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Best Small Cities for New Grads 2018

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Methodology

For this analysis, we ranked 413 U.S. metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas that had populations of less than 150,000, according to the five-year American Community Survey estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The largest city from each area was then ranked on a 10-point scale, using the following eight data points.

  1. Median monthly rent, American Community Survey, 2015
  2. Percent of housing units that are occupied by renters rather than owners, American Community Survey, 2015
  3. Percent of the population between the ages of 20 and 34, American Community Survey, 2015
  4. Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, American Community Survey, 2015
  5. Arts & 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, 2015; County Business Patterns, 2015
  6. State job growth projections: The average projected growth rate and the projected number of new jobs per 100 people in each metro area, 2014-24, Projections Central, 2015
  7. Employment Status, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2011-15
  8. Cost of Living Index, Second Quarter, 2017

Sources:

  • Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015, U.S. Census Bureau, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_B01003&prodType=table
  • Bismarck-Mandan Development Association, http://bmda.org/about/quality-of-life/, accessed November 2017
  • Chamber of Commerce, La Crosse Area, https://www.lacrossechamber.com/young-professionals/, accessed November 2017
  • City of Mankato, https://mankatomn.gov, accessed November 2017
  • City of Odessa, Texas, http://www.odessa-tx.gov/, accessed November 2017
  • Courtland County Business Development Corporation, http://cortlandbusiness.com/target-industries/, accessed November 2017
  • Economic Development, City of Williston, http://willistondevelopment.com/key_industries/index.php, accessed November 2017
  • Employment Status, 2011-2015, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_S2301&prodType=table
  • Greater Grand Forks, https://www.visitgrandforks.com/things-to-do, accessed November 2017
  • How much it costs to rent a 1-bedroom in 30 major cities around the world, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/24/how-much-it-costs-to-rent-a-1-bedroom-in-30-cities-around-the-world.html
  • Kearney, Nebraska, Community Profile, Buffalo County Economic Development, January 2016, http://edcbc.com/community_profile.pdf
  • Key Industries, Greater Mankato Growth, https://greatermankato.com/key-industries, accessed November 2017
  • Long-Term Occupational Projections by State, Projections Central, 2014-24, accessed July 2017, http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
  • No. of establishments by MSA for NAICS codes 71: Arts, Entertainment and Recreation and 72: Accommodation and Food Services, County Business Patterns, 2014, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?refresh=t
  • Odessa Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.odessacvb.com/, accessed November 2017
  • Projections Central, http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
  • Relocating to Great Falls, City of Great Falls, Montana, https://greatfallsmt.net/community/relocating-great-falls, accessed November 2017
  • San Angelo, Texas, https://www.sanangelo.org/, accessed November 2017
  • Significant Industries, Southern Tier Region, 2015, Department of Labor, New York State, https://www.labor.ny.gov/stats/PDFs/Significant-Industries-Southern-Tier.pdf
  • Stephenville Chamber of Commerce, http://www.stephenvilletexas.org/community-profile, accessed November 2017
  • Table B25003: Selected Housing Characteristics, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2015, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_B25003&prodType=table
  • Table B25058: Median Contract Rent, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2015, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_B25058&prodType=table
  • Table S0101: Age and Sex, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2015, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_S0101&prodType=table
  • Table S2001: Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months (in 2015 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Sex by Educational Attainment for the Population 25 Years and Over, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, accessed July 2017, https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_S2001&prodType=table
  • The City of Victoria, Texas, http://www.victoriatx.org/, accessed November 2017
  • Top Employers, Vail Valley Economic Development, http://vailvalleymeansbusiness.com/data-center/top-employers/, accessed November 2017
  • Visit Minot, http://visitminot.org/, accessed November 2017
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Graduating from college is a momentous occasion, and the decisions you make after passing that milestone can come with long-lasting effects. Where you decide to live, for example, will likely play a huge role in how easily you find a job and the type of housing you'll be able to afford.

Affordability is especially important for new graduates to consider, most start their careers with limited incomes. While big cities offer plenty of nightlife and places to explore, urban living can be costly: average rents in Boston, San Francisco, and New York City, for example, are going for $2,930, $3,360, and $3,680 in 2017, respectively.

