The 15 Best U.S. Cities for Millennial College Students

Mar 04, 2015 | By Dawn Papandrea


Millennials, those born between 1980 and the mid-2000s, are making some big life decisions at this time of writing. For example: where to go to college. This demographic is a heavily studied group, and the latest data reveals that economic opportunity and social trends are the two leading factors they consider when deciding where to live.

To find out which U.S. cities may hold the most promise for Millennials, OnlineColleges.com embarked on a research project to develop a ranked list of cities. The top city based on these rankings was Austin, Texas, which should come as no surprise given the educational opportunities that Texas has to offer, especially in the form of online colleges in Texas.

"A community reflecting a good economic base along with cultural and social activities provides for great opportunity for jobs and a quality place to live," says Hans Hanson, owner of Total College Advisory, a national college advisory for helping high school students find the right college fit, and helping college students develop the right study path towards a desired career.

"The city needs to be progressive for attracting business and young professionals; the city needs to be progressive in offering cultural and social entertainment to attract the businesses; and the city needs to have industries, such as technology in Austin, that are positioned for growth over the next decade or two," Hanson says.

Economic Opportunity

Today's Millennials face the prospect of more student loan debt than any generation before it. They are coming out of an economic recession, and so they are mindful of making their college decisions in the context of ROI; namely, will this degree pay off in the form of a career that will allow the lifestyle I want? As such, where you put down those all-important first career roots is something to consider.

Social Trends

The White House's Report, "15 Economic Facts About Millennials," highlights that this group cares about their impact on the world around them, loves having access to cultural events and social activities, and feels strongly about having work-life balance. Says the October 2014 report: "Millennials…want to make a positive social impact on their own children and communities, as well as on society as a whole."

New studies indicate that Millennials prefer the types of infrastructures and amenities found in urban areas. Nielsen's recent "Millennials - Breaking the Myths" report found that 62 percent said they prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers.

And according to a study by The Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America, 66 percent of Millennials say that access to high quality transportation is one of the top three criteria they would weigh when deciding where to live.

These are just some of the findings that shaped the methodologies we chose to determine the "best cities" for this age group. Our rankings focus on cities with populations over 400,000, of which there are 43. Using these factors, here is the list of the best U.S. cities for Millennial college students (with rankings info included):


There's no disputing that young people like living in Austin, as evidenced by its taking the number one spot for population aged 20-34. "Being a growing city and excitement is making Austin an innovative hub for new ideas and events," says Shilpa Bakre, spokesperson for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition to all of the major festivals, Austin is attracting many large tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, National Instruments and more, and is also a big player in the start-up tech scene. (See online colleges in Texas.)

As far as entertainment is concerned, Austin is called the "Live Music Capital of the World®" with more than 250 music venues across the city. Then there are the music festivals, of which the most well-known is South by Southwest, which takes place annually in mid-March.

Add to that a high employment rate, a "college town" atmosphere that includes the University of Texas at Austin, St. Edwards, and Hutson-Tillotson, and its growing diversity, and you can start to see why Austin is a mecca for Millennials.


With an affordable cost of living, the best commute times in the nation, and a terrific rate of employment, Omaha ranks next on our list. Just look around and you'll get the sense that Omaha cares about its young and upcoming workforce, says Alissa Nehe, spokesperson for the Greater Omaha Chamber. "We have young professional groups throughout the city that are active and involved. The community is constantly evolving and young people have a voice to make change happen," she says.

Omaha is also world-renowned for its indie music scene, making it a favorite stop for big name entertainers and a fertile ground for local artists, adds Nehe.

As far as students go, there are plenty of employment opportunities after graduation, says Dr. Daniel J. Shipp, Vice Chancellor at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO). "Omaha has developed an internationally recognized corporate community. Per capita, the Omaha metro has 50 percent more Fortune 500s than New York City, almost twice as many as Chicago, Dallas or Denver, about four times more than Kansas City and Los Angeles and more than 10 times more than Austin, Texas," he says. Whether looking for internships or considering career placement, UNO students enjoy a place-based advantage that few other universities or colleges can equal, Shipp says.


