Best Graduate Cities

Being among the best graduate cities has its perks, college graduates have often been considered the secret to success for urban revival in the United States. Young, educated workers are correlated with strong, innovative economies and alluring to prospective businesses. The coveted demographic has swelled in cities as younger generations flee the suburban neighborhoods of their parents. But not all urban areas have benefited from this exodus equally, the likelihood that graduates will head to a city after college is much higher for some metros than it is for others.

Knowing these statistics can help inform prospective students where they may be more likely to end up because of their school choice, or help communities understand how they are best able to retain their own college graduates into their local workforce. PayScale’s Online Salary Survey collects profiles of graduates from all over the country, including what school they attended and where they have a job since graduating. Using these profiles, we can understand the relative commonness for a metro location and school combination.

Further aggregation of these results extends our ability to rank which metros are the best graduate cities, how each metro is able to retain graduates from its own schools and how dispersed a particular school’s graduates are throughout the country.

We find that depending on the school or metro area from which they derive, graduates may be more or less likely to move to certain cities. In this analysis, we explore some possibilities explaining why graduates of certain schools or metro areas are more likely to end up in a particular city.

Best Graduate Cities Overall

Did you move to New York after school? How about Chicago? Los Angeles? Washington DC? These are the top 4 best graduate cities we’ve found that attract college graduates from all over the country. They also happen to be among the major hubs for their respective geographic areas – the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. These cities enjoy booming economies, historic cultural attractions and a plethora of tech startups or business firms waiting to absorb the best and brightest of newly grads.

New York City holds the top spot, 6.3 percent of all graduates with a bachelor’s degree in our sample work in NYC. Of course, the city has no shortage of cultural attributes to appeal to college grads. A vibrant night life, diverse neighborhoods and a highly charged spirit of romanticism that inspires big dreamers and go-getters. New York City is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The metro area not only touts the country’s largest GDP, comparable to that of Canada’s GDP on its own, it is also home to the largest number of billionaires in one city worldwide. As a global economic powerhouse, it is no wonder that it inspires such slogans as “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”. No doubt the college graduates flocking to the Big Apple feel up to the challenge. 

Salary may also play a factor in graduates flocking to New York. While a high cost of living can influence the higher average pay for New York workers, New York may still offer a premium for certain professions and industries where competition for talent is high. Finance & Insurance is a large contributor to New York’s GDP output, early-career financial analysts working in New York could see higher pay by as much as 23% compared to financial analysts in Chicago, another one of the top overall best graduate cities. Below we compare pay for each of the top 3 best graduate cities in our sample across 3 different industries and occupations, holding education level and experience constant. We find that in almost every case, New York stands out as offering higher pay.

Chicago, IL is the only metro area of the Midwest to make it into the top 10 best graduate cities overall. Chicago is a prominent economic hub in the region and nationally, with one of the country’s largest economies and 3rd highest GDP by metro area. Similar in many ways to New York, it boasts an appealing array of urban culture, diverse communities and prominent institutions combined with ample economic opportunities. This midwestern hub is likely an accessible and appealing destination for graduates of the region looking to start their career without needing to move across the country to do so. However, as we discuss below, further analysis shows that graduates of Chicago schools may be more likely to move elsewhere after college. 

Seattle holds a slight lead over San Francisco when it comes to attracting graduates, 3.0 percent of graduates in our sample are Seattle-based compared to 2.4 percent of those in San Francisco. The two western tech hubs have established their dominance when it comes to enticing tech talent with well-known firms and start-up friendly cultures. The slight gain that Seattle enjoys over San Francisco of absorbing the young and educated may signal a changing of the guard, with the emergence of Amazon and resurgence of Microsoft playing a key role in Seattle’s tech dominance in recent years.  

