The Best (and Worst) Cities for People Without a College Degree

FinanceBuzz crunched the numbers to find out which cities and states are the best and worst places for people without college degrees to live and work.
Last updated Sept. 6, 2022 | By Josh Koebert | Edited By Melinda Sineriz
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Higher education is looking less and less necessary for young Americans. While a college education can help people secure higher-salary jobs, sometimes the expense and time commitment of a four-year degree isn’t a feasible option.

Living a good life is still possible without graduating from college. But for job seekers without a degree, some areas in the U.S. may have a higher standard of living than others.

With this in mind, our team at FinanceBuzz wanted to discover the best cities and states to live in for anyone without a degree. To do so, we compiled salary, income, and job data from 50 of the largest U.S. cities and all 50 states and created rankings based on our findings.

In this article

Key Findings

  • The 5 best cities for Americans without a college degree are:
    • Las Vegas, NV
    • Riverside, CA
    • Louisville, KY
    • Jacksonville, FL
    • Virginia Beach, VA
  • The 5 worst cities for Americans without a college degree are:
    • Washington, D.C.
    • San Francisco, CA
    • Atlanta, GA
    • San Jose, CA
    • Boston, MA
  • San Francisco has the largest income gap between those with college degrees and those without. Someone without a degree typically makes $54,653 less per year than someone with a college degree.
  • Las Vegas has the highest concentration of jobs that don’t require a degree of any major U.S. city — 15% higher than the concentration nationally. Nevada also has the highest concentration of attainable jobs of any state (14% higher than the national concentration).
  • 74% of adults (aged 18+) in Detroit do not have college degrees, which is the highest percentage of any city in the country. The state with the highest percentage of adults without degrees is West Virginia (69%).

How we chose these metrics and cities

To come up with our rankings, we identified metrics that would be important for people without four-year college degrees, such as high incomes for available jobs and low levels of unemployment. We then collected data on each metric for 50 of America's biggest cities and all 50 states.

For each metric, each city or state was given a score relative to all others. Metrics were weighted by their importance for someone without a four-year degree. Weighted scores across all categories were added together to create a final score for each city or state. The highest scores indicate better cities and states for people without college degrees.

The factors we chose were:

  • Median income for residents without college degrees: Money is likely the most important factor for livability. On average, places where people without college degrees get paid more performed better in this category.
  • Income gap between residents with and without college degrees: Major pay disparities between groups of people can make life harder for the lower-earning group. Cities and states with a lower income gap among residents received a higher ranking.
  • Percentage of people without college degrees: Having shared educational backgrounds sometimes makes it easier to relate and connect with the people around you. Cities and states with higher percentages of adults without college degrees scored higher in our ranking.
  • Unemployment among people without college degrees: The ability to find a job in your area is important. Lower rates of unemployment among people without college degrees scored higher in our rankings.
  • Cost-of-living index: Some places are more expensive than others, and even a good salary can feel small if everything costs more where you live. Lower costs of living got higher scores in our ranking.
  • Attainable jobs: We used a government statistic known as “location quotient” to identify areas with prominent industries that tend to offer a higher concentration of jobs that don’t traditionally require a college degree - we refer to these jobs as “attainable.” For a given city, a location quotient equal to 1 has the same concentration of attainable jobs as the nation as a whole. Cities with a location quotient > 1 have a higher concentration of attainable jobs than is typical nationally. The higher the location quotient, the higher the area’s score in our ranking.