Oklahoma City gets the bronze medal by virtue of its high rankings in some key areas. It ranks second for having the lowest in-state tuition, third in unemployment rate, and in the top ten for lowest cost of living - all important factors for young people concerned with choosing an affordable higher education. That explains why such a large portion of its population is between the ages of 20 and 34.

"OKC is a place that has a bright future. There is demand for young workers in all areas ranging from engineers and tech workers to bio and health workers all the way down to highly skilled trade and industrial workers," says Drew Dugan, vice president of Education and Workforce Development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

He also mentions the city's MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) capital improvement program, which is dedicated to new and upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities, as part of the attraction that OKC has for younger citizens. "With all the amenities from MAPS, central city growth and the OKC Thunder, OKC has a cool and hip vibe that we have not had before," he says.


Ever since the "grunge" music era, Seattle has ranked high in the coolness department for young professionals who enjoy culture and entertainment. And - of course - there's the coffee. In fact, 28 percent of all people moving into Seattle between 2010 and 2012 were Millennials, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The city also ranked sixth in annual mean wage, thanks in part to the lucrative tech companies that are major employers in the area, like Microsoft and Amazon.


It made the top 5, but don't be surprised if Colorado Springs moves higher up the list in the coming years. A report by Trulia based on census data found that Colorado Springs was the city with the fastest growth in Millennial population, increasing 3.2 percent from 2012 to 2013.

The city is home to employment opportunities within the defense industry as well as Fort Carlson, two Air Force bases, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, making it a big draw for those with military interests.

Colorado Springs is also known for its beautiful state parks and 300+ days of sunshine per year, something that nature-loving and fitness-conscious Millennials may find appealing.

San Francisco

San Francisco is the first "big city" to make the list thanks to its strong salary opportunities, high number of the population in college or grad school, and of course, thriving entertainment scene. Its popularity results in a high cost of living and long commute times — two reasons why the Golden Gate city didn't make it into the top 5. (See online colleges in California.)


Columbus is another city that might not be top of mind, but is gaining in popularity among Millennials thanks in part to the city's outreach campaign, #lifeincbus, which aims to show what the city offers its young residents. Our research revealed a reasonable cost of living, high entertainment value, and promising employment rates. (See online colleges in Ohio.)


Millennials love Virginia Beach: It ranked third in the percentage of young adults who reside there and second in the percent enrolled in a higher ed program. As for the why, the gorgeous beaches could have something to do with it, as well as its Town Center, which offers a vibrant, diverse business district.


Here's a noteworthy U.S. Census Bureau stat about Boston: Of Millennials in the Boston metro area, 71 percent were employed in the 2009 to 2013 period, while the national average was 65 percent; and they earned a median income about $10k higher than the rest of the country. Add to that its access to public transit, plentiful local attractions and entertainment, and high marks on the number of people attending college/grad school, and you can see why Beantown makes the cut (despite being expensive).


It's hard to argue with Minneapolis-St. Paul rounding out the top 10 based on the very fact that it ranked number one for unemployment rate. In short, students who settle here are likely to be employed, and at a decent wage. Plus, they can enjoy sports teams, outdoor activities, and more.


For anyone interested in politics and government, Washington D.C. is certainly a top city. And since Millennials care so much about change and making the world a better place, it's no wonder that they are choosing to school and settle in the nation's capital.


With a vibrant social scene and a community of young professionals working in the downtown area, Baltimore is a hotbed of Millennial activity. Census data shows that the number of college-educated people ages 25 to 34 living within three miles of Baltimore's central business district increased 92 percent from 2000 to 2010.


Low average in-state tuition is attractive to students, for sure, but so is the low unemployment rate in Raleigh. And for those Millennials seeking lots of park acres to enjoy the outdoors and affordable entertainment options without the hustle and bustle of busy city living, Raleigh is a good choice.


