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Best Small Cities for New Grads

If you're a student looking ahead to life after college, there are probably several big factors driving the decision of where you should live. You'll want to choose a place that has excellent job potential, affordable cost of living, and, of course, lots of recreational fun that matches your interests. What many don't realize is, you can have all of these things and more without moving to a huge, expensive city. As the our study shows, many small cities in the United States are brimming with diverse culture and exciting career opportunities.

In an effort to help those young grads on the hunt for greener pastures, OnlineDegrees.com recently ranked the best big, midsize, and small cities to move to after college. The following list highlights the top 15 small cities for new grads based on a variety of demographic, employment, and "fun" factors. For this analysis, we ranked 159 U.S. cities that had a city population of between 50,000 and 150,000, and were designated as the principal city of a Metropolitan Statistical Area with a population below 1 million, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. To see a detailed breakdown of our methodology, click here.

At the top of the list is Fargo, North Dakota, just as renowned for the cult movie and TV show as it is for its consistent spot on "best cities" lists. Rounding out the top three are Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Ames, Iowa, both of which have college town appeal and low unemployment. Meanwhile, Texas, with its strong statewide job growth projections, claims an impressive five spots on the list. Check out the other small cities that made our top 15 below.

The 15 Best Small Cities for New Grads

Fargo

1. Fargo, North Dakota

Fargo residents are young and smart, with North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and Concordia College all located in the metro area. Recently, Forbes ranked Fargo No. 7 on its 2015 list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers, and the largest employer in the city is Sanford Health, the nonprofit health care system. Fargo is also tied for the lowest unemployment rate of the 159 cities we ranked (at just 2.4 percent), so recent grads should find solid job prospects, including in the city's expanding industrial and technology sector.

If you enjoy winter activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, Fargo has you covered, with miles of trails to explore. In warmer months, you'll see cyclists getting some air, too. Fargo also hosts plenty of theater, sports, and other spectator events, thanks to the local college presence.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 28.2%
  • Median rent, 2014: $620
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $42,143
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 14.5%

Grand Forks

2. Grand Forks, North Dakota

North Dakota also claims the second spot on our list with the popular city of Grand Forks. Home to the University of North Dakota, young adults are attracted to Grand Forks for its historic downtown area and exciting arts scene, all while appreciating its affordable rent. Dubbed "America's Best Hockey Town" in a nationwide ranking by SmartAsset, Grand Forks offers outdoor recreation, live music, and other events year-round.

As for industry, anyone exploring a career in energy, drone aviation, or manufacturing will find plentiful jobs and a short commute time. Along with UND, major employers in the area include Altru Health System, Grand Forks Air Force Base, LM Wind Power, and Amazon.com.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 27.5%
  • Median rent, 2014: $624
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $41,844
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 14.5%

Ames

3. Ames, Iowa

Ames sure does have a youthful feel, boasting the third-highest percentage of population between 20 and 34 on the list. It's also tied with Fargo for the lowest unemployment rate in our analysis. But what makes Ames especially appealing is its college town atmosphere.

Iowa State University is located here, and the local community couldn't be prouder, whether they're cheering on the football team or celebrating the school's many notable graduates, which include astronauts, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Nobel laureates. Residents also enjoy plenty of outdoor fun in the city's 35 woodland parks, 30 miles of bike and pedestrian trails, and multiple golf courses.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 35.3%
  • Median rent, 2014: $658
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $43,280
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 13.6%

Logan

4. Logan, Utah

If employment outlook is important to you -- and it should be -- you'll be pleased to learn that Utah has the highest projected statewide job growth in the entire country. And with the second-lowest median age in our ranking, and the cheapest median rent in the top 15, Logan is a great fit for those just starting their post-college life. The city was even named one of Forbes' 10 Best Small Places for Business and Careers.

The biggest employer in the area is Utah State University; followed by Icon Health and Fitness; the Cache County School District and JBS USA, another major employer in the Logan area. Beyond work, though, there is lots of fun in Logan, especially if you enjoy rock-climbing, snowmobiling, or skiing.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 27.7%
  • Median rent, 2014: $540
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $34,172
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 26.3%

Boulder

5. Boulder, Colorado

If you're looking for a city that has intellectual stimulation, culture, and nightlife, Boulder is tough to beat. For starters, it has the most performing arts and sports centers per 100,000 residents out of all the cities in the top 15, as well as highest ratio of restaurants to people. Almost 60 percent of adults in Boulder County hold a bachelor's degree or higher, and Colorado is projecting a sizable number of job openings for college grads over the coming decade. The city also has a very low unemployment rate (3.2 percent).

