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After years of studying, late nights, and exams, you’ve finally graduated and are ready to start your career. 

But where should you begin? Big cities may come to mind, but let’s not overlook the potential of small cities. These hidden gems offer a unique blend of opportunities, affordability, and an excellent quality of life. 

We explore the top five small cities in America that provide the ideal environment for young graduates to thrive both financially and personally.

How We Determined Our List

We looked at several figures to contribute to the final list. First, we discounted any cities with a population above 600,000, as this was the threshold for a “small city”.

Other factors we considered include a city’s average salary, which helps young graduates gauge their earning potential in each city. 

Additionally, the cost of living was evaluated to generate an affordability index. This was calculated by measuring factors such as housing costs, transportation expenses, and daily living expenses, giving an indication of how affordable each city is relative to the national average.

The unemployment rate was also evaluated to ensure that these small cities offer a favorable balance between affordability and job opportunities.

Top 5 Small Cities in America for Young Graduates


1. Madison, Wisconsin

Known for its friendly atmosphere and strong sense of community, Madison offers a unique blend of economic stability and cultural richness. 

The city boasts a diverse job market, with a focus on technology, healthcare, and education. Madison has also consistently ranked among the top cities for economic stability in the United States. This stability provides young graduates with confidence in finding job opportunities and experiencing long-term career growth.

The cost of living in Madison is also lower than in many major cities, making it more affordable for young graduates. The lower cost of housing, transportation, and daily expenses allows for a higher quality of life and increased financial flexibility.
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2. Burlington, Vermont

Nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington combines a thriving job market with a picturesque setting. 

Burlington has gained recognition for its commitment to renewable energy. The city is powered by 100% renewable sources, reflecting its dedication to sustainability and offering young graduates opportunities to work in the emerging green energy sector.

Additionally, Burlington’s proximity to outdoor recreational areas such as ski resorts and hiking trails allows young graduates to engage in affordable and accessible recreational activities. This natural beauty enhances the overall quality of life and contributes to a healthier work-life balance.

Burlington’s commitment to sustainability, vibrant arts scene, and outdoor recreational opportunities make it an ideal location for young graduates seeking a balanced and environmentally conscious lifestyle.
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3. Boulder, Colorado

Boulder may be small in size, but it packs a punch when it comes to opportunities for young professionals. 

Home to the University of Colorado Boulder, this city offers a vibrant startup culture and numerous tech companies. 

The average salary in Boulder is approximately $66,000 per year, which is higher than the national average. This higher earning potential provides young graduates with a solid financial foundation as they start their careers.

Boulder also consistently maintains a low unemployment rate, typically below 3%. This indicates a robust job market and increased opportunities for young professionals to secure employment in their desired fields.

With its breathtaking natural surroundings, including the Rocky Mountains and numerous hiking trails, Boulder also provides an excellent work-life balance for outdoor enthusiasts.
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4. Des Moines, Iowa

Don’t let its status as the capital of Iowa fool you – Des Moines is a small city brimming with opportunities. 

Des Moines has experienced steady job market growth over the years, with a focus on sectors such as finance, insurance, and technology. This growth translates into ample opportunities for young graduates seeking stable and rewarding careers.

With a low unemployment rate and a steadily growing job market, Des Moines offers a favorable environment for young professionals. Additionally, Des Moines boasts a lower cost of housing compared to many larger cities. This affordability allows young graduates to find comfortable accommodations without stretching their budgets, enabling them to save and invest for their future.
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5. Asheville, North Carolina

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville offers a small-town charm combined with an entrepreneurial spirit. This vibrant city is a hub for artists, musicians, and craft breweries. 

Asheville has a thriving entrepreneurial scene, with a high rate of new business creation. This fosters a culture of innovation and gives young graduates opportunities to contribute to and benefit from the city’s vibrant startup ecosystem.

Asheville also offers a relatively low cost of living compared to other popular cities, making it an attractive choice for young graduates. 

Additionally, Asheville’s focus on sustainability and outdoor recreation makes it an ideal destination for young graduates seeking an eco-friendly and adventure-filled lifestyle.
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While big cities may seem like the obvious choice for young graduates, small cities offer unique advantages that can lead to a successful and fulfilling career. 

Boulder, Madison, Asheville, Des Moines, and Burlington provide the perfect blend of job opportunities, affordability, and quality of life. These small cities foster a sense of community, offer a lower cost of living compared to their metropolitan counterparts, and provide an array of recreational and cultural activities. 

Consider these cities as you embark on your professional journey, and embrace the hidden gems that small-town America has to offer.

The Data – Top 5 Small Cities in America for Young Graduates


City Affordability Index Average Salary Unemployment Rate
Madison, Wisconsin 71.8 $68,000 1.8%
Burlington, VT 61.7 $67,000 1.4%
Boulder, Colorado 65.2 $66,000 2.1%
Des Moines, Iowa 78.5 $68,000 2.2%
Asheville, NC 69.4 $37,000 2.9%


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Justine Gray

Justine Gray is a contributor to Pheabs, sharing more than 10 years of experience in the consumer finance industry across the US. Follow her guides for financial advice, money saving tips and more. Follow them on Linkedin and Youtube.