-the-art research park)

2016 Education score: 127 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 42
Average high school test scores: ACT: 21.5/SAT: 1755
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 9

9. (Tie) Kansas

University of Kansas
Source: University of Kansas

Ongoing state budget issues are impacting spending at all levels of education in Kansas, with support for higher education dropping 6 percent since 2010. But for the most part, cuts at the elementary and secondary levels have yet to show up in performance on college entrance exams. As a largely rural state, Kansas students benefit from small class sizes. (Pictured here: University of Kansas)

2016 Education score: 127 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 75
Average high school test scores: ACT: 21.9/SAT: 1748
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 23

8. New York

Rockwell Hall Performing Art Center on SUNY Buffalo campus
Source: SUNY Buffalo

With more than 300 degree-granting institutions — including 64 state university campuses as well as vaunted institutions, like Columbia and NYU — there is no shortage of options for college-bound New Yorkers. Per-pupil spending on K–12 education is higher than any state except Vermont, and higher-education support has grown steadily. But in a large and diverse state, the effect of the spending is not readily evident in test scores. (Pictured here: Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center, at SUNY Buffalo)

2016 Education score: 130 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 302
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.7/SAT: 1469
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 34

7. Vermont

University Row on University of Vermont campus
Source: University of Vermont

Vermont lavishes its students with attention — and funds. The state has America's smallest K–12 class sizes and the largest per-pupil spending. Students return the favor with strong test scores. State support for higher education is down by about 5 percent since 2010, but the state makes up for that somewhat with strong continuing education and lifelong learning opportunities. (Pictured here: University Row, at the University of Vermont)

2016 Education score: 131 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 24
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.5/SAT: 1554
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 4

6. New Jersey

Old Queens building on Rutgers University campus
Source: Rutgers University | Nick Romanenko

Despite well-publicized fiscal woes, New Jersey is maintaining strong support for its K–12 schools and has the test scores to show for it. Class sizes are small despite a large and dense population. Support for higher education is a bit more tenuous, with funding down nearly 15 percent in just the past five years. But continuing education and lifelong learning opportunities are many. (Pictured here: Old Queens building at Rutgers University)

2016 Education score: 134 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 71
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.2/SAT: 1520
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 3

5. Virginia

University of Virginia
Source: Dan Addison | UVA University Communications

Virginia is a leader in the use of technology in education, regardless of the size or affluence of the school district. The state's e-Learning Backpack Initiative allows at-risk schools to purchase tablet or laptop computers and software for every 9th-grader. The state boasts 130 colleges and universities, although state support for higher education is off by 11 percent since 2010. (Pictured here: The University of Virginia)

2016 Education score: 136 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 130
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.1/SAT: 1533
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 8

4. Illinois

Illini Union building on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus
Source: UI Public Affairs

Illinois leads the nation in increasing state support for higher education, though the number is skewed by a large contribution to the system's underfunded pension plan last year. In addition to its 13 public colleges and university campuses, Illinois is home to world-class private institutions, including Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. College-bound seniors seem well prepared, with the best composite entrance-exam scores in the nation. (Pictured here: Illini Union, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

2016 Education score: 137 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 181
Average high school test scores: ACT: 20.7/SAT: 1802
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 31

3. Wyoming

Wyoming University campus building
Source: Wyoming University

Wyoming is making up for deep cuts in higher-education funding during the recession, with an 18 percent increase in state support since 2010. Elementary and high school students in the sparsely populated state benefit from small class sizes and generous per-pupil funding. That seems to translate to strong test results at all levels. Residents also have numerous continuing-education options. (Pictured here: University of Wyoming)

2016 Education score: 144 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 10
Average high school test scores: ACT: 20.2/SAT: 1737
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 6

2. Minnesota

University of Minnesota
Source: Patrick O'Leary | University of Minnesota

Minnesota has won national accolades for its digital learning programs, developed with the help of an Online and Digital Learning Advisory Council authorized by the legislature in 2013. The 16-member council includes representatives from the education and business communities. Minnesota elementary and high school students turn in solid test scores, but state support for higher education has slipped about 10 percent since 2010. (Pictured here: University of Minnesota)

2016 Education score: 149 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 115
Average high school test scores: ACT: 22.7/SAT: 1778
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 5

1. Massachusetts

University of Massachusetts Amherst
Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Maybe it is no surprise that the home of America's oldest university consistently sits atop the education rankings, but there is far more to the Massachusetts educational landscape than Harvard. The state is showing strong support for its public colleges and universities, with five-year funding up 7 percent following deep cuts during the recession. Elementary school standardized test scores are the best in the nation, and lifelong learning opportunities abound. (Pictured here: University of Massachusetts Amherst)

2016 Education score: 151 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 124
Average high school test scores: ACT: 24.4/SAT: 1552
Elementary math and reading rank: No. 1