- Atlanta, GA, had the highest overall score in its population bracket, while San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA rounded out the podium of best large cities for recent college graduates.
- Arlington, VA led the way among midsize cities, followed by Sunnyvale, CA and Durham, NC.
- Santa Clara, CA, Cambridge, MA and Bellevue, WA scored highest overall among small cities.
- Upon closer inspection, Cary, NC, stood out among mid-sized cities for its strong financial outlooks, boasting a high median income and widespread employer-based health insurance coverage.
- Miami, FL, Fort Lauderdale, FL and Greenville, SC were the most prominent cities by lifestyle prospects, based on the density of leisure amenities and coworking spaces.
Embarking on a career after college is both thrilling and overwhelming: as graduates seek the best location to start their professional journey, countless considerations can come into play. And, because these can vary on a wide scale from one profession to the other (and even among individuals), there’s no cookie-cutter answer to the “where” question. However, breaking down some of the most important and universally justifiable factors into measurable data can help make an educated decision.
In this article, we explore the top cities for recent college graduates, highlighting their strengths and attractions for young professionals. The underlying analysis scored U.S. cities based on factors such as the share of the local population that holds a bachelor’s degree — which, while in case of a higher percentage can mean more competition for jobs, it’s also indicative of more job opportunities as companies gravitate towards locations with a qualified talent pool. Accordingly, further metrics included job opportunities that are suitable for recent grads, income levels, costs of living, lifestyle amenities, etc.
The results were weighted to obtain comparable total scores. For an easier overview, these scores were combined into three main categories by area of interest — employment, financial and lifestyle. Furthermore, for a fair comparison, we segmented the cities into three population brackets: small cities having up to 150,000 residents; large cities with 400,000 or more; and medium cities between these values.
Where Job Opportunities & Lifestyles Meet: The Best Large Cities for College Grads
Starting with the largest cities, the top 10 was a balanced scoop from around the continental U.S. with West Coast and East Coast cities in an even blend, and the Western, Midwestern and Southern regions represented, as well. Of course, depending on where we look at them from, some cities shine brighter than others. Let’s dive right in:
Atlanta, GA took the top spot coming in first overall, as well as for the financial component, in particular, with the wide health insurance coverage and average affordability giving its financial score the decisive boost. And, with a whopping 715 leisure amenities, second only to Miami, and 17 coworking spaces per 100,000 residents, the Big Peach was a clear leader of the field in the lifestyle category, too. Despite the moderate 54% share of young bachelor’s degree-holders and 9% of jobs being suitable for recent graduates, Atlanta scored high enough across the board to come out as the top contender.
Runner-up San Francisco, CA scored highest out of all of the large cities in three base metrics: in the employment subgroup, the nearly 70% share of the young population holding a bachelor’s degree was outstanding, and not just for this population bracket — it's almost 2.5 times the national average. Likewise, from a financial point of view, the median income for workers with a college education was also just slightly below the six-figure mark, and more than 76% of this demographic also enjoyed health insurance as part of their work contracts. Of course, this prominent ranking was to be expected as the city is well-suited on both the supply and the demand side in terms of the percentage of the workforce who have a higher education degree. Here, renowned universities in the area — like Stanford and UC Berkeley — ensure a steady stream of well-trained grads. Accordingly, the vigorous job market awaits them with open arms, particularly in the IT, biotech, environmental and business sectors.
Although Seattle, WA came in third overall, the Emerald City actually tied with San Francisco for first place in the employment category. Almost two-thirds of the young population here holds a BA, which is more than twice the national average, and one in 10 jobs are highly suitable for recent graduates. Unemployment was also less than 6% among the young workforce, partly due to government-aided programs, like the Seattle Jobs Initiative, which helps low-income residents gain access to career training and education. However, the city only made it to 7th place by financial score, though. Despite the median income of more than $86,000 and three out of four young employees enjoying health insurance as part of their contracts, Seattle remains a notoriously expensive city: it’s almost 15% above the national average cost of living.
While Atlanta stood out as an attractive city for lifestyle amenities, Miami, FL actually took the top spot in this subcategory. Although its lower scores in the employment and financial metrics pushed it back to 18th place overall, the South Florida tech job market has been heating up in recent years. From Miami Beach to Palm Beach, this region is becoming one of the best-known tech hubs across the country with $5.33 billion invested in startups and later-stage companies across 285 deals in 2021, according to an eMerge Insights report.
Otherwise, looking at the standalone indicators, Washington, D.C. offered the highest share of jobs that were accessible with a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, Nashville, TN had the lowest unemployment rate and Memphis, TN ranked first for its affordable cost of living.
Best of Both Worlds? Highest-Scoring Mid-Sized Cities for Starting a Career After College
Granted, the large cities are always first to make headlines. But, make no mistake: there’s no shortage of opportunities in smaller cities, either, especially because the pool widens exponentially as we explore smaller cities. To that end, our research did indeed uncover 10 real gems in the 150,000- to 400,000-resident bracket for recent graduates who are eager to start their career.
Considering the aggregated score, Arlington, VA led the pack by a long shot, in addition to taking the top spot by the employment metrics. Not only is there a strong supply of talent, but the local job market also has plenty of capacity to employ the young workforce right away. Here, a bachelor’s degree also makes just over 11% of Arlington jobs accessible, which was also the case in nearby Alexandria, VA. What’s more, the city’s booming business ecosystem is anchored by all of the most important aerospace and defense contractors, as well as several important corporate headquarters, like Nestlé, Accenture and Bloomberg Industry Group. Additionally, the city is also home to Amazon’s HQ2 — the ecommerce giant’s $5 billion second home, which is set to open its first phase later this year.
