30 Cities Where Today's College Grads Can Actually Make a Living

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The economy is better for graduating college students than it's been in years, but that isn't saying much. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their unemployment rate is 7.1 percent, far worse than the 3.8 percent unemployment rate for the general public and only compounding the effects of $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. With the odds stacked against these millennials, we took data from Bankrate and others, weeded out cities with off-the-charts affordability gaps and found some with costs of living that will help provide a nice, soft place for grads to land.
Houston, TX
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Houston's cost of living is 3 percent lower than the national average, as is that of surrounding Texas. Home to some 20 Fortune 500 companies and an average rent of $1,102 for a one-bedroom apartment, Houston topped Bankrate's list of best cities for graduates starting their careers.
Tampa, FL
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WalletHub thinks there's tremendous opportunity for people looking to start a career in Tampa, which is home to five companies in the Fortune 500, including Raymond James Financial and Publix, has major sports teams for entertainment, and averages just $1,061 a month for rent on a one-bedroom apartment.
Atlanta, GA
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Atlanta is a hub for a whole lot more than Delta Airlines. It's home to 15 Fortune 500 companies and 28 Fortune 1,000 businesses, as well as nearly six dozen colleges and universities. There are thriving arts, music, and restaurant scenes, but a cost of living that's 2 percent below the national average and one-bedroom apartments that average $1,385 a month (with lots of cheaper suburban options) that make them easier to afford.
Columbus, Ohio
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The University of Ohio brings more than 60,000 students into Ohio's capital, so the transition from college to the working world won't be all that abrupt. If you can score a job with the university, the state or Nationwide Insurance, the city's music, food, brewing, and arts scenes are all within reach thanks to rent that averages $868 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Madison, Wisconsin
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Madison is replete with biking and hiking trails, music venues, sports teams, and jobs. Wisconsin's cost of living is about 8 percent below the national average, while Madison's unemployment is close to 2 percent.
Phoenix, AZ
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It's a massive city, but a cost of living about 5 percent below the national average and an unemployment rate around 4 percent certainly helps. It's a sprawling megalopolis entwined with Mesa and Scottsdale, but the state capital offers a blend of state offices, university positions, tech firms, real estate, and more. Rent averages $956 for a one-bedroom, but roommates can cut that cost to less than $600 apiece with two-bedroom apartments averaging $1,155.
Cincinnati
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With its own Oktoberfest, a brewing district, a new Major League Soccer team to go with baseball's Reds and football's Bengals, and a layout that dedicates about 10 percent of city space to parks, Cincinnati is a young city with a median age of only about 32. Unemployment is less than 4 percent, and Greater Cincinnati has eight companies among the Fortune 500.
Memphis, Tennessee
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Elvis loved living here well enough to build Graceland, but Memphis' music legacy extends from blues to hip-hop. Its overall culture sustains its namesake barbecue and restaurants and music venues citywide. With FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper representing Memphis in the Fortune 500, unemployment below 4 percent, and rent averaging $855 for two-bedroom apartments, just about anyone can be royalty in Memphis.
Raleigh, North Carolina
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The capital of North Carolina boasts more than 24,000 state jobs alone, not including the more than 7,700 jobs at North Carolina State University. Fortune 1,000 tech company Red Hat is based here as well, but a North Carolina cost of living that's 9 percent below the national average and average rent of $1,031 for one-bedroom apartments make it easy on grads who land jobs here.
Overland Park, Kansas
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This sprawling Kansas City suburb of nearly 200,000 is Sprint's headquarters and has lots of job opportunities in financial services, transportation, and logistics. Kansas boasts a cost of living that's 9.5 percent lower than the national average, which helps push Overland Park's average rent to $930 a month for one-bedroom apartments.
Kansas City, Missouri
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Home of baseball's Royals and football's Chiefs, trademark barbecue, and a vibrant arts and music scene, Kansas City somehow manages to be a better deal than even its inexpensive suburbs. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment here is $871, which isn't surprising considering that Missouri's cost of living is 10.5 percent below the national average. It doesn't have as many Fortune 500 companies as it did, but it has roughly 3.3 percent unemployment that's lower than the national average.