The best cities for people without college degrees

Illustration of the best cities for people without college degrees

Ranking City Median Income w/o Degree Income Gap Population 18+ w/o Degree Unemployment Rate w/o Degree Cost-of-Living Index Score Attainable Jobs Location Quotient Overall Score
1 Las Vegas, NV $32,115 $17,930 66.0% 7.3% 112 1.15 83.0
2 Riverside, CA $33,208 $17,224 63.0% 6.5% 133 1.11 81.1
3 Louisville, KY $31,349 $19,872 59.4% 7.1% 88 1.10 78.9
4 Jacksonville, FL $30,717 $18,885 59.5% 5.3% 94 1.06 78.8
5 Virginia Beach, VA $34,916 $18,863 50.7% 5.9% 106 1.02 77.3
6 Indianapolis, IN $30,365 $19,481 59.0% 7.3% 84 1.06 76.1
7 Providence, RI $31,700 $10,596 57.7% 6.9% 105 0.98 76.0
8 Phoenix, AZ $30,972 $24,371 61.5% 6.5% 104 1.02 73.8
9 San Antonio, TX $28,223 $22,753 63.3% 5.5% 90 1.01 73.6
10 Oklahoma City, OK $29,612 $21,430 59.0% 6.9% 85 1.03 73.6

1. Las Vegas, Nevada

Two-thirds of Las Vegas’ adult population do not have college degrees, which is the highest percentage of any city in our top 10. Las Vegas also has the highest proportion of non-degree jobs among the 50 cities we evaluated. The concentration of employment that does not require a college degree in Vegas is 15% higher (location quotient = 1.15) than the concentration of non-degree jobs nationally.

2. Riverside, California

Despite a relatively high cost of living, Riverside still lands at the number two spot thanks to a higher concentration of attainable jobs (location quotient = 1.11) than is typical nationally. A number of the top industries in the city are focused on manufacturing and retail, which contributes to Riverside’s larger proportion of jobs for which you don’t need a college degree.

3. Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville boasts a higher-than-average concentration of attainable jobs. The city’s cost-of-living score (88) makes it one of the most affordable cities to live in among our top 10.

4. Jacksonville, Florida

The largest city by area in the entire country, Jacksonville’s unemployment rate for people without a degree is just 5.3%. That’s one of the lowest rates of any city we looked at. Coupled with a below-average cost of living, that is more than enough to land Jacksonville on the list of five best cities for people without degrees.

5. Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach features an unemployment rate of less than 6% for those without a four-year degree, which is one of the main driving factors behind its ranking. Another big reason for Virginia Beach’s overall ranking is the median salary for people without a degree in the city ($34,916). That’s the highest of any city in our top 10.

6. Indianapolis, Indiana

Nap City landed at sixth place thanks to the lowest cost of living of any city in the top 10. Also, jobs that don’t generally require a college degree make up a larger share of Indianapolis employment (location quotient = 1.06) than they do for the nation as a whole. Indianapolis would have ranked higher if not for a low median salary for people without four-year degrees ($30,365).

7. Providence, Rhode Island

The income gap between people with degrees and those without is just $10,596 in Providence, the smallest difference for any city in the country. That means Providence residents without college degrees enjoy the most competitive salaries of any city in the country compared to college grads.

8. Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix has a decent concentration of jobs that don’t require a degree (location quotient = 1.02). And Phoenix’s unemployment rate for people without degrees is just 6.5%. Taken together, these metrics paint Phoenix as a city with above-average demand for workers and below-average unemployment rates, making it a good location for people without college degrees.

9. San Antonio, Texas (tie)

San Antonio’s median salary for people without degrees is just $28,223, the lowest of any city in the top 10 and one of the 20 lowest in the entire study. Despite its low median salary, San Antonio still earned a spot in our top 10, thanks in large part to a very low unemployment rate (5.5%) and a low cost of living.

9. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (tie)

Oklahoma City tied with San Antonio for the last spot on this list. Similar to San Antonio, OKC has one of the lowest median incomes ($29,612) of the 50 cities we evaluated. Despite this, it still landed in the top 10 due to an even lower cost-of-living score than San Antonio’s (85 vs. 90). OKC also has a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.9%.