Let's get right to the point: Millennials, for the most part, love their beer, and Milwaukee is a beer town, finishing first in the number of bars per 1,000 people. But the city is more than its nightlife, with proximity to Chicago, and its status as a "walkable" city, it has the charm of a small town with access to big city life.


Coming in last on our list is Albuquerque, which boasts the lowest average in-state tuition, and a commute time that helps Millennials achieve work-life balance. The cost of living and the year-round sunshine may also help it make the cut.

(Note: The data above is for the metro area, though we did include the population of each city.)

Now that you've gone through this list, you've probably noticed that "big cities" like New York and Chicago were not included, mostly because of high living costs, steep tuition prices, and more intense career competition. The top ranking cities on this list generally offer favorable employment rates within a moderate cost of living community, and include a high influx of young professionals who are shaking things up and energizing the social scene.

If you're looking for vibrant Millennial living, look beyond the few cities that most people flock to, and think about the unique off-campus and post-graduation experiences that these "under the radar" hubs can provide.

Methodologies and Sources
Methodologies and Sources


Our rankings focus on cities with populations over 400,000, of which there are 43, and are based on our proprietary metric using these 9 factors:

  1. Annual mean wage, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  2. Unemployment rate, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Percent of the population aged 20-34, based on census data from the American Community Survey
  4. Cost of living, based on data from the Council for Community and Economic Research
  5. Percent in college/grad school, based on census data from the American Community Survey
  6. Average in-state tuition, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System
  7. Percent commuting via public transit, based on census data from the American Community Survey
  8. Average commute time, based on census data from the American Community Survey
  9. Entertainment factor, based on census data regarding County Business Patterns. (To reach a score for this category, we crunched the numbers of bars, restaurants, musical groups/artists, spectator sports, and museums per 1000 people.


1. "15 Economic Facts About Millennials," http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/millennials_report.pdf
2. "Access to Public Transportation a Top Criterion for Millennials When Deciding Where to Live, New Survey Shows," http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/newsroom/access-public-transportation-top
3. Alissa Nehe, marketing manager, Greater Omaha Chamber, interviewed by author, 2/24/2015
4. American Community Survey, https://www.census.gov/acs/www/
5. Annual mean wage from the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oessrcma.htm
6. "Boston Millennials Beat Most National Averages, Census Shows," http://www.boston.com/jobs/news/2014/12/08/boston-millennials-beat-most-national-averages-census-shows/kUAGynwoB12FTVjN33wacI/story.html
7. "City sees jump in young, college-educated residents", http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-millennials-20141025-story.html#page=1
8. Colorado Springs, "Fast Facts", http://www.visitcos.com/colorado-springs/media/fast-facts
9. Columbus, http://lifeincbus.com/#!/
10. Cost of Living Index from the Council for Community and Economic Research, http://www.coli.org/default.asp
11. County Business Patterns, http://www.census.gov/econ/cbp/
12. Dr. Daniel J. Shipp, Vice Chancellor, University of Nebraska Omaha, interviewed by author, 2/25/2015
13. Drew Dugan, vice president of Education and Workforce Development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, interviewed by author, 2/25/2015
14. Hans Hanson, owner of Total College Advisory, interviewed by author, 2/22/2015
15. "Infographic: Best Purchase Markets for Millennial Homebuyers," http://www.realtor.org:8119/infographics/infographic-best-purchase-markets-for-millennial-homebuyers
16. IPEDS, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
17. Metropolitan Area Employment and Unemployment - December 2014, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/metro.pdf
18. "Millennials Prefer Cities to Suburbs, Subways to Driveways", http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2014/millennials-prefer-cities-to-suburbs-subways-to-driveways.html
19. "Millennials Are Suburbanizing, While Big Cities Are Having a Baby Boom," http://www.trulia.com/trends/2014/06/millennials-suburbanizing/

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