Minneapolis
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You won't have to work at the Mall of America. Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul have more Fortune 500 companies per million people than anywhere else in the country. Target, General Mills, U.S. Bancorp, Xcel Energy, Ameriprise Financial, and Land O' Lakes are just some of the employers awaiting graduates, which should help with a cost of living 5 percent higher than the national average and rent that averages $1,474 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Austin, Texas
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There's South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, the University of Texas, incredible barbecue, and a firm base of state jobs in Texas' capital. Unemployment hovers around 3 percent, the cost of living in Texas is about 3 percent lower than the national average, and rent for a one-bedroom apartment averages $1,244. With Dell and recent Amazon purchase Whole Foods Market based in town, there's a strong chance of getting paid well to live well.
Milwaukee
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With huge outdoor festivals, restaurant and brewery options, and five Fortune 500 companies, Milwaukee makes its pitch for young professionals to at least consider choosing this city over Chicago. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,105 a month, or roughly $500 less than the same apartment in Chicago. Meanwhile, unemployment sits at 3.1 percent or lower, while Wisconsin's cost of living is 7 percent below the national average.
Dallas
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Sure, there are sports teams, bars, restaurants, museums, theater, and shopping, but Dallas' main draw is jobs. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to 22 Fortune 500 companies that help bring unemployment down to 3.7 percent. Should you end up in Dallas proper, the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment is $1,066.
Pittsburgh, PA
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Inexpensive dining options (beyond Primanti Brothers sandwiches), rides on the Incline, free downtown subway access, the Andy Warhol Museum, and tickets to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games readily available on SeatGeek or StubHub for less than $20 (no such luck with hockey's Penguins or football's Steelers) make this town a steal for grads on a budget. Six Fortune 500 companies, as well as a wealth of hospitals and universities, provide a strong job base. Meanwhile, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,102.
San Antonio, Texas
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You can stroll the Riverwalk, see the Alamo, hope basketball's Spurs have better luck next season, but also stand a good chance of landing a job and living cheaply here. San Antonio has a handful of companies in the Fortune 500, an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, and one-bedroom apartments averaging $913 a month.
Baltimore
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It's within striking distance of Washington, D.C.'s Beltway and has a number of companies on the doorstep of the Fortune 500, but why move here? Boiled crab, lake trout, a longstanding music scene, and lots of local sports, bars, and clubs are all fine reasons, but so is the cost of living. A one-bedroom apartment averages $1,312 a month.
Indianapolis
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Indiana's state capital is a powerhouse of state jobs, universities, big companies, diverse food and cultural offerings, and, yes, sports from the Indianapolis 500 to Colts football and Pacers basketball. It also has just 3 percent unemployment in a state where the cost of living is 10 percent below the national average. In fact, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, $953, is lower than most cities' rent for a one-bedroom.
San Diego, CA
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It's an enormous city with few Fortune 500 companies, but a whole lot of military and university presence. San Diego unemployment is nominal at 3.2 percent, and the beaches, breweries, wineries, Padres ball games, sailing, surfing and year-round sun make it one of the more pleasant destinations available to graduates. That said, the $1,832 cost of a one-bedroom apartment is the highest on this list, if modest by California standards.
Nashville, Tennessee
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You aren't the only graduates who want to move to Music City. The bars, music venues, hot-chicken spots, and streets that teem with bachelor and bachelorette parties for much of the year reflect a young city doing extraordinarily well for itself. Unemployment is a paltry 2.7 percent, while the cost of living in Tennessee is 10 percent below the national average. Unfortunately, everyone has figured this out, and average rent on a one-bedroom apartment is now $1,197.
Salt Lake City
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A booming tech economy has Salt Lake City's employment numbers soaring despite an overall low cost of living. It is 4 percent cheaper to live in SLC than the national average, and the average one-bedroom apartment is $1,102. The only Fortune 500 company in the area is Huntsman, but universities and state agencies help bolster an economy next to ski resorts, hiking trails, mountain passes, and some of the most pristine land in the country.
