The best and worst U.S. cities for new college grads

While it’s hard for young people to resist the appeal of large cities and their hefty paychecks, smaller cities can sometimes offer more job prospects and overall affordability, making them better picks for new graduates.

For those reasons, the top city for new degree holders isn’t New York or San Francisco, or any other similarly popular metro area whose main drawback is its high cost of living, according to a new study from the ADP Research Institute (ADPRI). Taking into account a number of factors, including average wages, overall affordability and hiring rates, Raleigh, North Carolina, takes the No. 1 spot on the management services company’s list of best places for young graduates to start their careers. For its ranking, researchers looked at ADP data on more than 4 million 20- to 29-year olds at more than 27,000 U.S. employers, from January 2019 through April 2024.

“The basic idea is these are the questions new grads ask when planning their job search. They ask, ‘Where am I likely to find a job? What kind of salary will I earn?’ and ‘How far will it go?'” said Ben Hanowell, ADPRI’s director of people analytics research. “We put the three things together to find out where they can find the best combination of wages, affordability and robust hiring.”

Researchers at ADPRI found that Raleigh is relatively affordable, offers wages above the 80th percentile, and has the best hiring rate for likely new graduates of all the metro areas studied. Nicknamed the research triangle, Raleigh sits between three universities and is home to roughly 300 science and technology companies. 

Great average salary, but can I even get a job?

The study takes into account that in some cities, though young workers could command higher wages, job opportunities are fewer than in other places and the cost of living is high, meaning that their salaries wouldn’t take them very far. As a result, these types of cities were deemed less desirable than those with decent salaries, but plentiful job opportunities for workers with less experience and relatively low costs of living. 

“There are metro areas where you could command high wages as a recent grad, but they’re not affordable and hiring isn’t robust, so that’s the trade-off you’re making,” Hanowell said. 

As an example, he pointed to Seattle, Washington, where wages are higher than 87% of the 55 biggest U.S. metro areas, but has a low hiring rate compared to other cities and is relatively unaffordable. 

“The median wage is an estimated $56,000, but once that’s adjusted for the cost of living, it feels like $49,000. That’s one way to look at these trade-offs,” Hanowell said.

By contrast, Tucson, Arizona, has a hiring rate that’s greater than more than three-quarters of other metro areas, and is also more affordable than 84% of cities. “That’s the opposite end of the trade-off,” Hanowell said. 

What’s the sweet spot?

To be sure, the most suitable city for a new graduate depends on their individual preferences. For example, one individual might be willing to take a chance trying to land a job in a metro area that’s expensive and has a low hiring rate, but where they can eventually command a high wage.

“They could think of the job they land as a stepping stone to greater things,” Hanowell said. Whereas another grad might care about affordability to start building their savings early, or they are risk-averse and want to know that the place they’re going is a place where they can find a job.

Surprises among rankings

When wages, affordability and hiring rates are considered, four metro areas stand out as the most promising places for young grads to begin their careers, according to ADPRI data. 

“What’s surprising is these areas are not the traditional tech hubs or financial hubs you might think about for college grads,” Hanowell said. 

Lower-ranked cities were mostly dinged in the wage and job prospects category. While they may be relatively affordable places to live, wages and hiring rates are low. Take Rochester, New York, for example, which has the lowest hiring rate of all 55 metros for likely college graduates. Although its wages are in the 13% percentile among metro areas, and it’s more affordable than nearly 70% of locales studied, its lackluster job prospects make it undesirable. 

Here are the top 10 best and worst cities for new graduates, according to ADPRI. 

Top 10 best cities for new graduates

  1. Raleigh, North Carolina
  2. Baltimore, Maryland
  3. Austin, Texas
  4. Atlanta, Georgia
  5. Charlotte, North Carolina
  6. New York, New York
  7. San Francisco, California
  8. Cleveland, Ohio
  9. Nashville, Tennessee
  10. Indianapolis, Indiana

Top 10 worst cities for new graduates

  1. Rochester, New York
  2. Virginia Beach, Virginia
  3. New Orleans, Louisiana
  4. Fresno, California
  5. Portland, Oregon
  6. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  7. Hartford, Connecticut
  8. Memphis, Tennessee
  9. Seattle, Washington
  10. Salt Lake City, Utah

Click here for the full rankings.

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