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Life After College: Top 10 Cities to Pay Down Student Debt

Lantern Top Cities to Live After College and Pay Down Student Debt Header
Sarah Mattie
Sarah MattieUpdated May 18, 2022
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As graduation approaches and you start thinking about life after college, you may find yourself wondering what the best cities for recent college grads are. While the "best" place to live after college will depend on your degree and needs, it’s important to find a place that allows you to live life fully while also making your student loan payments.To help, we've compiled a list of suggestions based on several important factors, including cost of living, average entry-level salary, entertainment opportunities, and more. (Scroll down to the end to see our methodology.) We paid special attention to the cost of living because of how high average student loan debt has become.The Midwest dominated the rankings, in no small part due to the lower cost of living compared to the rest of the country. However, those who like warmer temperatures won't be disappointed!Read on to discover our top suggestions for where to live after college and pay off your student loan debtScroll to the bottom for a full breakdown of our ranking methodology. 

1. Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Overall Cost of Living: 10.6% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 29.8%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $31,674
For several reasons, Cincinnati could be one of the best cities for young people, particularly recent college graduates. Not only is the cost of living low, but the job market is booming. Cincy is home to major hospital systems, financial institutions, and retailers, meaning your degree could be put to good use in these essential industries. After all, they could all use computer programmers, marketers, and salespeople in addition to doctors, MBA holders, and finance experts. The city is also known for its food and beer scene (over 40 breweries!), green spaces, and unique neighborhoods. No matter what you like to do or the type of home you prefer, chances are Cincinnati has activities and living spaces ideal for your new post-college life. Cincinnati is also located near Hamilton, Ohio, which in itself can be an ideal town for recent college grads who work from home.In short: Cincinnati may be a great place to live while you pay down student loans because of its vibrant social scene, low cost of living, and high job growth rate.

2. St. Louis, Missouri

  • Overall Cost of Living: 11.6% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 23.9%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $31,408
Traversed by six major railroads and long known as the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, MO, just might be your entryway to a college-debt-free life.The city ranked #1 for lowest cost of living in the energy category—at 19.6% below the national average — and #2 in the food category — 30% lower than the national average.Photo courtesy of @ajxphotography_College grads in St. Louis make a median salary of $48,000, which comes to $53,274 when adjusted for relative cost of living.Those financial stats handily befit a city that’s home to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Wells Fargo Advisors, Scottrade, Edward Jones, Stifel Financial Corp, and Reinsurance Group of America — not to mention the second-largest defense contractor in the world, Boeing’s Defense, Space, and Security division.The Lou’s microbrew scene, parks system, and university framework are healthy and going strong. And with a music scene built on rock n’ roll innovators like Chuck Berry and Ike and Tina Turner, you can practically hear the siren song of St. Louis calling all grads to a new life.In short: St. Louis boasts the vibrancy of a big industrial city with the knowability of a mid-size college town, making it one the best cities for college grads. It could be a particularly good choice for finance majors, or anyone looking to live somewhere with a rich history (and who isn’t afraid of tornados!). Recommended: Employer Student Loan Repayment: All You Need to Know

3. Madison, Wisconsin

  • Overall Cost of Living: 6.6% higher than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 37.8%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $31,795
Madison, WI, is all about the outdoors — all year round. There are outdoor concerts during the comfortable summer months, and a chain of lakes that provide recreational activities, no matter the season. That said, the temperature can dip well below zero, so have your parkas ready. The outdoorsy nature of the city's residents includes access to an arboretum, zoo, biking paths, botanical gardens, and more. So, if your career involves working with animals or plants, this may be the place for you. Photo courtesy of @emydblog Madison is also a highly academic area with an active library system and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, meaning you have plenty of opportunities to expand your knowledge and, potentially, return to school if you want.Finally, over half of Mad City’s residents are 34 or younger, meaning this is one of the best cities for young people to meet.In short: If you don’t mind the cold, Madison is a youthful college town for people who like the outdoors and may want to continue their education.

