This year, nearly 2.3 million students will graduate with undergraduate degrees from U.S.-based universities — many of which will be celebrating their accomplishment this spring. And while graduation is an exciting time, it’s also often a time of change and uncertainty as young adults often begin brand new jobs in new places. Each year, it seems, at least a few publications rank and rate cities for recent grads. Earlier this week, Apartment List did just that, rating the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. based on three categories.
And according to their number crunching, Madison, Wisconsin — the home of the University of Wisconsin — is the best city for recent college graduates. The ranking is based on jobs, affordability, and livability. The jobs category takes into account unemployment rates for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Affordability uses a rent-to-earnings ratio using Apartment List’s own median rental cost data and median earnings for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Lastly, livability looks at the overall percentage of the population that is between 20- and 34-years-old and then an annual Apartment List survey of 24,000 renters asking about overall satisfaction with recreation and social life opportunities in their area.
Following Madison is Lincoln, Nebraska and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively. Cities were awarded scores based on how they placed among each other (100 being the best score and one being the lowest) in all five categories. Madison earned the first-place spot (100 points) in the overall population percentage of 20- to 34-year-olds as well as the social life category. Madison also scored high in job score (99) and entertainment (96) but scored lower in affordability (64). Lincoln — where the University of Nebraska is located — had the lowest unemployment rate among college graduates, earning the perfect 100 in the jobs category. Its lowest score (70) was in entertainment. Minneapolis scored highest in entertainment (99) and lowest in affordability (56).
Most cities at the top of the list are mid-sized college cities based in the Midwest and South and Southeast regions of the country. Columbus, Ohio is the largest metro area in the top ten with just under 900,000 residents and is home to Ohio State University. At around 425,000, Minneapolis is the next largest city in the top ten and is home to the University of Minnesota, among many other smaller colleges and universities.
The full data set, which was only given to USA Today, has Austin, Cincinnati, Denver, Nashville, and Washington D.C. following Norkfolk, Virginia in the 11 to 15 spots. Large coastal hubs like New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco did not appear in the top 15, mainly because of the cost of living, Apartment List’s summary said.
However, not all cities in the top ten placed highly in each category. Arlington, for example, scored a 20 in affordability but was buoyed to a fourth-place finish thanks to top ten finishes in all other categories. With Amazon’s Headquarters Two coming to Arlington soon, the Washington D.C. suburb will likely stay an intriguing option for young professionals moving forward.
Six out of ten of the lowest ranked cities for recent college grads are based in California, with Stockton being the lowest ranked city. Based in the Central Valley, about 80 miles east of San Francisco, Stockton scored lowest in the entertainment and social life categories. Newark, New Jersey followed Stockton as the second-worst town for recent college grads. The New York City suburb finished in the bottom ten in four out of the five categories — job rates, affordability, entertainment, and social life. A trio of California cities rounded out the bottom five — Fremont, Santa Ana, and Anaheim.
“Traditionally, attractive job markets and new tech hubs have a lot to offer, but they might not be the best option for college graduates trying to pay off student loans as these markets offer few affordable housing options,” the Apartment List report said. “Inland cities with booming job markets primarily located in the South and Midwest tend to offer a lifestyle more suited for a recent grad that features reasonable housing affordability and a significant social scene.”
That may be the case, but for at least some of the top 15 cities, it’s tough to see many recent grads moving into the cities if they didn’t graduate from the primary universities based in those cities. Take Lubbock, Texas, for example. The city is projected as one of the fastest growing in the country, like many other Texas cities, but that relies heavily on agriculture and ag-business — two very specific areas for college grads. Similarly, Lincoln, Nebraska has been considered a desirable place for recent college grads for a few years, but relies on state government positions and isn’t a large attractor for college grads outside of the region.
The affordability and job data should also be taken with a grain of salt — especially for business grads. Many of the larger cities become more affordable for business graduates, which are among the highest paid college graduates immediately after graduation. Some 79 of the 88 business schools ranked by Poets&Quants last year reported earning more than the national average among all college graduates. More than 35 of those schools reported their 2018 graduates averaged at least $60,000 in their first jobs after graduation.