Next, San Jose’s 8th place among the large cities hinted at Silicon Valley’s unquestionable magnetism for college grads. But, Sunnyvale, CA hammered home the idea by ranking second overall among the nation’s mid-sized cities. In this area, the $102,819 median income for BA holders and the nearly 83% employer-based health insurance coverage were unmatched among similar-sized cities. Likewise, the 68% share of workers who had a college degree was also a statistic that was only outperformed by Arlington.
Durham, NC rounded out the podium, taking first place by the share of grad jobs (which accounted for nearly 13% of the local employment options) to eclipse Arlington and Alexandria. This earned the Research Triangle city third place in the overall ranking, despite the $61,826 median income that pushed it out of the top 10 in the financial category.
Other attractive mid-sized cities included Cary, NC — which ranked first in the financial subcategory — and Fort Lauderdale, FL, which maxed out the lifestyle metrics. Namely, Cary hosts a number of globally renowned enterprises, among which the SAS Institute Inc. stands out as the largest privately owned software corporation worldwide. That’s in addition to other prominent firms, such as Deutsche Bank, American Airlines, Lord Corp., Verizon, John Deere, Kellogg’s and Siemens. Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale was a lifestyle favorite thanks to its beautiful beaches; diverse culture; and thriving arts and entertainment scene, thereby making it a popular destination for those seeking warm weather and an active outdoor lifestyle.
At a more granular level, Mobile, AL stood out for offering the most favorable cost of living; Overland Park, KS, boasted the lowest unemployment rate at just a quarter of the national level; and Irvine, CA ranked first by the number of coworking spaces per capita.
Small, But Mighty: Top Small Cities for Graduates Seeking Stability
For college grads aiming for a better work/life balance, shorter commutes, a more tightly knit community, and all of the other perks that smaller cities can offer, the population bracket below the 150,000 mark might be a more attractive pool to explore.
Here, another Silicon Valley poster child Santa Clara, CA, took the pole position. Home to tech giants like AMD and Nvidia, it’s no surprise that the South Bay city maxed out the employment, as well as the financial category. More than two-thirds of the city’s population held a college degree, which was matched by 11% of jobs being accessible for young college grads — a top-10 ranking stat in its own right. On the financial side, Santa Clara’s $108,152 median income was one of the most attractive in this bracket, and more than 80% of the young working population also had employer-based health insurance. However, the city only managed to grab 39th place in the lifestyle category, which was largely due to the relatively low density of leisure establishments.
Cambridge, MA, came in second overall, ranking in the top 10 for most analyzed indicators. Unsurprisingly, the Boston suburb fared well in the employment and lifestyle categories. Notably, Cambridge is home to MIT and Harvard, with the Northeastern and Boston University campuses nearby, as well — to name only the most prestigious universities in the area. In spite of all this concentration of brainpower, affordability and the relatively low density of leisure establishments pushed Cambridge out of the top 10 in the more granular breakdown.
On the opposite coast, Bellevue, WA bears the same burden as big sister Seattle. Yet, the high cost of living here was matched by a competitive $98,311 median income with a bachelor’s degree. This and the 78% employer-based health insurance were enough to land Bellevue near the top in the financial category, too. In tandem with the high share of young college degree-holders and a decent density of coworking spaces, this was enough to earn Bellevue third place overall in its class.
Despite landing further down the list by the overall score, Greenville, SC topped the charts for lifestyle, thanks to its impressive number of leisure establishments. Remaining on the East Coast, Norwalk, CT had the lowest unemployment rate among small cities on the list (which is indicative of a stable job market), while Boca Raton, FL offered the highest density of coworking spaces.
Out west, Boulder, CO stood out for having the most job opportunities for recent graduates in a tie with Longmont, CO. Meanwhile, Jackson, MS boasted the lowest cost of living among small cities.
Back on the West Coast, the Redwood City, CA median income of $110,693 with a bachelor’s degree was the highest, underscoring once more the appeal of small cities in Silicon Valley. Finally, Santa Monica, CA had the most college grads among its local workforce, putting the spotlight on the educated population that calls the beachfront city home.
For this analysis, CoworkingCafe relied on information from the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) and County Business Patterns (CBP) reports by the U.S. Census Bureau, along with additional data points from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Coworking space market data was provided by Yardi Matrix.
Metrics were selected based on their potential influence on career prospects and quality of life of recent college graduates. Metrics were then assigned a weight based on their importance in determining the overall attractiveness of a city. The base categories, underlying metrics and their weights in the final score were as follows:
- Population with Bachelor’s Degree (15%) – Percentage of population aged 18 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Source: ACS 2021)
- Jobs for Recent Graduates (15%) – Share of employed population currently working in a job requiring a bachelor’s degree and a considerable amount of work-related skill and knowledge, but no more than one year of experience (Source: BLS 2021)
- Unemployment Rate (10%) – Unemployment rate within the local population aged 20 to 29 (Source: ACS 2021)
- Median Graduate Income (15%) – Median annual earnings of the local population aged 25 and older holding a bachelor’s degree (Source: ACS 2021)
- Regional Price Parity (15%) – Price index, expressed as a percentage of the overall national price level (Source: BEA 2021)
- Employer-Based Health Insurance Coverage (10%) – Percentage of population with employer-based health insurance, aged 19 to 34 (Source: ACS 2021)
- Leisure Establishments Density (15%) – Number of restaurants, bars, entertainment/ leisure establishments per 100,000 residents (Source: CBP 2021)
- Coworking Space Density (5%) – Number of coworking spaces per 100,000 residents (Source: Yardi Matrix 2023)
Cities were ranked based on their total scores, with higher scores indicating better overall prospects for college graduates. This means there were three top-performer cities for each metric, one from each population bracket.
Scores and rankings indicate a city’s performance as compared to other cities within the same population bracket and are not comparable across different groups.
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