4. New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Overall Cost of Living: 4.6% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 25.1%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $31,803
New Orleans has seen its share of bad times. But those seem to be in the past: The Crescent City ranked #2 for the lowest cost of living in the energy category with prices 18.2% below average, and #1 in affordable but appetizing food.NOLA is also said to boast more young entrepreneurs than any other city, the average age of whom is about 37 years — two years younger than the national average.Photo courtesy @marinmaureenThe state of Louisiana is broadly oil-rich. A major world port city, New Orleans could be considered an oil town. Of course, with that comes a wealth of white-collar jobs that require college degrees.But while the cost of living is lower than the national average, and the job growth rate fairly high, what makes New Orleans especially attractive is its culture. From its much-celebrated Haitian-Creole-French-Afro-Caribbean cultural mix, emerged what many regard as not just regional but American institutions: Cajun food, jazz, and Mardi Gras. In short: New Orleans is full of entrepreneurial spirit and opportunities for new college grads. Its rich history and multicultural makeup give NOLA a lively and unique atmosphere that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other city. 

5. Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky (Metro Area)

  • Overall Cost of Living: 7.8% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 37.8%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $27,997
Granted, Lexington-Fayette is not actually a city, but rather what the U.S. Census designates as a metro area (it’s also an urban county). According to the chamber of commerce for Lexington-Fayette Urban County in KY, the area’s economy has been able to survive and even thrive in the midst of recent economic slowdowns. It is further pointed out that the area has been recognized for its job growth, tech startups, and educational opportunities.In addition to its appealing high job growth and steady economy, Lexington-Fayette has an eye on the future. Whether you're interested in the healthcare, tech, or even environmental and city/park planning fields, the county is experiencing growth in all these areas. Image courtesy of @anthneffThe county has a particular focus on making the area more walkable and bikeable, so if being outdoorsy while still living in a town is your jam, this may be the place for you.In short: Lexington-Fayette county has a stable economy, low cost of living, and a variety of short- and long-term opportunities, making it a great place to live after college.

6. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  • Overall Cost of Living: 5.5% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 24.4%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $31,539
Recent grads looking to pay off their college loans would do well to investigate Pittsburgh. Located at the confluence of three rivers — the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela — The Burgh is the largest city in beautiful Appalachia and a surprisingly vital center in what is often considered a sleepy region.Photo courtesy of @pittsburghvegfestPittsburgh ranked #2 in lowest income tax (3.07%), and #6 for free entertainment (140 events in one month!). A top-tier research university, the University of Pittsburgh supports the extensive University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a major employer state-wide.Plus, the cybersecurity, AI, and robotics industries have kept up with the health science sector: As with other cities on this list, technology has become big business here. So while the future’s in Pittsburgh, the Steel City also boasts a glorious past, evidenced by its 90 architecturally and culturally unique neighborhoods.In short: Andrew Carnegie initially helped Pittsburgh find its fortune, and today, the young and educated are helping to revitalize this historic city. With its eccentric local accent, Pittsburgh is a great place to be young and, eventually, debt-free. 

7. Chandler, Arizona

  • Overall Cost of Living: 4.9% higher than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 30.8%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $34,500
Chandler, AZ, ranked #1 for low cost of living in the food, healthcare, and transportation categories. It also came in 8th for the number of free entertainment activities. So, if you can find a roommate (average rent is a bit higher than other places), this city can be affordable to live in as a recent college graduate!This suburb of Phoenix was named the “4th Best Suburb for Young Professionals in Arizona” by Niche. The largest employer is Intel, and any tech-related degree could serve you well here.Photo courtesy of @nataliebrooke98That said, you won’t feel thwarted if your degree is in another area. The city is home to thriving healthcare, financial, and business sectors that can always use fresh talent. Chandler boasts 330 days of sunshine per year. So, in your free time, you can enjoy lots of time outside exploring the lively downtown area, hiking, or playing on one of the city’s many adult sports teamsPlus…they have an annual Ostrich Festival. So, Chandler really does have something for everyone!In short: Chandler ranks #1 in several cost-of-living areas, has a thriving job market, and has some of the sunniest weather in the country.