The worst cities for people without college degrees

Illustration of the worst cities for people without college degrees

Ranking City Median Income w/o Degree Income Gap Population 18+ w/o Degree Unemployment Rate w/o Degree Cost-of-Living Index Score Attainable Jobs Location Quotient Overall Score
50 Washington, D.C. $31,504 $40,338 37.0% 17.4% 152 0.76 30.0
49 San Francisco, CA $32,458 $54,653 35.2% 6.9% 269 0.81 31.4
48 Atlanta, GA $26,935 $38,805 39.1% 11.6% 108 0.99 46.5
47 San Jose, CA $35,719 $45,870 46.5% 5.0% 215 0.73 46.8
46 Boston, MA $32,915 $31,879 40.7% 8.8% 162 0.82 49.3
45 Seattle, WA $36,152 $35,633 28.0% 5.7% 172 0.91 54.1
44 New York, NY $31,679 $32,419 52.6% 7.1% 187 0.89 55.2
43 Minneapolis, MN $29,608 $25,551 38.8% 8.3% 107 0.91 55.7
42 Chicago, IL $29,394 $32,845 51.3% 11.8% 107 0.99 56.3
41 San Diego, CA $32,104 $31,240 44.4% 6.0% 160 0.92 57.9

50. Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital takes the cake as the worst city for people without college degrees in our study. Washington’s unemployment rate for people without a four-year degree is an astronomical 17.4%, the highest rate of the 50 cities considered. The concentration of attainable jobs in Washington (location quotient = 0.76) is one of the lowest, second only to San Jose (location quotient = 0.73), and 24% lower than the concentration of non-degree jobs nationally.

49. San Francisco, California

San Francisco joins Washington, D.C. at the bottom of our list. San Francisco has the largest income gap between those with and without four-year degrees, with an astounding $54,653 difference between the two groups. San Francisco also has the highest cost-of-living index score of any city evaluated (269). That’s more than 50 points higher than the next most costly city in our study: San Jose, CA (215).

48. Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta’s cost-of-living index score is 108, one of the lowest of any city in our bottom 10. But that number is still above the national average (100). Atlanta’s high cost of living, combined with one of the 15 lowest median incomes for people without degrees ($26,935), was enough to earn Atlanta the third-worst score on the list.

47. San Jose, California

San Jose is a center for the tech industry, which might be why it has the lowest concentration of attainable jobs in the country (location quotient = 0.73). San Jose also has an income gap of more than $45,000 and a high cost-of-living score (215) that’s second only to neighboring San Francisco. All these factors solidified San Jose’s spot in the bottom five.

46. Boston, Massachusetts

Boston isn’t particularly welcoming for people without four-year degrees. Less than half (40.7%) of Boston’s adult population do not have a four-year degree, and the city’s concentration of jobs that don’t usually require degrees (location quotient = 0.82) is 18% lower than is typical for other U.S. cities.

45. Seattle, Washington

Seattle actually has the highest median income for people without degrees in the country, but it still finishes in our bottom 10. Without such a high median income, the Emerald City would have finished even closer to the bottom of our list than it did. Just 28% of Seattle’s adult population is without a degree, which is the lowest rate in the country. And the city has one of the highest cost-of-living scores in the nation (172).

44. New York, New York

Known for its high housing costs, The Big Apple features one of the highest cost-of-living scores in the country at 187. New York also has a lower concentration of attainable jobs (location quotient = 0.89) than any of the remaining cities in our bottom 10.

43. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Though Minneapolis’s cost of living is one of the lowest in our bottom 10, less than 40% of the city’s adult population does not have a four-year degree. That’s one of the main factors influencing Minneapolis’ low overall ranking.

42. Chicago, Illinois

Chicago tied with their Midwestern neighbor, Minneapolis, for a cost-of-living score of 107. But that relative affordability is offset by a low median income for people without college degrees ($29,394). Chicago also has a relatively high unemployment rate for those without degrees,11.8%.

41. San Diego, California

The final city in our bottom 10 is sunny San Diego. Despite a fairly low unemployment rate of 6%, San Diego still ranks near the bottom, thanks to a low percentage of the population without degrees (44%). San Diego also has a relatively low proportion of attainable jobs (location quotient = 0.92) — 8% below the national average.

