Companies and states agree: The most important factor in deciding where to set up shop these days is a smart, skilled workforce. And one of the best ways to develop that workforce is education. In our America's Top States for Business study, the Education category spans kindergarten through college and beyond and is worth a possible 200 out of 2,500 points. You can see our complete methodology and sources here. This year these states move to the head of the class — America's smartest states for 2017.
The Keystone State vaults into the smartest states, thanks to a marked improvement in high school test scores last year. Recognizing the importance of a skilled workforce, Pennsylvania has become a leader in what are known as STEM ecosystems — collaborations between schools, businesses and communities to encourage science, technology, engineering and math learning. The state still faces challenges, however, seriously lagging the rest of the nation in funding its state colleges and universities.
2017 Education score: 133 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 256
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.1/SAT: 1487
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 16
2016 Education rank: No. 21
Below: A statue of Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, on the school's campus, in Philadelphia
Iowa is another state that did some studying over the summer. The Hawkeye State turned in the best high school test scores in the nation last year. While state support for higher education ranks in the top half nationally, Iowa's commitment appears to have been wavering in recent years, with funding coming in below the state Board of Regents' requests. As a result, students and their families have faced three straight years of tuition hikes. Recognizing the growing importance of computer science — and the critical shortage of IT workers in the state — Iowa is one of only a handful of states to have implemented computer science standards beginning in kindergarten.
2017 Education score: 138 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 64
Average test scores: ACT: 22.1/SAT: 1785
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 17
2016 Education rank: No. 17
Below: The Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City
What the Granite State lacks in size, it makes up for in academic strength. Durham-based Dartmouth College is respected worldwide. The state could do better in supporting its public post-secondary institutions, but students in public K–12 schools come away well prepared to compete in the 21st-century workforce. The state's NH Goes First Plan aims to make the state a leader in "competency-based education," starting with pre-kindergarten and going beyond college, to develop the workforce of the future.
2017 Education score: 142 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 27
Average high school test scores: ACT: 24.5/SAT: 1568
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 2
2016 Education rank: No. 11
Below: The Collis Center at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire
The Green Mountain State carefully cultivates its K–12 schools, with the nation's highest per-pupil spending and smallest class sizes. More important, the care pays off with some of the best student performance in the country. Vermont takes pride in keeping its students on the cutting edge. A 2015 state survey found more computers than students in the public schools. All of that lavish attention seems to trail off after high school, however. The state lags the nation in support for higher education.
2017 Education score: 143 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 9
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.4/SAT: 1541
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 4
2016 Education rank: No. 7
Below: The University of Vermont, in Burlington
The Empire State reigns almost supreme in support for public education at all levels, and that is based on figures compiled before the state adopted Gov. Andrew Cuomo's ambitious plan to offer free tuition to many middle-income students at state colleges and universities. Based on outcomes, however, the state could do a better job of targeting where the money is spent. Of course, this has a lot to do with the large population, but high school test scores barely crack the top half of the states, and elementary school math and reading scores are in the bottom tier.
2017 Education score: 147 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 304
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.9/SAT: 1467
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 34
2016 Education rank: No. 8
Below: The State University of New York, Cortland campus
Nebraska ranks in the top five nationally in increasing support for higher education over the past five years, but that may be about to change. Colleges and universities across the Cornhusker State are adopting tuition increases to make up for deep cuts in state funding. That is bad news for some of the best-prepared high school graduates in the nation. Performance on standardized tests in high school and elementary school is consistently strong.
2017 Education score: 147 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 16
Average high school test scores: ACT: 21.4/SAT: 1758
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 9
2016 Education rank: No. 9
Below: The University of Nebraska, in Lincoln
Despite living in a big and populous state, New Jersey students enjoy a surprising degree of individualized attention in school. Only tiny Vermont offers smaller class sizes. New Jersey ranks in the top five nationally for per-pupil spending and parlays that into the third best performing elementary school students. That edge may be in jeopardy, however, since outgoing Gov. Chris Christie has been keeping education funding flat. Already, the state's higher-education system is hurting for resources due to dwindling state support.
2017 Education score: 151 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 72
Average high school test scores: ACT: 23.1/SAT: 1501
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 3
2016 Education rank: No. 6
Below: The Waksman Institute of Microbiology on the Busch Campus of Rutgers University, in Piscataway
You can't spell this state's name without the word "connect" — appropriate, because Connecticut's schools are now among the most connected in the nation. The state has committed to connecting every classroom to the internet and has made major strides in the past year. The Nutmeg State sprinkles lots of money on its public school system and has some of the nation's best test scores to show for it. Higher education can be uneven, however. This may be the home of Yale University, but state schools, like the University of Connecticut, are starving for support.
2017 Education score: 154 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 43
Average high school test scores: ACT: 24.5/SAT: 1747
Elementary math & reading rank: No.10
2016 Education rank: No. 18
Below: The Sterling Memorial Library on the Yale University campus in New Haven
Minnesota consistently turns out some of the nation's best-performing high school graduates, but it does so with characteristic Midwestern thrift — the state does not rank in the top 10 for school spending. Gov. Mark Dayton has made education funding a priority, however. Spending has been steadily increasing on his watch, though not as much lately as many would prefer. Class sizes are larger than in most states, but beleaguered Minnesota teachers may soon get reinforcements. The legislature recently passed licensing reforms aimed at easing a chronic teacher shortage.
2017 Education score: 156 out of 200 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 115
Average high school test scores: ACT: 21.1/SAT: 1815
Elementary math & reading rank: No. 5
2016 Education rank: No. 2
Below: The Coffman Memorial Union building at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
What else would you expect from the place where American higher education was invented with the founding of Harvard University in 1636? Massachusetts has taken that heritage and has run with it. The state's elementary school students are the best performing in the nation. High school graduates are in the top five. Harvard may be the crown jewel of higher education in the Bay State, but Massachusetts also takes care of its public universities, with state support up nearly 13 percent in the last five years. The state could do a better job modernizing and digitizing its classrooms, but with a tradition dating back to the 17th century, some things take time.
2017 Education score: 168 out of 300 points
Number of degree-granting institutions: 124
Average high school test scores: ACT: 24.8/SAT: 1553
Elementary math & reading rank: No.1
2016 Education rank: No.1
Below: Harvard University, in Cambridge