And the Smartest U.S. Cities Are…

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]

The Business Journals website has released a list of “smartest cities”. In this ranking, educational attainment in 269 U.S. urban centers with 100,000 or more residents were considered. Unsurprisingly, the top three spots are occupied by the three of America’s best-known college towns: Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the University of Michigan; Cambridge, Massachusetts, the site of Harvard University; and Berkeley, California, the location of the flagship campus of the University of California. In Ann Arbor, 72% of all adults (25 or older) hold bachelor’s degrees, and 43% also have advanced degrees. Both figures are the best in their respective categories among all major cities. Cambridge, Massachusetts—always in competition with its “brainy” English namesake—is a close runner-up in both categories and consequently is second in the overall rankings. The only other city where more than 35% of all adults have advanced degrees is Berkeley. However, California is in the lead among the 50 states, with eleven of its cities ranking among the top 50. Other highly educated Californian locales include Irvine, Sunnyvale, Thousand Oaks, Fremont, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Pasadena, Torrance, Huntington Beach, and San Diego. Of these, Irvine, San Francisco, and San Diego are home to University of California campuses, and San Francisco has a number of colleges, including San Francisco State University and the main medical school of the University of California. Following California are Arizona and Texas, with four entries each.

Stanford, the location of Stanford University and the home base of GeoCurrents, did not make the list of “smart major cities”, as it is too small, but it does claim the title of the “brainiest mid-size city” (between 10,000 and 49,999 residents). Nine out of ten adults (25 and older) in Stanford (the community, not the university) hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to the national average of 27.5%. Nearly two-thirds of those same Stanford residents have also gone on to earn graduate or professional degrees. Two upscale suburbs hold the next two slots in mid-size city educational standings: Scarsdale, New York, and Winnetka, Illinois. The state with the most entries in the top 50 list is once again California with 10 cities, followed by Illinois and Virginia with six each. My present hometown of San Bruno, California (population: 41,114) ranks 1,148 among 3,012 cities in its size category.

Stanford’s neighbor, Palo Alto, is a close second in the brainpower rankings of 483 places with populations between 50,000 and 99,999. The top spot on that list belongs to the Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, with 81% of adults holding bachelor’s degrees. In Palo Alto, 79% of adults have higher education. Roughly half of the adults in both communities went on to earn advanced degrees as well. Brookline, Massachusetts—close to MIT—occupies the third spot on that list. California, once again, leads the chart, with eleven cities of 10,000 to 49,999 in the top 50. Maryland is a distant second with five, while Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan each have three cities in the list of top 50.

And what of the smallest communities, with the population between 1,000 and 9,999 residents? The most highly educated locale is Chevy Chase Village, Maryland (population: 2,000). Nearly 93% of adults there graduated from four-year college, and almost 64% of adults hold advanced degrees. The runners-up are nearby Somerset, Maryland, and Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin (the closest residential area to the University of Wisconsin, Madison). New York, with 14, has the most communities among the top 50 on this list; Maryland is next with eight, and California and Texas have six each.

Chevy Chase Village, Maryland is also the overall champion among locales of all population sizes. It is also one of just six communities where more than 60% of the adults hold advanced degrees. Second place in the overall standings belongs to nearby Somerset, Maryland, where over 92% of the adult residents have graduated from four-year colleges. Rounding out the top five are Stanford, California; Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin; and Chevy Chase, Maryland, a neighboring town to its namesake village. Of the top 100 “brainiest cities” of all sizes, twenty are in New York, sixteen in California, eleven in Maryland, ten in Texas, and eight in Illinois. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin have three each, while Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina have two each. The remaining seven of the top 100 “smartest cities” are located in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and South Carolina.


One of the leaders among “smart” urban conglomerates is the San Francisco Peninsula, home to five of the top fifty “smart cities”: Stanford (ranked #3), Portola Valley (ranked #10), Los Altos Hills (ranked #31), Palo Alto (ranked #35), and Atherton (ranked #41). Another area where highly educated communities are concentrated is the Greater Ithaca area in Tompkins County, New York, home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College (see map on the left). It is home to four of the top fifty brainiest communities: Cayuga Heights (my former hometown, ranked #8 of all U.S. locales), East Ithaca (ranked #18), Northeast Ithaca (ranked #46), and Lansing (ranked #51). I am not surprised to find Cayuga Heights so high on this list, as even our local handyman held a Ph.D. in psychology.


Overall, it appears that the highest concentrations of educated adults are found in suburban areas and college towns. The map on the left shows the U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of adults (over 25) who have earned a college degree, as calculated by the Lumina Foundation. As can be seen, these metropolitan areas as a whole—in which 27-54% of people have obtained higher education—lag far behind some of the smaller locales where over 90% of adult residents graduated from college.




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