Complete factor scores and overall rankings for all 50 cities

Ranking City Median Income Score (weight: 3.25) Income Gap Score (weight: 3.25) Population Score (weight: 3.50) Unemployment Rate Score (weight: 3.25) Cost of Living Score (weight: 3.25) Attainable Job Score (weight: 3.25) Overall Score
1 Las Vegas, NV 3.4 4.2 4.2 4.1 4.0 5.0 83.0
2 Riverside, CA 3.9 4.2 3.8 4.4 3.5 4.5 81.1
3 Louisville, KY 3.1 3.9 3.4 4.2 4.6 4.4 78.9
4 Jacksonville, FL 2.9 4.1 3.5 4.9 4.5 3.9 78.8
5 Virginia Beach, VA 4.5 4.1 2.5 4.6 4.2 3.5 77.3
6 Indianapolis, IN 2.7 4.0 3.4 4.1 4.7 3.9 76.1
7 Providence, RI 3.3 5.0 3.3 4.2 4.2 3.0 76.0
8 Phoenix, AZ 3.0 3.4 3.7 4.4 4.2 3.5 73.8
9 San Antonio, TX 1.9 3.6 3.9 4.8 4.6 3.3 73.6
10 Oklahoma City, OK 2.5 3.8 3.4 4.2 4.7 3.6 73.6
11 Memphis, TN 1.2 3.9 4.0 2.9 4.9 4.8 72.7
12 Kansas City, MO 2.9 3.8 3.0 4.0 4.7 3.3 72.0
13 Nashville, TN 2.8 4.0 2.3 4.4 4.3 3.7 71.1
14 Milwaukee, WI 1.6 3.8 4.0 4.0 4.7 3.1 70.4
15 Columbus, OH 2.8 3.7 2.7 4.1 4.7 3.1 69.9
16 Houston, TX 1.9 2.8 3.3 4.4 4.4 3.7 68.5
17 Dallas, TX 2.1 2.5 3.4 4.6 4.3 3.6 68.4
18 Charlotte, NC 2.5 3.1 2.0 4.6 4.3 3.7 66.8
19 Buffalo, NY 1.4 4.1 3.3 3.2 4.8 3.2 66.6
20 St. Louis, MO 1.7 3.8 2.9 3.6 4.8 3.2 66.4
21 Baltimore, MD 3.0 3.4 3.5 3.1 4.6 2.4 66.3
22 Salt Lake City, UT 2.7 4.2 1.6 4.7 3.8 3.0 66.2
23 Birmingham, AL 0.4 3.7 3.5 3.3 5.0 3.8 65.6
24 Orlando, FL 0.9 3.6 2.2 4.6 4.2 4.2 65.2
25 Hartford, CT 2.1 3.4 4.6 3.0 4.5 1.9 65.1
26 Miami, FL 0.0 3.7 3.5 4.4 3.7 4.0 64.5
27 Sacramento, CA 3.2 3.3 3.0 3.6 3.8 2.1 63.2
28 Denver, CO 3.4 3.1 1.7 4.7 3.6 2.6 63.1
29 Tampa, FL 1.4 3.3 2.4 4.0 4.3 3.5 62.9
30 Detroit, MI 0.9 4.1 5.0 1.0 4.6 3.1 62.6
31 Cincinnati, OH 1.4 3.4 2.7 2.8 4.7 3.7 62.2
32 Portland, OR 3.1 3.7 1.5 4.1 3.5 2.9 61.8
33 Cleveland, OH 0.5 3.6 4.8 1.4 5.0 3.1 61.3
34 Raleigh, NC 2.7 3.3 1.3 4.2 4.2 2.7 61.1
35 Austin, TX 3.0 3.2 1.3 4.5 3.8 2.6 60.9
36 Richmond, VA 0.9 3.7 2.4 4.0 4.4 3.0 60.9
37 Pittsburgh, PA 1.9 3.9 1.7 3.4 4.6 2.7 60.5
38 Philadelphia, PA 1.9 3.5 3.6 2.5 4.3 2.3 59.9
39 New Orleans, LA 0.4 3.7 2.9 2.7 4.4 3.7 59.6
40 Los Angeles, CA 2.5 3.2 3.0 4.4 2.4 2.1 58.7
41 San Diego, CA 3.4 2.7 1.8 4.6 2.8 2.3 57.9
42 Chicago, IL 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.3 4.1 3.1 56.3
43 Minneapolis, MN 2.5 3.3 1.2 3.7 4.1 2.1 55.7
44 New York, NY 3.3 2.5 2.7 4.2 2.1 1.9 55.2
45 Seattle, WA 5.0 2.2 0.0 4.7 2.5 2.1 54.1
46 Boston, MA 3.7 2.6 1.4 3.5 2.7 1.1 49.3
47 San Jose, CA 4.8 1.0 2.0 5.0 1.4 0.0 46.8
48 Atlanta, GA 1.4 1.8 1.2 2.3 4.1 3.1 46.5
49 San Francisco, CA 3.6 0.0 0.8 4.2 0.0 1.0 31.4
50 Washington, D.C. 3.2 1.6 1.0 0.0 3.0 0.4 30.0