While both metro areas may not be considered cheap compared to other parts of the country, Seattle’s cost of living is still lower than San Francisco’s. Seattle could just be cost-friendlier to graduates looking for similar tech opportunities, with a cost of living estimated to be about 18% lower than San Francisco’s according to PayScale’s cost of living calculator 

As Big Tech proves its resiliency amid the COVID-19 pandemic, these two cities could climb the ranks even further as hot destinations for graduates. Seattle in particular could gain a further edge from Amazon and Microsoft catering to remote work infrastructure and cloud computing. On the other hand, depending on how these tech firms implement remote work for their employees during the pandemic, newly hired graduates may find they are able to work virtually for these firms all over the country. 

Best Graduate Cities: Which Cities Retain Their Own Grads? 

While some of the nation’s largest economies and metro areas attract graduates from all over the country with great success, they aren’t always the best at keeping their own graduates. Students who graduated from schools in a given metro area may be more likely to leave for new horizons rather than stay put. In this section, we look at which cities are best at retaining their own grads and which aren’t. To do this we look at schools within a designated metro, does the metro appear in the top 3 likely destinations for graduates of those schools? We can measure how often a metro appears in the top 3 destinations for its own graduates. As we see below, a result of 39 percent for Kansas City, MO indicates that Kansas City is in the top 3 likely destinations for its graduates 39 percent of the time. 

Three of the top five metros for retaining graduates are in the Midwest, a region that otherwise fell flat at attracting graduates from outside schools. While this may suggest that regional cultural divides are at play to dampen an influx of outside graduates and embrace resident graduates, it may have more to do with the local schools themselves. Kansas City, St. Louis and Cleveland clearly benefit from local schools that propel graduates into their local economies. Each of these cities are a mainstay of the U.S. industrial heartland, historically catering to manufacturing operations that continue to diversify and dominate these economies. The services industry, too, has gained a foothold in these economic spheres, including healthcare and telecommunications.  

As these industries have come to replace the antiquated rust belt economies of the northern Midwest, trade and technical schools have emerged in these communities in direct response to evolving job markets. Just as these metro areas cater to manufacturing and service sectors, so do their schools. In turn, graduates of local schools are more likely to be a natural fit for the local job market and won’t need to go far to secure a well-suited position.  

The same might be said for the remaining two metro areas in the top grad-retaining list of metros. Houston, a city famously reliant on the energy industry, is also now a hub of medical research and healthcare services. Baltimore has transitioned into a service-based economy and has an ever-growing presence in healthcare and social services occupations. Schools in these cities may have made a good business of catering to these blossoming trades. The energy and healthcare industries are particularly reliant on the talent and training that technical trade schools can provide.

Although one of the nation’s largest economies and one of the best graduate cities overall for attracting college graduates, Chicago appears less often in the top 3 cities for graduates of its own schools. While there are likely many alluring traits Chicago has for graduates as we discussed above, there are some explanations for this phenomenon.  

Chicago’s political and cultural playground isn’t its only famous attribute, unfortunately the city is also well known for gun violence, racial disparities rooted in segregation and systemic poverty, and we can’t forget, the bitter cold winters. Some of these issues are of course disproportionately experienced by black communities and may be contributors to the exodus of black middle-class families from Chicago. Any first-generation black students may be using their degree to escape from the systemic issues that black communities of Chicago face today. For whatever reason, resident graduates of Chicago’s schools may have become disillusioned by the city over the course of their educational careers.  

Another difference that our bottom list of grad-retaining metros have compared to the top cohort is cost of living. As our cost of living calculator tells us, these destination cities with strong economies have higher housing and food costs. Chicago, Denver and Miami each have a higher cost of living than the national average. Meanwhile, most of the top grad-retaining metros sit at or below the national average. While students may have graduated with their degree, they might not have graduated from ramen noodles quite yet – just until they land their post-grad job. Fleeing to cheaper areas could be a big appeal for those early on in their careers.  

Best Graduate Cities: Schools with Widest Grad Dispersal  

The prestige of an institution can be measured in many ways, at its heart it is a consideration of the success and influence of its alumni. Where a school’s graduates end up not only defines the strength of its alumni network but also the reach that it has across diverse organizations and economies. To measure this reach, we look at how graduates of different types of institutions disperse across the country and how they compare to other institutions in their cohort. In this section, we discuss ivy league schools as well as public schools.

