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cities for college grads

College graduation is a significant milestone in a young person’s financial life. At this juncture, millions of young adults a year in the U.S. are entering the workforce, living in their own apartments for the first time and managing their money while trying to enjoy themselves with folks their own age. Of course, with student loan debt up to $1.7 trillion and the calls for President Joe Biden to forgive up to $50,000 largely unanswered, recent grads have to make smart decisions about where they will live and work to have the ability to pay off loans, save and enjoy themselves. With that in mind, SmartAsset identified and ranked the best cities for the class of 2021 graduates to kick off their post-college life.

To do so, we considered a number of factors centered around jobs, affordability and fun. For full details on how we found and analyzed our data, check out the Data and Methodology section below.

This is SmartAsset’s seventh study on the best cities for new college grads. You can find the 2020 version here.

Key Findings

  • College grads have more opportunities away from the coasts. Six cities in the top 10 are located in the Midwest: Cincinnati, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; Madison, Wisconsin and Indianapolis, Indiana. Though the Midwest has a reputation for affordability, many of these Midwestern cities are college towns that also excel for our fun score, with plenty of bars, restaurants and young people.
  • Your degree will give you an edge in the job market. The impact of having a college degree on job prospects shouldn’t be overlooked. On average across the 106 cities we included in this study, the median earnings for college grads is $54,751, according to 2019 Census data. This is almost 31% more than the 2019 median figure for the entire population 25 years and older with earnings ($41,801).

1. Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati is the best city for college grads in our 2021 list, finishing seventh for affordability and tied at third for fun. This city has the eighth-lowest median monthly rent ($660) and the 12th-lowest cost of living ($19,713). Cincinnati also has the seventh-best Yelp bar scores (3.98). And though not as high a finish, the Queen City still ranks 26th for job score, a top quartile finish.

2. Columbus, OH

Columbus is the home of The Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in the country. This city has the ninth-highest restaurant Yelp score (4.08) and the 11th-highest bar Yelp score (3.96). Columbus ranks 18th for the jobs score and 25th for its relatively low January 2021 unemployment (5.6%).

3. Milwaukee, WI

Milwaukee has many diversionary options for college grads, ranking seventh for fun. The average Yelp score for bars in this city is 3.99, the third-highest in this study. People between ages 20 and 29 make up 18.23% of Milwaukee’s population, the 22nd-largest group on the list.

4. St. Louis, MO

St. Louis is one of the most affordable cities in our study with the sixth-lowest median monthly rent ($655 per month). The cost of living in the Gateway City is $20,284, ranking 28th. St. Louis also has one of the lowest 2019 unemployment rates for those with bachelor’s degrees, ranking 17th at 1.6%.

5. Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh has the fourth-largest population of people in their 20s (22.92%) and ranks 18th for fun. This city also has an affordable cost of living, placing 16th with $19,928. But the median rent is $863, only 33rd-lowest on our list.

6. Lexington, KY

Lexington ranks 12th for the fun score of our study. This city has the third-highest average restaurant Yelp score (4.13) and 24th-largest population between the ages of 20 and 29 (18.11%). Lexington also finishes 17th for our affordability score, buoyed by the 9th-lowest cost of living ($19,526).

7. Madison, WI

Madison ranks first for our fun score and seventh in jobs. This city ranks second-lowest in the study for both its 2019 unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees (0.7%) and its January 2021 overall unemployment rate (3.4%). Madison has the largest population of people between the ages of 20 and 29 in our study (26.25%).

8. Indianapolis, IN

Indianapolis ranks 20th for the affordability score. This city has the 17-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 for fun score, with dining and entertainment making up 13.45% of all establishments (the sixth-biggest percentage in our study). This city also has the 25th-largest population of people between the ages of 20 and 29 (18.08%).

10. Louisville, KY

Louisville rounds out the top 10, ranking ninth in 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 in this study for both bars (4.06) and restaurants (4.21).

Data and Methodology

To find the best cities for new college graduates, we examined data for the 106 largest U.S. cities across three categories that included 10 individual metrics:

  • Jobs. For our jobs score, we analyzed the overall unemployment rate, the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders, earnings for college graduates and the number of Indeed job listings. The bachelor’s degree unemployment rate and the earnings for college graduates come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey. The overall unemployment rate is for January 2021, comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Local Area Unemployment Statistics and is measured at the county level. The number of Indeed job postings comes from Job Search API, for which data was pulled in March 2021.
  • Affordability. For this score, we looked at the monthly median rent in each city as well as the cost of living. The median rent numbers come from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey. The cost-of-living numbers come from the MIT living wage calculator, for which data was pulled in March 2021.
  • Fun. To create this score, we looked at the concentration of entertainment and dining establishments, the percentage of the population ages 20 to 29 and the Yelp scores of restaurants and bars. The concentration of entertainment and dining businesses comes from the Census Bureau’s 2018 County Business Patterns Survey and represents bars and restaurants as a percentage of all establishments. The population numbers come from the Census Bureau’s 2010 1-year American Community Survey. The Yelp scores come from API, for which data was pulled in March 2021.

First, we ranked each city in each metric, assigning equal weight to every metric except for average Yelp restaurant rating and average Yelp bar rating, which we half-weighted. Then we averaged the rankings 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 created our final ranking by calculating each city’s average score for all three categories.

Financial Planning Tips for Young People

  • Get some extra help. If you need a financial plan to begin your post-college life, a financial advisor can help you make smart choices to reach your goals. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Use your youth to your advantage. Saving for retirement isn’t something to put off. As soon as you can afford to, start putting money aside for when you’re older, especially if you have access to a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k).
  • Don’t neglect your taxes. Doing taxes by yourself for the first time can be daunting, but using SmartAsset’s free income tax calculator can make it easier to figure out what your duty to Uncle Sam might look like.

Photo credit: ©

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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