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Heartland Best for College Grads


Between crushing student debt and dim job prospects, the nation’s recent grads have every right to a bleak outlook on average. But their outlook isn’t actually uniformly bleak across the country. Here’s a list of ten cities where college grads are faring particularly well, with unemployment rates well below the national average. If you were reading us this weekend, you already know that Texas landed four cities on this list:

1. Indianapolis
2. Austin
3. Dallas
4. Pittsburgh
5. Louisville
6. San Antonio (tie)
6. St. Louis (tie)
8. Richmond
9. Houston
10. Milwaukee

The list ranks cities based on the unemployment rate for college graduates, the local wage premium for a college degree, and the city’s cost of living. The cities that made the top ten all had low costs of living and remarkably low unemployment rates for college educated workers. While the 2011 national unemployment rate for those with at least a BA was 4.3 percent, every city on the list but Houston was well below that. Indianapolis’s data was particularly startling, with just 1.9 percent of college graduates out of work; Austin and Richmond weren’t far behind.

There are some flaws in the methodology: emphasizing each city’s BA wage premium skews the rankings toward cities with large wage disparities, effectively rewarding them for having large concentrations of poor people without degrees. But a low cost of living is something everyone can benefit from, allowing young people to pay back loans and build up savings more easily.

It’s also worth noting that most of these cities are in red states. We often hear that cities like New York and San Francisco, which spend heavily on education and other public services, are models of the good life. Yet time after time we find that it’s the red states where jobs are plentiful and the living is affordable. As this list shows, there’s a whole lot to like about the heartland, which is why Americans are continuing to move where the money is.

[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • bpuharic

    Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh, and now living near Philly, I can tell you there’s a big difference in cost of living in these cities. You can’t compare state to state when INTRA state differences are huge.

    Pittsburgh suffered the worst population loss of any American city in history when the steel mills closed. My father worked in one and I left the city when I got my BS. In terms of population age it’s one of the oldest cities in the US. Perhaps it has jobs because so many people are retired.

    Population density has alot to do with cost of living, as does housing, etc. The “Bos-Wash” corridor is densely populated AND expensive while places with plenty of land…like Houston, Dallas, etc., are not.

  • Anthony

    For more than 18 months economic trends/indicators have been highlighting growth corridors in areas/locales you mention – though college grads have not been a focus. Yet given corridors job growth and afforability, it is logical these cities would attract college graduates with both talent and ambition (moving where the capital is).

  • Joseph Maurer

    One thing these ratings don’t capture is that the territorial distribution of jobs across majors is not equal. If your skills and passion are in the semiconductor industry, moving to Dallas gives you far better options than Pittsburgh. Having a job in an expensive city beats being unemployed in one with a low cost of living.

    As one of these recent grads, I’d argue that a place that has more opportunities to practice what you studied and [hopefully] love is worth paying more for. The same goes for areas you enjoy living in – hence why I pay a premium to live in New England over Dallas.

  • wigwag

    I would like to put in a plug for Indianapolis; what a wonderful city. It’s downtown, centered on Monument Circle is pristine and absolutely beautiful. One of the reasons that its economy is so good is that it focuses on health care and as we know health care continues to be a thriving sector. The largest employer in town is Eli Lilly, the second largest is Indiana University Health Systems (known as IU Health) and the third largest is Anthem Health (the largest operator in the nation of Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans). Other large employers include Emmis Communications, the third largest owner of American radio stations, Lucas Oil and the Mays Chemical Company (the largest minority owned chemical company in the nation.

    By far the richest family in the city is the Simons Family, the huge operator of shopping malls. The family also owns the Indiana Pacers basketball team.

    One other thing; the people are incredibly friendly and proud of their city and they have a great brand new airport. I’ve never seen an airport as efficient as the one in Indianapolis although airfares into and our of the city are quite expensive.

    What a great place for young people to raise a family!

    • RedWell

      I agree, with one big caveat that partially undermines VM’s point here: there are hardly any jobs in Indy if your degree is not related health services, engineering or middle-management. Indiana overall suffers a “brain drain” because the economy, while improving, remains relatively undiversified. Jobs there are only “plentiful” if you happen to have the right personal proclivities and, in turn, happened to study the right major. I suspect that applies to most of this list’s cities: a lot of the most dynamic thinkers are forced to find work elsewhere. (Austin may be the one exception.)

      • wigwag

        Fair enough and it should probably also be said that Indianapolis is not exactly a cultural Mecca. Many similarly sized cities, Cleveland for example, are blessed with far better cultural institutions (although Indy’s art museum isn’t bad).

        But Indianapolis does have one thing that no other city does; the best steak house in the United States. If you like steak, nothing compares with Saint Elmo’s. It’s not just the steak; they are famous for their shrimp cocktail and they make a mighty fine Bloody Mary too.

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