Updated March 10, 2014

Study: Smartest Cities


If you've ever seen a college graduate tug strenuously on a door that is clearly labeled "push," you're well aware of the stark differences between how people define "smart." That college degree takes some people only so far. But most lists of the so-called smartest cities will in fact rely on just one data point: the proportion of people with college degrees.

CreditDonkey.com set out to provide a more accurate view of major metropolitan areas with a high level of intelligent residents. A college diploma is just one measure. Also important are factors that reflect its citizens’ continuing thirst for knowledge and communities that have a proven population of bona fide geniuses.

Of course, "smart cities" by definition have fewer people who are not overly bright, so we also looked for signs of stupidity. Here's how we put all these data points together.

Study Methodology

  • Percent of population with bachelor's degree or higher
  • Mensa chapters in the state
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people

Using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, we discovered that 26% of people in the average metropolitan statistical area have at least a bachelor's degree.

We also looked to the most recent information from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to find cities with high proportions of library cardholders. Now, we realize that in this day and age not everybody needs a library card to be a brainiac (which is why we let this data carry only half the weight of the education data). But that doesn't excuse the fact that library cardholders are generally interested in reading and learning - and that's a sign of intelligence. On average, there were 0.58 library cardholders for every 1,000 people in our pool of cities.

Smart people tend to flock together, so we also took a look at how many Mensa chapters are in each state. Mensa is an international organization for people who score in the top 2% of the general population on IQ tests. There are, on average, five Mensa chapters in every state, but California, Florida, and Texas have far more, and some only have one. Of course, smart people don’t always have time for socializing (they're too busy running the world), so we gave this data half the weight of the library data.

Last but not least, we figured that a city isn't "smart" if there are a bunch of "unsmart" people living there. So we looked at a measure of generally unintelligent behavior: the number of times people have burglarized, vandalized or done some other property crime in 2012, according to FBI data. We docked cities with high property crime rates - but since we didn't want a bunch of thieves to ruin it for everybody, so we also gave this information half the weight of the library data.

10 Smartest Cities

1. San Jose, CA

San Jose, California
San Jose, California

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 45.7%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 10
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,603

San Jose, which sits in the heart of the notoriously smart Silicon Valley, is also in a state with a high number of Mensa chapters. The proportion of college degrees in San Jose is one of the highest in the country. With some of the world's most revolutionary technical change emanating from this town, San Jose attracts and retains some of this country’s greatest brains.

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2. Boston, MA

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 43%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 5
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.7
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 1,984

How could the home of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - schools famed for people with exceptional aptitude - not be on the list? Clearly, the Boston area is a diploma hotbed, but what really propels Beantown to the head of the class is its citizens' common sense - at least relative to other parts of the country. It has the lowest property crime rate on our list.

Did you know? About 78% of the freshmen admitted to MIT in 2013 scored at least 750 on the math portion of the SAT.

3. San Diego, CA

San Diego, California
San Diego, California

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 34.1%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 10
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,197

San Diego is a breeding ground for braininess, and deciding to live near all that sun and sand might in itself be a sign of intelligence. San Diego has more college degrees than Los Angeles (number five), the third California city on the list, but San Diego also has more property crime per 100,000 residents.

4. Raleigh, NC

Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh, North Carolina

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 41.2%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 4
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,471

Raleigh is a city of 1.2 million people in a part of North Carolina where the hills meet the coastal plain. A whopping 41% of the population has a college education - and they have the best barbecue on the list. Smart, indeed.

5. Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 31.30%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 10
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,297

They may call it "Lala-land," but L.A. has some smarts even after you factor in all the reality-TV stars. There are lots of Mensa chapters, meaning that the genius set in California has a lot of opportunity to mingle, and with a 0.6 ratio in library card holdership, folks there are putting their noses in a book more often than the rest of the world assumes.

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6. Denver, CO

Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 38.9%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 4
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,747

Intelligence hits a Rocky Mountain high in Denver. This city has long landed on lists of cities with the highest proportions of college degrees, but Denver is also home to a decent crowd of geniuses and library users. The property crime rate suggests that a less educated element does have a stronghold there, but maybe those folks just can't handle the altitude.

Did you know? Altitude sickness occurs when the brain cannot get enough oxygen from the air. Symptoms include headache, loss of appetite, and sleep troubles. More than 20% of people visiting the western mountains get it, according to WebMD.

7. Chicago, IL

Chicago, Illinois
Chicago, Illinois

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 34.4%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 5
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,677

The property crime rate isn't the best in Chicago (second only to Denver), but Chicagoans do get a good mental workout from the five Mensa chapters in the state and a dizzying array of pizza choices. The city's top tier universities and cultural scene make it a cranial vortex.

Did you know? The Harold Washington Library Center was the world's largest municipal library when it opened in 1991 with 6.5 million books.

8. Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York
Rochester, New York

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 32.3%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 7
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,645

Home of the University of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology and some world-famous hotdogs, Rochester is tops in New York not just because of the proportion of people with at least a bachelor's degree, but because of its citizens' propensity to use the library (New York City rates only 0.5).

Did you know? In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested in Rochester for voting in the presidential election. She spent the rest of her life fighting for women's right to vote. Her Rochester home is now a museum.

9. Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 33.3%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 5
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,666

Philadelphia edges out Rochester in terms of the proportion of citizens with at least a bachelor's degree. But, with a slightly higher crime rate and fewer Mensa chapters, it comes in at number nine. Still not bad, though.

Did you know? Scientist Alexander Dallas Bache was born in Philadelphia in 1806. By using new technologies such as the telegraph and photography, Bache played a critical role in helping chart America's coastlines.

10. Richmond, VA

Richmond, Virginia
Richmond, Virginia

  • Population with bachelor’s degree or higher: 32.1%
  • Mensa chapters in state: 5
  • Library cardholders per 1,000 people: 0.6
  • Property crimes per 100,000 people: 2,563

Coming in at number 10 is our fifth East Coast city, which makes a solid argument for which side of the country has more cerebral heft. With 1.2 million citizens, Richmond is a feeder town for the brains of Washington, D.C., with its one measly Mensa chapter and residents who are less interested in using the library.


To be sure, there's no one measure of intelligence. Not all smart people belong to Mensa, for example, and you could argue that the days are numbered for traditional libraries. No matter how smart you are, despite your high SAT scores, you may still forget to use a turn signal when we drive. Regardless, these cities have something special: a crowd that values learning - and common sense - in many forms.

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Follow @CreditDonkey or write to Tina O at tina@creditdonkey.com
Tina O is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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