The best and worst states for people without college degrees

Looking beyond the specific cities that are the best and worst places for people without college degrees to live and work, we also wanted to look at how states fared with similar criteria, since many issues related to employment and jobs are legislated at the state level.

Ranking State Median Income Score (weight: 3.25) Income Gap Score (weight: 3.25) Population Score (weight: 3.50) Unemployment Rate Score (weight: 3.25) Cost-of-Living Score (weight: 3.25) Attainable Job Score (weight: 3.25) Overall Score
1 Wyoming 3.7 4.2 2.8 3.7 4.5 4.3 77.4
2 North Dakota 4.4 4.5 1.3 5.0 4.4 3.8 77.2
3 Indiana 2.4 3.4 3.5 3.3 4.7 4.4 72.6
4 South Dakota 2.0 4.2 2.4 4.3 4.4 4.2 71.9
5 Nevada 2.5 3.9 4.2 1.6 4.1 5.0 71.3
6 (tie) Idaho 1.6 4.5 3.0 4.2 4.3 3.6 70.2
6 (tie) Arkansas 1.1 3.5 4.4 3.1 4.7 4.0 70.2
8 Oklahoma 1.6 3.9 3.9 2.7 4.9 3.8 69.5
9 Kentucky 1.5 3.2 4.0 2.9 4.5 4.3 68.5
10 Wisconsin 2.9 3.2 2.2 4.1 4.4 3.6 68.0
11 Iowa 2.8 3.4 2.2 3.9 4.8 3.3 67.4
12 West Virginia 1.4 4.3 5.0 1.5 4.7 3.0 66.9
13 Alabama 1.3 3.0 3.7 2.8 4.8 4.4 66.9
14 Nebraska 2.2 3.5 1.8 4.6 4.6 3.4 66.4
15 Tennessee 1.3 3.2 3.6 2.7 4.7 4.1 65.6
16 Louisiana 1.6 3.2 4.5 2.0 4.5 3.6 65.4
17 Mississippi 0.3 4.1 4.0 1.4 5.0 4.6 65.1
18 Montana 1.0 4.9 2.2 4.0 4.0 3.4 65.0
19 Utah 3.0 3.8 1.6 4.3 4.0 2.8 64.1
20 New Hampshire 5.0 3.2 1.0 3.9 3.4 2.8 63.6
21 Missouri 1.7 3.3 3.0 3.3 4.7 3.0 63.3
22 Kansas 1.9 3.2 1.9 3.8 4.9 3.3 63.0
23 South Carolina 1.0 2.9 2.9 2.6 4.5 4.5 61.5
24 Ohio 2.1 2.5 3.2 2.6 4.6 3.1 60.3
25 Maine 1.7 4.3 2.1 3.4 3.5 2.8 59.4
26 Vermont 3.1 5.0 0.8 4.1 3.5 1.3 58.5
27 Florida 0.6 3.3 2.6 2.8 4.1 3.6 57.0
28 Texas 1.6 1.6 3.0 3.0 4.6 3.1 56.6
29 Georgia 1.5 2.2 2.7 2.7 4.8 3.1 56.5
30 Pennsylvania 2.5 2.5 2.5 2.7 4.3 2.4 56.0
31 Rhode Island 4.3 3.0 1.8 2.1 3.6 2.0 55.6
32 Colorado 3.6 2.9 0.6 3.2 4.1 2.2 55.0
33 Arizona 1.6 2.6 2.9 2.2 3.9 2.9 54.0
34 North Carolina 1.1 2.8 2.2 2.4 4.5 3.1 53.7
35 Delaware 3.1 2.2 2.6 1.6 4.0 2.4 52.9
36 Michigan 1.5 2.2 2.7 1.8 4.7 2.9 52.6
37 New Mexico 0.0 3.8 3.4 1.6 4.5 2.5 52.5
38 (tie) Washington 4.4 1.4 1.3 2.9 3.6 2.1 51.8
38 (tie) Alaska 4.2 2.7 3.1 0.0 3.0 2.5 51.8
40 Minnesota 3.3 1.8 0.9 3.7 4.4 1.6 51.6
41 Hawaii 3.7 3.9 1.9 2.8 0.0 3.2 51.5
42 Oregon 1.9 2.8 2.0 2.7 3.1 2.6 50.1
43 Illinois 2.4 1.2 1.8 1.5 4.6 2.5 46.8
44 Virginia 2.5 1.0 1.1 3.2 4.1 1.6 44.3
45 Maryland 4.6 1.0 1.1 2.2 3.0 1.2 43.0
46 Connecticut 4.7 0.9 0.9 1.6 3.4 1.4 42.6
47 New Jersey 3.8 0.0 1.0 1.9 3.6 2.2 41.6
48 Massachusetts 5.0 1.2 0.0 2.6 2.9 0.0 37.8
49 California 2.3 0.1 2.0 2.1 2.4 1.5 34.7
50 New York 2.7 0.8 1.2 2.3 1.9 0.8 31.9