Oklahoma City
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It's yet another state capital with state jobs and a big university, but also a hub for businesses spread across various industries. With just 3.5 percent unemployment and a cost of living 11 percent below the national average, the bars, music venues, and museums in Bricktown and tickets to basketball's Thunder and baseball's AAA Dodgers become all the more affordable. With an average rent of just $746 for a one-bedroom apartment, it doesn't require much to get settled.
Buffalo, New York
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You could move to New York City and scrape by, or move to western New York and thrive. The area is home to Fortune 500 company M&T Bank as well as a number of life science, tech, university, and state jobs that chip away at a still-high 5.1 percent unemployment rate. Those who can find work move to a city where rent dropped by around 10 percent since the fall, to $1,037 for an average one-bedroom apartment. The parks and waterfront make their own case in the warm months, but even modest cost savings make it worth staying through the winter.
Louisville, Kentucky
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Being right in the center of bourbon country doesn't hurt, nor does having an independent art and music scene or a string of festivals throughout the year. But as enticing as the cultural institutions, restaurants, distilleries, and bars might be to graduates, it's the strong stable of businesses that keeps the area booming. Home to numerous Fortune 500 companies (including Taco Bell and KFC parent company Yum Brands), Louisville has just 3.4 percent unemployment and a cost of living that's 12 percent below the national average. Best of all, the average price of a one-bedroom apartment here is just $801.
Birmingham, Alabama
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This former steel town has been reborn as a banking and biotech hub and remains one of the most affordable cities in the country. Unemployment is just 3.2 percent, the cost of living in Alabama is 13 percent below the national average, and a one-bedroom apartment here rents for an average $916 a month. With a deep-rooted jazz culture, a key role in civil rights history, numerous cultural institutions, and a thriving nightlife, Birmingham makes a strong case for cash-strapped graduates to at least consider Alabama.
Detroit
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Abandoned? Dead? Decaying? You haven't been paying attention. Detroit may never again reach its peak population of 1.8 million from the 1950s, but unemployment sits at just 3.6 percent, the usual suspects from the Fortune 500 are still here, neighborhoods such as Corktown are coming alive, development is hurrying along, downtown is booming, and, yes, the bike shops and urban gardens are still blossoming. Some folks curse the hipsters here, but even their presence hasn't brought the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment above the $1,000 ceiling ($975 a month).
Cleveland
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It's not just LeBron, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, breweries, and restaurants. Cleveland's 4.5 percent unemployment rate disguises the strong presence of Fortune 500 companies such as Progressive, KeyBank, Sherwin-Williams, and Parker Hannifin — not to mention the Cleveland Clinic and nearly 200 tech companies. Though the cost of living is about on par with the national average, $842 average rents on one-bedroom apartments put it well within reach of new graduates.
New Orleans
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The bars on Bourbon Street, jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street, world-renowned food culture, sprawling parks, history, music … even graduates who've only been here for Mardi Gras can think of a few reasons to move here. It doesn't havML e much in terms of Fortune 500 companies, but the energy industry, ports, health care, universities, and hospitality industry fare quite well here. Louisiana's cost of living is 10 percent lower than the national average, and New Orleans' 4 percent unemployment hovers right around the U.S. average. The average one-bedroom rents for $1,262, but is perhaps the highest cost you'll have to pay.
Philadelphia, PA
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Philadelphia benefits heavily from comparison to the rest of the Northeast Corridor. Its cost of living is 16 percent higher than the national average, but still lower than Boston (48 percent above average) or New York (130 percent above average). Its 3.9 percent unemployment is right on the national average, but its $1,457 average monthly rent for a one-bedroom still looks a lot better than New York's ($2,868), Boston's ($2,594) and Washington, D.C.'s ($2,064). Enjoy Center City, Old City, Fishtown, Kensington, South Philly, and nightlife, food, music, and events the city has to offer, and just catch the train to those more-expensive Northeast spots if you get the urge.

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