8. Lubbock, Texas

  • Overall Cost of Living: 11.6% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 39.8%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $34,509
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, art admirer, music maestro, or food aficionado, Lubbock has something for you. The city is full of rich history and emerging industries that make it an exciting place to live.Photo courtesy of @kinleyroLubbock’s award-winning BBQ pairs well with an emerging craft brew and wine scene. As Buddy Holly’s birthplace, there are plenty of musical and cultural events to enjoy. And when you aren’t out on the town, you can explore its many lakes and parks. There's another good reason to consider Lubbock as a place to live after college: Its nickname is "Hub City." This is because it's regarded as the heart of economic, educational, and healthcare services for its region. If you're interested in manufacturing, technology, finance, or healthcare, Lubbock might just be the place for you.Photo courtesy of @little__lubbock__foodieIn short: Lubbock is a great place to get on your feet after college with its low cost of living and high job growth rate. When you’re not working, you can enjoy all of the culinary, cultural, and natural attractions this up-and-coming city has to offer. 

9. Orlando, Florida

  • Overall Cost of Living: 0.8% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 51%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $28,992
Orlando ranked #1 for job growth rate and income tax (it has none!) in our survey. It also ranked #3 for free entertainment. While the rent is a bit high, this fun, touristy city can be a great place to live after college if you get a couple of roommates.Thanks to the high number of visitors, Orlando is a great city for those who want to work in hospitality. However, you’re not limited to a career in that field. Photo courtesy of @leigh_joIn fact, 80% of Orlando’s employment exists outside of the tourism and hospitality markets. The city is home to burgeoning aerospace, autonomous vehicle, biotech, and fintech industries, just to name a few. On your time off, you can enjoy the beaches, weather, and attractions that draw so many visitors to the city year round. When you want a break from the tourist attractions, there are a plethora of things to do off the beaten path, including kayaking through Wekiwa Springs State Park, riding airboats at Boggy Creek, and attending concerts at the historic Plaza Live.In short: Orlando is a beautiful, beachside city with the highest job growth rate in our study. There is no shortage of things to do, and people are needed in all industries. Between the job opportunities and local attractions, Orlando is one of the best cities for young people.

10. Tampa, Florida

  • Overall Cost of Living: 5.6% lower than the national average
  • Job Growth Rate: 42.1%
  • Average Entry Level Salary: $29,992
Tampa is home to Busch Gardens, the historic Ybor City district (the setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics”), hip restaurants, breweries, and sports centers. Plus, it boasts a job growth rate of 42.1%. There is also no income tax in Tampa.Surrounded by manatee-populated freshwater rivers, Tampa boasts the Fortune 500 companies Raymond James and Franklin Templeton. The city’s vast healthcare infrastructure supports a population that, contrary to stereotype, is getting youngerSome of the largest industries in the city include financial and professional services, manufacturing, healthcare, and information technology. If not the region’s natural wonder and growing job market, its charmingly strange party culture (check out the Gasparilla Parade) might do the trick. And if you’re a sports fan, you can enjoy Buccaneers football games and Rays baseball games situated near beautiful Tampa Bay. In short: Tampa is home to a young and thriving population that enjoys an eclectic arts scene and party culture. Add its high job growth rate in lucrative industries and beautiful natural appeal, and you have a city that’s perfect for recent college grads. 

Paying Down Debt After College

When you're figuring out where to live after college, it's important to consider the cost of living, job growth rate, livability, and potential to thrive and have fun. Each of the places listed above secured high rankings across said categories. Even if you live in a place with a low cost of living, finances can still be tight after college. If you’ve decided the time has come to make some changes and potentially improve your circumstances, student loan refinancing could be for you. With Lantern, you can compare student loan refinance terms and potentially secure better ones than your original student loans. Compare lenders today and see what you could save.


To determine our top 10 cities for college grads, we analyzed the 50 largest cities and counties with populations under 500k, according to the 2020 Decennial Census ReportWe ranked the places across 13 factors: Within each factor, we ranked each locale from 1 to 50. We then found each city’s (or county’s) average ranking across the 13 factors to calculate its final standing. 

About the Author

Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie is a researcher and writer with an education background. She's passionate about teaching others about financial issues and has written extensively for a variety of degree sites and financial institutions. Her writing covers credit cards, lending products, and paying for college, among other economic topics.
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