According to our rankings, many of the top states for people without college degrees are located in the Plains and Midwestern regions of the country, including the top three states of Wyoming, North Dakota, and Indiana. Each of these states scored a 3.0 or higher in at least five different categories, indicating an environment generally beneficial to those without college degrees.

On the alternate end of the spectrum, the two worst states for people without college degrees are New York and California. Both of these states scored a 2.5 or lower in at least five categories, with California falling below that threshold in all six categories.

Financial tips for maximizing your income, with or without a degree

Most people would love a little extra cash in their pocket regardless of whether or not they have a four-year degree. Here are a few tips that anyone can follow to help build up their bank account:

Methodology

For this analysis, FinanceBuzz collected data for all cities and states included in the analysis. We gathered data points for seven different factors in each city or state. Data for each location was put into a dynamic formula that assigned a 0–5 score to each city or state for each factor, with scores being relative to all other cities or states in the evaluation. Individual factor scores were then weighted and added together to get a final score on a 0–100 scale.

Factors, data points, and sources are as follows:

Median Income Score: Median annual salary for people with a high school diploma or equivalent — U.S. Census — Weight: 3.25

Income Gap Score: The difference between the median salary for people with a high school diploma or equivalent and those with a Bachelor's degree — Bureau of Labor Statistics — U.S. Census — Weight: 3.25

Population Score: The percentage of the adult population (18+) in each city or state that does not have a college degree — U.S. Census — Weight: 3.5

Unemployment Rate Score: Unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma or equivalent in each city or state — U.S. Census — Weight: 3.25

Cost-of-Living Score: Assigned cost-of-living score for each city or state — BestPlaces.net (for cities) and The Council for Community and Economic Research (for states) — Weight: 3.25

Attainable Job Score: Location quotient score in each city or state for a combination of major job categories that traditionally do not require a college degree — Bureau of Labor Statistics — Weight: 3.5

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Author Details

Josh Koebert Josh Koebert is an experienced content marketer that loves exploring how personal finance overlaps with topics such as sports, food, pop culture, and more. His work has been featured on sites such as CNN, ESPN, Business Insider, and Lifehacker.