May 13, 2014

Study: Best Small Cities for College Grads 2014

Read more about Life After College

When you get past the final exams and finally receive your diploma, reality will set in hard. You're about to enter the real world, where all the bills in the mail will have your name on it and all the major decisions that affect your life fall onto your shoulders – including where to get a job and where to live.

Find the right place to live and you could discover the job hunt is fairly easy – if you park yourself in an area with a low unemployment rate and you don’t have to fight off others to win over potential employers. Of course, work isn’t everything; you’ll also want to live where you have access to nightlife activities, let’s you chill out, and provides an environment to meet new people. You don’t have to go to the big city to make this happen – smaller size cities (we’re talking fewer than 500,000 people) offer the access to jobs plus amenities without the rushing-around pace. We’ve looked across the country to find the top 10 small cities for graduates.

Study Methodology

From our perspective, four things make for a good place to start a career:

  • The hope of getting a job
  • Rent that doesn’t eat up your whole paycheck
  • A decent commute
  • Good places to cut loose after work

First, we used the most recent U.S. Census data to look at the unemployment rate in the city and the proportion of the population that has a bachelor’s degree. This data is from the most recent American Community Survey from the U.S. Census. We figured that a low unemployment rate and little competition in the form of other people with bachelor’s degrees means it should be easier to find a job as a new graduate. Turns out that Williston, ND, has the lowest unemployment rate in our sample (0.7%). Grads in Greenville, MS, (14.2%) aren’t so fortunate.

Next up was rent. Most new graduates don’t go out and buy houses right away, so we wanted to take a look at rental costs. Those who move to Maysville, KY, which has the cheapest rents of the cities we evaluated, pay just $467 a month.

We also looked at commute times from the U.S. Census, figuring that the longer it takes to get to work, the less we’re interested in going there. At 39.7 minutes on average for a one-way trip to work, East Stroudsburg, PA, is the worst; Waterloo, IA, wins the day at just 15.1 minutes.

Last but not least, we know that college grads aren’t quite ready to put their partying days behind them. So we looked at the number of bars per 10,000 people.

Here’s how the list turned out.

10. Manitowoc, WI

  • Unemployment rate: 5%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 14.1%
  • Median rent: $589
  • Commute time: 19.4 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 7.02

Located along Lake Michigan, Manitowoc is home to about 65,000 people. It makes the list thanks to its low unemployment rate, cheap rent, and plethora of bars. But it also has the highest percentage of bachelor’s degrees on the list, which in our study presents some competition.

Did you know?
The Manitowoc public school district and Manitowoc Cranes are two of the largest employers in the city.

9. Marinette, WI

  • Unemployment rate: 6.3%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 9.9%
  • Median rent: $546
  • Commute time: 20.4 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 10.7

Marinette has the highest unemployment rate on the list and the longest commute time. But it also has the most bars, the lowest rent, and the lowest proportion of bachelor’s degrees. New graduates who land in the area could have a bigger chance to add value, live on the cheap while they build a little nest egg, and have fun doing it.

8. Quincy, IL

  • Unemployment rate: 5.1%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 13.7%
  • Median rent: $606
  • Commute time: 17.1 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 5.19

The Gem City vicinity is home to 62,000 people, many of whom apparently like bars. The commute is on the low side here, and the median rent is well below the average median rent of $720.

Did you know?
Rand McNally rated Quincy as one of the most beautiful small towns in America. Another Quincy, part of the Boston metropolitan area, is the birthplace of President John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

7. Galesburg, IL

  • Unemployment rate: 5.5%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 12.5%
  • Median rent: $599
  • Commute time: 17.9 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 5.89

About halfway between Moline and Peoria on Interstate 74 is Galesburg. Relatively few people have college degrees here, giving grads the chance to really shine. With a relatively low unemployment rate, they’re more likely to get their pick of jobs.

Did you know?
Galesburg’s largest employer is Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

6. Altoona, PA

  • Unemployment rate: 4.5%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 11.1%
  • Median rent: $618
  • Commute time: 19.2 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 3.67

Altoona has the highest number of bars per 10,000 people on the list, giving grads the ability to hold on to those late night schedules they got used to during college.

5. Great Falls, MT

  • Unemployment rate: 3.6%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 14.6%
  • Median rent: $616
  • Commute time: 16.5 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 7.98

Great Falls is in one of the most beautiful cities in the country, which alone ought to be enough to attract new graduates who still like to have weekend outdoor adventures. On top of that is the low rent, low commute time, and low unemployment rate.

Did you know?
About an hour from Great Falls is the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which is 1.5 million acres in size and an active habitat for grizzly bears.

4. Sioux City, IA

  • Unemployment rate: 3.9%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 12.1%
  • Median rent: $645
  • Commute time: 17.7 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 4.7

Sioux City is one of those cities that’s solid across the board: good job market, low rent, and decent commutes. And the bar scene is relatively good, which means more after-work happy hours.

3. Marshfield, WI

  • Unemployment rate: 4.9%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 12.8%
  • Median rent: $577
  • Commute time: 18 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 3.7

Marshfield is often recognized as a great place to live, and recent grads might agree. There are relatively few bars here, though, which means more time for working and getting ahead. With median rent only $577, graduates have a better chance at getting ahead financially too.

2. Grand Island, NE

  • Unemployment rate: 4.7%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 11.2%
  • Median rent: $616
  • Commute time: 16.4 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 3.71

Grand Island is so close to the center of the United States that a 600-mile drive in any direction can land you in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, or Minneapolis. In just 16 minutes, you could also be at work.

1. Jamestown, NY

  • Unemployment rate: 5%
  • Population with bachelor’s degree: 9.9%
  • Median rent: $597
  • Commute time: 18.1 minutes
  • Bars per 10,000 people: 3.84

Coming in at number one is Jamestown. Located in the western part of the state, little Jamestown looks like a great place for new college graduates: they face little competition from other degree holders, have low rent, good commutes, and something to look forward to on Friday night.


For those who want to start their post-college life in the middle ground between big-city life and snoozy small towns will fit right in with any of these cities. Residents get a mix of employment opportunities plus they still have a life after work.

Tina O is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Tina O at tina@creditdonkey.com

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