Where Are the Best Places to Build a Career—and a Life?
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Maybe you’ve recently graduated from college or grad school—or perhaps you’re itching for a change and want to land in a city with more opportunities. So you’re wondering: Where’s the right spot to build a successful life and career in this big, wide country of ours?

There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding the best place to move, but a good place to start is by looking at metropolitan areas where well-educated Americans are clustering. Why? They tend to boast a range of career opportunities, a good quality of life, interesting culture and a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. The cost of living can also be higher, unfortunately. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you can find some great values.

With the help of this clickable, interactive map I made—highlighting where the very highest concentrations of graduate-degree holders live—mixed in with demographic profiles of elite U.S. counties, we’re zooming in on six counties worth considering.

Hunterdon County, New Jersey


We start in the New York-metropolitan area, where, unsurprisingly, top-tier counties like New York’s Westchester and Connecticut’s Fairfield dominate with graduate-degree percentages of 23 and 20 percent, respectively.

A deeper dive into the demographic profiles of these ritzy areas suggests they’re also home to big-time earners—residents make more than three times the U.S. median household income—who have a passion for art and information. (Old-school newspapers still sell well here.) But be ready to pay: The cost of housing, food and transportation are well over twice the national average.

Looking for a better deal in an adjacent hood? Check out the demographic story in the central New Jersey county of Hunterdon, where 20 percent of 128,000 residents have graduate degrees and the cost of housing, food and transportation are markedly lower than what you’ll find in Westchester or Fairfield (though still higher than the national average). You can find a robust foodie culture in cities like Clinton, eclectic galleries and antique shops in the historic town of Lambertville, as well as jobs in management and health care county-wide.

Orange County, California


Prefer the West Coast? Destinations like Los Angeles and Orange County are popular picks—and there are probably more than 2.3 million residents with graduate degrees between them—but it’s not always sunny in these counties. Unemployment rates can creep above 10 percent, making long tracts of communities, say, from Santa Monica to Long Beach, tricky for those just starting out.

On the other hand, in a vibrant, tech-savvy city like Irvine in Orange County (where, coincidentally, Acorns is based), you can find booming areas north and east of the town, near the affordable Harvard Athletic Park—perfect for educated professionals in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. (Management and business/financial operations jobs are plentiful here, as well.)

Though you’ll pay about 35 percent more for food, transportation and entertainment here, the median income is $77,000, or $26,000 above the national average.

Benton County, Oregon


For those with more mainstream job skills, you can head way north to tiny Benton County, just south of Portland, Oregon. Here, the total population is just about 88,000, and 24 percent have graduate degrees. Residents of Benton have good jobs in education, management and, believe it or not, library sciences.

According to its demographic profile, food, transportation and entertainment costs in a town like Corvallis run about 10 percent lower than average, and apparel and services run 40 percent below national figures. Rent sits at about $1,000, which is on par with the national average of $990. And median income aligns with national figures as well, at $50,000.

Another bonus: Corvallis is situated on the western rim of the Willamette Valley, which is home to some of the best wines in the world.

Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties, Georgia


If you’re willing to cast a wide value net, you can pick a real winner in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, situated about 70 miles east of Atlanta. About 150,000 people live in these counties combined, with about 42 percent holding graduate degrees. In Athens-Clarke is the quaint city of Athens, home of the University of Georgia. It has lovely Victorian homes, a thriving music scene and a downtown that’s chock-full of nightlife, restaurants and shops.

Venture to even more rural outposts, like Bogart—where the median household income is $72,000—and your home values can be a third less than what you’d pay in other big-city suburbs.

Hamilton County, Indiana

Want to check out your options in the Midwest? Explore the large, well-populated counties of Champaign, Monroe and Hamilton in central Illinois and eastern Indiana.

Hamilton is home to 305,000 residents—20 percent of whom have graduate degrees. In towns like Carmel, which has a rich arts and design district with galleries, shops and restaurants, many people are skilled in science, law and technology, and earn a median income of $127,000. However, housing, food, transportation and entertainment costs are all more than twice national averages.

For a better deal, consider the northern suburb of Noblesville, where the cost of living is much more in line with national figures. Even better: While median net worth here is $96,000, compared to the U.S. median of $71,000,  home values are a smidge less the average ($174,000 versus $177,000).

While the Midwest may not score nationally for the hip factor like some of the other choices listed, when it comes to pure value, places like Hamilton may be hard to beat.

Editor’s note: This interactive map was built using Esri, a commercial mapping and analytics company, which mixes census data with information like real estate transactions, demographic data and even postal traffic.

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