Graduating from college is an important milestone in a young person’s financial life. At this point in time, millions of young adults in the US are entering the world of work each year, living in their own homes for the first time, and managing their money while trying to have fun with people their own age. With student loan debt up to $ 1.7 trillion and demand that President Joe Biden lend up to $ 50,000 largely unanswered, recent graduates must make wise decisions about where to live and work to repay loans as well to be able to save and have fun. With that in mind, SmartAsset identified and rated the best cities for new college graduates or the best cities for the graduate class of 2021 to start their lives after college – and Tucson and Phoenix both made the top 25.
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To do this, we’ve considered a number of factors that focus on jobs, affordability, and fun. For full details on how we found and analyzed our data, see the Data and Methodology section below.
This is SmartAsset’s seventh study of the best cities for new college graduates. The 2020 version can be found here.
• Graduates have more opportunities outside the coast. Six cities in the top 10 are in the Midwest: Cincinnati, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; Madison, Wisconsin and Indianapolis, Indiana. Although the Midwest is known for its affordability, many of these Midwestern cities are university towns that also excel for their fun score, with plenty of bars, restaurants, and young people going on.
• Your degree will give you a head start on the job market. The impact of a college degree on career prospects should not be overlooked. The average of the 106 cities we included in this study, the median graduate earnings, according to the 2019 census, is $ 54,751. That’s nearly 31% more than the 2019 median for the total single-income population 25 and older ($ 41,801).
1. Cincinnati, OH
Cincinnati is the best graduate city on our list of 2021, ranks seventh for affordability, and ranks third for fun. This city has the eighth lowest median monthly rent ($ 660) and the twelfth lowest cost of living ($ 19,713). Cincinnati also has the seventh best Yelp bar scores (3.98). And although the Queen City doesn’t do that well, it still ranks 26th in the job ranking, a top quartile result.
2. Columbus, OH
Columbus is home to Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in the country. This city has the ninth-highest restaurant-yelp score (4.08) and the eleventh-highest bar-yelp score (3.96). Columbus ranks 18th in employment ratings and 25th in relatively low unemployment in January 2021 (5.6%).
3. Milwaukee, WI
Milwaukee has plenty of graduate distraction and ranks seventh for fun. The average Yelp score for bars in this city is 3.99, making it the third highest in this study. People between the ages of 20 and 29 make up 18.23% of the population of Milwaukee, the 22nd largest group on the list.
4. St. Louis, MO
St. Louis is one of the cheapest cities in our study with the sixth lowest median rent ($ 655 per month). The cost of living in Gateway City is $ 20,284, ranking 28th. St. Louis also has one of the lowest unemployment rates for 2019 with a bachelor’s degree, ranking 17th at 1.6%.
5. Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh has the fourth largest population in their twenties (22.92%) and ranks 18th for fun. This city also has an affordable cost of living and ranks 16th at $ 19,928. However, the median rent is $ 863, making it only the 33rd lowest on our list.
6. Lexington, KY
Lexington ranks 12th for our study score. This city has the third highest average restaurant yelp score (4.13) and the 24th largest population between the ages of 20 and 29 (18.11%). Lexington also ranks 17th for our affordability rating, borne by the ninth lowest cost of living ($ 19,526).
7. Madison, WI
Madison comes first for our score and seventh for jobs. This city ranks second in the study, both in terms of the 2019 unemployment rate for Bachelor graduates (0.7%) and the overall unemployment rate in January 2021 (3.4%). Madison has the largest population between the ages of 20 and 29 in our study (26.25%).
8. Indianapolis, IN
Indianapolis ranks 20th in terms of affordability. This city has the 17th lowest median rent ($ 731) and the 23rd lowest cost of living ($ 20,165). Indianapolis also has the fourth highest Yelp score for bars (3.99) and the fifth highest for restaurants (4.12).
9. Nashville, TN
Nashville ranks second when it comes to fun. Restaurants and entertainment account for 13.45% of all businesses (the sixth largest percentage in our study). This city also has the 25th largest population between the ages of 20 and 29 (18.08%).
10. Louisville, KY
Louisville rounds out the top 10 and ranks ninth in terms of affordability. The median rent is $ 728 (16th in this study) and the cost of living is $ 19,646 (11th overall). Louisville also has the highest Yelp ratings for bars (4.06) and restaurants (4.21) in this study.
Best cities for college graduates
To find the best cities for new college graduates, we examined data for the 106 largest US cities across three categories that comprised 10 individual metrics:
• jobs. For our job evaluation, we analyzed the overall unemployment rate, the unemployment rate for undergraduate degrees, the income for college graduates, and the number of actual job advertisements. Bachelor’s degree unemployment rate and college graduate earnings come from the US Census Bureau’s 2019 annual American community survey. The overall unemployment rate refers to January 2021, comes from the local unemployment statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is measured at the district level. Indeed.com’s job posting count is from the Indeed.com job search API, which was retrieved as of March 2021.
• Affordability. For this score, we looked at the median monthly rent in each city, as well as the cost of living. Median rents are from the Census Bureau’s 1-year survey of the American community in 2019. Cost of living is from MIT’s living wage calculator, for which data was collected in March 2021.
• Fun. To create this score, we looked at the concentration of entertainment and restaurants, the percentage of the population ages 20-29, and the Yelp score for restaurants and bars. The concentration of entertainment and hospitality businesses is based on the Census Bureau’s 2018 County Business Patterns survey and represents bars and restaurants as a percentage of all businesses. The population figures come from the 2010 annual American community survey by the Census Bureau. The Yelp results are from the Yelp.com API, for which data was retrieved in March 2021.
First, we ranked each city in each metric and assigned the same weight to each metric, except for the Yelp Average Restaurant Rating and the Average Yelp Bar Rating, which we weighted halfway. Then we averaged the ranking across the three categories listed above. For each category, the city with the highest average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the lowest average ranking received a score of 0. We made our final ranking by calculating each city’s average score for all three categories.