To help young graduates find the right place to spread their wings, OnlineDegrees.com's yearly analysis ranks big, midsize, and small cities that feature some of the best amenities for recent college graduates.

For this small city analysis, we compared 413 U.S. metropolitan areas with a population of 150,000 or less. The largest city in each of those areas was then ranked on factors such as median monthly rent, percentage of renters, percentage of residents aged 20-34 and median earnings for those with a bachelor's degree. We also considered the number of arts and entertainment venues, along with job growth projections and unemployment status.

If you just graduated from college or plan to do so soon, here's the best of the best in terms of small cities that offer a lot of value for new college graduates.

1. Odessa, Texas

Odessa, TX

With almost one in four residents in the 20-24 age bracket, Odessa offers plenty of opportunities for new grads to connect with others who are at a similar point in life. Those who live in this West Texas city can be part of a healthy state economy — one that may make building a post-college life relatively easy, especially when combined with Odessa's No. 2 ranking for median earnings.

Odessa has a great nightlight for new grads to enjoy. In fact, the city has the second-highest number of restaurants in of our top 15 cities. Residents can also enjoy plays at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, a full schedule of festivals, Falcons football games, and many other sporting and cultural experiences.

Fun fact: Odessa is home to a full-size replica of Stonehenge.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 24%
  • Median rent, 2015: $733
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $48,689
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 17.71%

2. Grand Forks, North Dakota

Grand Forks, ND

Grand Forks repeats its 2016 high marks, once again taking the No. 2 spot on our list. With Grand Forks Air Force Base, a major university (University of North Dakota) and its own airport, Grand Forks is bursting with activities that cater to an active, college-educated crowd. In fact, out of all of the small cities on our list, Grand Forks has the highest percentage of residents in the about-to-graduate or just-out-of-college age range.

The city of Grand Forks features a hockey rink, an auto racing track, theaters and museums, along with outdoor areas like Ryan Park and the Japanese Gardens, which are perfect for biking or rollerblading.

And if you're angling for a good place to get a job, it's important to note Grand Forks 3.9 percent unemployment rate.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 28%
  • Median rent, 2015: $652
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $42,813
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 7.27%

3. San Angelo, Texas

San Angelo, TX

San Angelo, Texas, is another appealing location with low median rent and huge potential for newly minted college grads. Considering statewide job growth projections that are exceptionally high, and San Angelo's 4.7 percent unemployment rate, the economic outlook for this city in the middle of Texas is very healthy.

In terms of recreation and entertainment, people just starting their careers can find plenty of activities for their non-work time and opportunities to make new friends, San Angelo has the famed Concho River Walk, more than 190 restaurants, 20 bars, three lakes, a nature center, multiple museums, a more than 7,000-acre state park, and several craft breweries.

Special kudos: This city jumped seven spots from its 2016 ranking!

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 24.4%
  • Median rent, 2015: $622
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $41,312
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 17.71%

4. Minot, North Dakota

Minot, North Dakota

While Minot, North Dakota was damaged heavily by flooding in 2011, the city has since been rebuilt and is now thriving thanks in part to the energy boom driven by the nearby Bakken oil field. The area is also home to Minot State University and the Minot Air Force Base, which is just north of town.

During the summer, Minot hosts the North Dakota State Fair, while also featuring plenty of year-round amenities. For example, Minot's Roosevelt Park Zoo, Dakota Territory Air Museum, symphony, and Taube Museum of Art provide a great mix of cultural and historical offerings.

During colder months, Minot transforms itself into a winter wonderland. If you love the outdoors, ice fishing and snowmobiles, you'll never run out of things to see and do.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 27.8%
  • Median rent, 2015: $822
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $45,415
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 7.27%

5. Edwards, Colorado

Edwards, Colorado

Edwards, Colorado, made our list due to several factors, including its wealth of amenities and recreation options for those who want to build their post-college life in an active natural environment. This Vail Valley location — a destination for skiing, hiking and climbing — is a beautiful spot for outdoor activities all year long.