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 23.7%
  • Median rent, 2014: $1,047
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $46,479
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.7%

Santa Maria

6. Santa Maria, California

If a pleasant climate is important to you, the Santa Maria-Santa Barbara area offers one year round. Beautiful landscapes and world class wineries surround this city on California's Central Coast, a scenic gem known for its food, wine, and sandy beaches. Bachelor's degree holders earn an impressive median salary in Santa Maria, though much of that will go to the slightly higher median rent -- the most expensive in the top 15.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 24.3%
  • Median rent, 2014: $1,267
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $53,845
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 15.9%

Lafayette

7. Lafayette, Indiana

As the No. 2 city on Forbes' 2015 list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers, Lafayette has much to offer young grads. It's home to Purdue University, as well as large employers like Subaru, Caterpillar, and Wabash National, which means plenty of jobs options for the nearly one-third of residents who are between 20 and 34 years old. Rich in history, architecture, and art galleries, there's always something cultural to experience in Lafayette.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 30.2%
  • Median rent, 2014: $647
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $42,869
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 12.0%

Abilene

8. Abilene, Texas

Located in west central Texas, Abilene describes itself as "a regional center for distribution, commerce, industry, transportation, and education" on the official city website. They've certainly got the education part right, with seven colleges in the area. Abilene also contains 27 parks and the famous Abilene Zoo. As for employment opportunities, Texas boasts the third-highest projected statewide job growth on the list.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 24.0%
  • Median rent, 2014: $573
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $41,225
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.5%

Fayetteville

9. Fayetteville, Arkansas

As a hub of higher education (the University of Arkansas is located here) and the birthplace of Walmart, Fayetteville is a small city big on business smarts. It made an impressive third place appearance on the 2016 U.S. News Best Places to Live rankings. Additionally, Fayetteville boasts the second-lowest median rent in our top 15.

Due to the its location in the Ozark Mountains, Fayetteville residents can enjoy outdoor fun in its many state parks and trails. The city is also known for its Memphis-style barbecue and Dickson Street, one of the most popular entertainment districts in the state.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 22.6%
  • Median rent, 2014: $568
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $50,752
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 14.1%

San Angelo

10. San Angelo, Texas

Dubbed "The River City" (since the Concho River runs through it), San Angelo is more than just a big oil town. It's fast becoming a center for telecommunications and defense as well. There's also plenty of arts and culture to enjoy at popular spots like the Angelo Civic Theatre and San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 24.0%
  • Median rent, 2014: $595
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $42,001
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.5%

Waco

11. Waco, Texas

From mountain biking to downtown shopping at Magnolia Market to strolling through history, Waco offers residents plenty to do. It also boasts a strong job market for college graduates and affordable rent (the fourth-lowest on the list). Home to Baylor University, this is proof that you can live in the heart of Texas and still have a small-town feel.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 22.9%
  • Median rent, 2014: $581
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $46,237
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.5%

Midland

12. Midland, Texas

Famous for being the hometown of First Lady Laura Bush, Midland is a thriving small city in West Texas, where college grads can find strong earnings, modern metro living, and a low unemployment rate (3.5 percent). From its popular football games to its numerous galleries and festivals, this friendly town is a great place to call home.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 22.9%
  • Median rent, 2014: $855
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $54,024
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.5%

Lawrence

13. Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence took the No. 5 spot on Forbes' 2015 Best Small Places for Business and Careers list. With just about a third of its population aged 20 to 34, the city has the second-largest percentage of young adult residents in the top 15. And the fact that it's home to the University of Kansas may be enticing to those looking to further their education.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 33.7%
  • Median rent, 2014: $696
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $39,047
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 13.8%

Missoula

14. Missoula, Montana

Missoula is located in Montana's Northern Rockies, so if living with picturesque mountains as your backdrop sounds appealing, you've come to the right place. Outdoor enthusiasts will especially love the variety of things to do here, from hiking to rafting. Often considered the state's cultural center, Missoula is home to the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, as well as the annual River City Roots Festival.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 27.3%
  • Median rent, 2014: $683
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $31,839
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 14.0%

Victoria

15. Victoria, Texas

Finishing off our list is Victoria, a historic Texas city that's nicknamed "The Crossroads of Texas" because of its central location between major cities. The University of Houston-Victoria is located here, as well as top employers in the retail, manufacturing, and medical sectors. As such, the job outlook for college grads is strong -- Texas strong!

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2014: 19.4%
  • Median rent, 2014: $609
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2014: $48,603
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2012-22: 21.5%

Methodology

Each city was ranked on a 10 point scale, using the following seven data points (weights are specified):

  1. Median monthly rent, American Community Survey, 2014: 15%
  2. Percent of housing units that are occupied by renters rather than owners, American Community Survey, 2014: 10%
  3. Percent of the population between the ages of 20 and 34, American Community Survey, 2014: 20%
  4. Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, American Community Survey, 2014: 15%
  5. Arts and entertainment: The number of performing arts, spectator sports and related industries; and museums and historical sites per 100,000 residents in each metro area, U.S. Census Population Estimates, 2014; County Business Patterns, 2014: 15%
  6. State job growth projections: The average projected growth rate and the projected number of new jobs per 100 people in each metro area, 2012-22, Projections Central, 2015: 10%
  7. Metro area unemployment rate, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015: 15%

Additional Sources:
"The Best Small Places For Business And Careers 2015," Forbes, July 29, 2015, Kurt Badenhausen, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2015/07/29/the-best-small-cities-for-business-and-careers-2015/#5eba7ab869cc
"America's Best Hockey Towns of 2015, SmartAsset, February 2, 2016, Nick Wallace, https://smartasset.com/mortgage/best-and-worst-college-towns-to-live-in
QuickFacts: Boulder County, Colorado, United States Census Bureau, Accessed August 16, 2016, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/08013
"About Abilene," City of Abilene, Accessed August 16, 2016, http://www.abilenetx.com/living/about-abilene
"Best Places to Live," U.S. News & World Report, Accessed August 16, 2016, http://realestate.usnews.com/places/rankings-best-places-to-live