Cornell University stands out among ivy league schools as casting a geographically wide net of alumni. It also stands out as being furthest from a large metro. Not only is the New York based school tucked away in the quaint Ithaca countryside, it also has one of the smallest student bodies among ivy league schools. Despite their smaller numbers, these graduates have scattered to a greater number of metros. Ostensibly, Cornell graduates may be looking to larger economies and grander metros to kick off their careers. Due to the limitations of its bucolic environment, Cornell may be motivated to help find employment for its graduates far and wide. 

It comes as no surprise that large public schools see graduates dispersed to a large number of metros. Many of these are midwestern schools with large student bodies. While we have observed that some midwestern metro areas are succeeding at retaining their own grads, we can’t apply this trait over the region as a whole. As parts of the Midwest stifle into limited manufacturing and service-based economies, these graduates may be looking to branch out to diverse economies that can offer a wider array of job opportunities.  

No matter the school, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to remote schooling and virtual graduations. With graduates prevented from moving to outside economies, graduate dispersal is likely to shift in the short term. Whether this will ultimately propel graduates into participating in their local economies long-term rather than move to other areas, or will simply delay their moving to other areas, is uncertain. It stands to reason that bigger metro areas with stronger economies will only grow in appeal to new graduates as the current recession manifests.  

Hiring practices and job markets are also likely to change. The pandemic forcing remote work may enable graduates to find employment in markets all over the country, while staying put in their resident geographic location. Time will tell if telecommuting finds a more prominent and permanent place in a post-COVID world, or if today’s graduates will continue the trend of physically relocating to some of the largest regional metros. 

Which of the Best Graduate Cities Are Best for You? 

While there are many factors to consider where to go to school and where to start your career, using probability theory to envision where you might end up after college can be useful. Does a school have a better chance at propelling you into large booming economies or perhaps, set you up for success in your hometown? Are the metro areas of your prospective schools ideal for a young educated individual just starting out their career?  

College is a huge investment that can leave many with regrets. PayScale hopes to provide resources to students looking at the many facets of this investment choice. Where this consideration on geographic probability for schools falls short, our College ROI report can help students determine which schools offer a bright financial future.  


Using PayScale crowdsourced data, we calculated the likelihood a person with a bachelor’s or master’s degree from X school will end up working in location Y. For example, we may find that for a given time period, 0.017% of people with bachelor’s degrees work in San Antonio, TX and that it is 8 times more likely that a person with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas works in San Antonio relative to the overall population. We use these metrics to calculate the percent chance that a given school produces someone working in a given location.  

This calculation allows us to rank the metro locations where graduates of a certain school are more likely to be employed. To determine which cities are best at retaining their own graduates, we look at schools within a designated metro and measure how often a metro appears in the top 3 likely destinations for its own graduates. As we see the data, a result of 39 percent for Kansas City, MO indicates that Kansas City is in the top 3 likely destinations for its graduates 39 percent of the time. 

To determine which schools have the widest graduate dispersal, we measure the number of cumulative cities that a school’s graduates work in. To measure the overall best graduate cities, we determine which cities have the largest share of graduates in our sample. Total sample size is 1,557,155 profiles collected between January 2016 to January 2020.  

Salary data provided for Financial Analysts, Software Engineers and Registered Nurses across New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles is sourced from 1,083 profiles with a bachelor’s degree and 0-2 years of experience. Financial Analyst profiles were used if they worked in the Finance & Insurance industry, Software Engineers the Tech Industry, and Registered Nurses the Healthcare Industry.  


Total Cash Compensation (TCC): TCC combines base annual salary (or hourly wage), commissions, tips, bonuses, and profit sharing. It does not include equity (stock) compensation, cash value of retirement benefits, or value of other non-cash benefits (e.g., healthcare).  Salary estimates for Early and Mid-Career salaries conform to the methodology described previously. 

Median Pay: The median pay is the national median (50th Percentile) total cash compensation (TCC). Half the people in the sample earn more than the median, while half earn less.