While an apartment in Edwards is slightly more expensive than some on this list, Colorado's exceptionally high projected job growth — the highest among the states featured on our list — tells us Edwards is, and will continue to be, booming over the next decade. Top industries in the area include recreation and entertainment, real estate, accommodations and food services, and health care.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 23.3%
  • Median rent, 2015: $1,157
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $43,360
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 22.02%

6. Bismarck, North Dakota

Bismarck, North Dakota

Bismarck, the state's capital, offers a rich array of activities and services to support a high quality of life for its residents. New grads who consider making this city their home can look forward to exploring its museums, patronizing the arts and attending Bismarck Bobcats hockey games. Bismarck has North Dakota's largest zoo, a state-of-the-art heritage center, Bismarck State College and the University of Mary.

While the recreational aspects are appealing, Bismarck's biggest value is its affordability. Monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is shockingly low for a capital city, yet incomes remain relatively high. And in a state with solid job growth projections, Bismarck, with the second-lowest unemployment rate at 3 percent, is likely to provide plenty of career opportunities for new college graduates.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 21.6%
  • Median rent, 2015: $679
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $47,650
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 10.88%

7. La Crosse, Wisconsin

La Crosse, WI

La Crosse, with a population of almost 136,000, is brimming with activities for all ages. It's location on the state's western border, along the banks of the Mississippi River, makes it an ideal spot for water sports and outdoor recreation, while its three colleges and universities help give it a younger vibe.

In order to support those who are just starting their careers, the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce sponsors a young professionals group that focuses on educational luncheons, networking and social events. Top industries in the area include health care and technology.

Fun fact: La Crosse counts more than 300 restaurants, bars and breweries in its metro area — the highest number of all the other cities on our top 15 list.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 23%
  • Median rent, 2015: $623
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $45,095
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 7.27%

8. Cortland, New York

Cortland, NY

While it might be hard to imagine renting an apartment for under four figures in the state of New York, Cortland makes this possible. While it's only a few hours from New York City, this bustling town offers affordable housing and good job prospects.

And because the county has targeted several specific industries for growth, including research and development, manufacturing and distribution, these sectors are likely to provide new graduates with appealing career paths.

Set in the state's gorgeous Finger Lakes district, Cortland offers an abundance of experiences for its residents throughout the four seasons: agritourism, festivals and fairs, golfing, cross country skiing, and arts and cultural events — just to name a few.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 23%
  • Median rent, 2015: $576
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $44,386
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 9.07%

9. Kearney, Nebraska

Kearney, NE

Kearney's location near the country's geographic center makes it a central point for commerce. And the city's low unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, paired with its diversified economic base, means that new college graduates are likely to find job opportunities in sectors ranging from finance and insurance, manufacturing, wholesale trade, health care and government.

But ideally, work needs to be balanced with opportunities to play, and Kearney provides just that. People who call this city home can enjoy experiences at the Museum of Nebraska Art, Fort Kearney State Historical Park, multiple golf courses, and miles of biking and hiking trails. Fun fact: Each spring, more than 600,000 cranes migrate through the area.

Kearney has the lowest average rent of all cities featured in this ranking.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 24.5%
  • Median rent, 2015: $550
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $38,917
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 4.47%

10. Stephenville, Texas (tie)

Stephenville, Texas

Residents of Stephenville are young and smart — more than 30 percent have earned at least a bachelor's degree. While this city has the second-smallest population of our top 15 small cities, this community is growing rapidly, due primarily to its proximity to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

For new grads who want to make their home in a comfortable, small-city environment, but who still want easy access to big-city amenities, Stephenville would be a great choice. At last count, Stephenville featured an unemployment rate of just 4.1 percent, and employment across the state is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. A major employer in the immediate area is Tarleton State University; other local job opportunities can be found in manufacturing-related businesses.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 26.8%
  • Median rent, 2015: $556
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $40,658
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 17.71%

10. Williston, North Dakota (tie)

Williston, ND

Located near the Montana border and close to Canada, Williston is an ideal city for nature lovers who want to hunt, fish, and explore the great outdoors. It's also near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. This town also features numerous historic sites, museums, art centers, and a sporting complex of its own.

Williston's economic health is driven, to a high degree, by the oil, gas and alternative energy industries — all of which are likely to provide lucrative job opportunities for new grads. In fact, Williston, the smallest city on our list, claims the highest wages for bachelor's degree holders. This earnings potential, combined with the state's solid projected job growth rate and the city's rock-bottom unemployment rate, make Williston a winner in our book.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 26.7%
  • Median rent, 2015: $821
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $55,275
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 10.88%

12. Elmira, New York

Elmira, NY

Elmira offers a surprisingly low cost of living in a state typically known for being expensive. With your newly earned degree in hand, this small city in the south-central part of New York might be just the right place to establish your new life. Industries in the region that employ the most people include educational services, health care, and computer and electronic manufacturing.

Elmira can be an exceptionally fun place for young people, with many parks and museums. The Southern Finger Lakes region is also home to more than 120 wineries and breweries.

Fun fact: Elmira is where Mark Twain and his family spent their summers. It's also where this classic American author is buried.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 18.7%
  • Median rent, 2015: $594
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $50,045
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 7.27%

13. Victoria, Texas

Victoria, Texas

Victoria, near the Gulf of Mexico and located between Corpus Christi and Houston, is an economic hub for the region. New grads can see employment in its dynamic business, technology, and manufacturing and energy sectors. They can also look forward to wages that are among the highest on our list.

This small town also offers those starting a post-college life and affordable place to live and plenty of things to do. Residents can take advantage of its collection of museums, theater and musical events at the Leo J. Welder Center for Performing Arts, plenty of parks, and more than 170 restaurants and bars.

The health job growth rate statewide tells us that Victoria is thriving with economic opportunity and growth.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 19.6%
  • Median rent, 2015: $626
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $48,502
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 17.71%

14. Great Falls, Montana

Great Falls, MT

The central Montana city of Great Falls is known for its gorgeous landscapes and plentiful recreational opportunities. Located along the Missouri River, flanked by mountains and hills, it's also within driving distance of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. When combined with a growing state economy, Great Falls make an ideal home for graduates who want a healthy mix of solid career options and a place that's ideal for being in and exploring nature.

The city boasts museums, its own state park, hiking trails, water parks and breweries, and it hosts the annual Montana State Fair. Great Falls made our list due to all these amenities, plus the fact that it's so affordable over all: it features the second-lowest median rent out of our top 15 cities.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 21.6%
  • Median rent, 2015: $551
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $38,211
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 10.49%

15. Mankato, Minnesota

Mankato, MN

Mankato's rich mix of amenities is a major draw for people of all ages. Those looking to start their post-college life — whether new grads of Minnesota State University or elsewhere — will find a bike-friendly city where town leaders encourage participation in citizen committees and provide workshops for potential new homeowners. Residents can enjoy several museums, more than 45 city parks, and Minneopa State Park, which is about a 10-minute drive from the downtown area.

But, what really helped this city land a spot on our list was its overall affordability and excellent job market. With Mankato's low unemployment rate of just 4.6 percent, job seekers are likely to find plenty of opportunities to start a new career in one of the area's major industries, such as education, health care, manufacturing and agribusiness.

  • Percent of population between 20 and 34, 2015: 27.7%
  • Median rent, 2015: $651
  • Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders, 2015: $44,367
  • Average projected job growth statewide, 2014-24: 4.81%

Rankings Archive

The 15 Best Small Cities for New Grads 2016

  1. Fargo, North Dakota
  2. Grand Forks, North Dakota
  3. Ames Iowa
  4. Logan, Utah
  5. Boulder, Colorado
  6. Santa Maria, California
  7. Lafayette, Indiana
  8. Abilene, Texas
  9. Fayetteville, Arkansas
  10. San Angelo, Texas
  11. Waco, Texas
  12. Midland, Texas
  13. Lawrence, Kansas
  14. Missoula, Montana
  15. Victoria, Texas
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