Knowledge capitals: These are the 10 smartest cities in the US

smartest cities in the US
One city had residents with an average 15.61 years of education. Source: AFP

No matter what you want to do with your life, you need a good education. And where better to get that than the smartest cities in the US?

Every year, thousands leave their homes and empty their savings for a shot of making it big in the Land of Dreams. Their first step is usually to go to a good university that’ll prepare them for some of the highest paid jobs in the world or even dream jobs.

If you’re one of those lucky enough to head to the US to get a degree, you should choose the city you want to live in wisely.

Being in one of its smartest cities comes with many perks, which we’ll explain in detail below. Do the opposite and you could be in for trouble.

smartest cities in the US

Life’s good if you live in one of the smartest cities in the US.

Why you should avoid the least educated cities in the US

The US is home to many prestigious universities — five of which are in the top 10 universities in the world, according to the latest QS World University Rankings 2023.

Their impact goes beyond performing well on rankings. In fact, they’re behind some of the greatest progress made by mankind in recent decades.

And many of the US’s biggest discoveries were made by the researchers, professors and PhD students at its universities. These include:

  • Google: As Stanford students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin created the search engine which went on to revolutionise information and the internet as we know them
  • The internet: When researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford Research Institute, first linked two computers together, they created the first network of networks. This will later evolve into what we know as the internet.
  • Gene editing: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Vienna, respectively, came close to playing God when they developed the CRISPR/Cas9 system. A gene editing technology, it has the potential to cure diseases, improve crops, and create new forms of life.
  • COVID-19 vaccine: The first Pfizer vaccine was developed by a team of researchers led by Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • GPS: Roger Easton, Ivan Getting, and Bradford Parkinson, researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory, developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1974.

Being around intelligent people can make us more curious about the world — which sets off a whole suite of positive effects.

“Highly educated people increase labour force productivity, and they invest heavily in the next generation. Because they see the fruits of their knowledge and skills, highly educated people typically view education as the golden ticket for children’s success,” shares Molly Martin, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University.

The opposite is also true. Bakersfield, California and Modesto, California are two of the five least educated cities in the US as they have the fourth- and fifth-lowest percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (around 11% to 12%).

Both are poor — with more than one in five residents in poverty and with a median household income of less than US$52,00.0.

These factors can lead to issues such as higher rates of single-parent households and lower rates of high school graduation than other cities in the US.

In turn, these lead to fewer people going to university and getting high-skilled jobs — which later makes if it more difficult for their children to succeed in school.

Exceptions exist, but this cycle of low education leading to poverty is typical in the least educated cities in the US.

What does it mean to be ‘smart’?

How we define “smart,” and by extension the “smartest cities in the US,” will differ between you, me and the person standing next to you on the train.

To Stephen Hawking, intelligence is “the ability to adapt to change.” Albert Einstein describes true intelligence as “not knowledge but imagination.”

Even the two know smartest people in the world don’t share the same understanding of what being smart is all about.

Thankfully, to find out the smartest cities in the US in 2023, we can turn to WalletHub’s latest ranking of the most and least educated American cities.

It is based on 11 key metrics and includes the nation’s 150 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

Note that education standards and quality vary across the 50 states. WalletHub’s analysis considered factors such as educational attainment and the quality of education to rank the states accordingly.

The top-ranked cities are economically prosperous and boast a high concentration of college degree holders and individuals with graduate degrees. This makes them attractive locations for businesses seeking a well-educated workforce.

cities in the US

Madonna studied at the University of Michigan, which is located in one of the smartest cities in the US. Source: AFP

Genius spots: The 10 smartest cities in the US

1. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor in Michigan reigns #1 on WalletHub’s ranking of the most educated cities in the US.

With 93% professional degree holders, the city boasts the highest percentage of degree holders in the nation.

What makes Ann Arbor truly unique is its combination of highly educated professionals and a thriving economy.

The city’s strong link to the University of Michigan plays a central role in driving the local economy. With approximately 30,000 university employees and nearly 50,000 students, the city thrives as a centre of higher education.

The city’s metro area has the highest share of bachelor’s degree holders aged 25 and older at 57.20%, which is 3.8 times higher than in Visalia, California, the metro area with the lowest at 15.20%.

Stanford, located in one of the smartest cities in the US, is the alma mater of Google founders and the current UK prime minister. Source: AFP

2. San Jose, California

It is no surprise that the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara region made it to the second spot on the list of smartest cities in the US.

The city boasts an impressive 82% of its residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

This achievement can be attributed to the area’s esteemed schools and universities, including Stanford University, San Jose State University and the University of Silicon Valley.

A strong focus on education and access to higher learning contributes to its reputation as a hub of high-tech innovation. The city is also home to many high-tech giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook.

cities in the US

Bill Clinton read law at one of the most educated cities in the US. Source: AFP

3. Washington, DC

Apart from its political significance, Washington, DC. benefits from industries like security technology, hospitality, and data science, which contribute to its thriving local economy.

The city boasts an average of 15.61 years of education.

It is home to prestigious institutions such as Georgetown University and American University, with one-third of its adult population possessing a graduate or professional degree.

smartest cities in the US

People sit on the beach at Baker Beach on May 26, 2020 in San Francisco, California, one of the smartest cities in the US in 2023.

4. San Francisco, California

Known for its tech innovation and high living costs, San Francisco is home to major tech companies like Google, Apple, Salesforce, Twitter and Uber.

The city and its surrounding area are also home to renowned universities, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State.

With the highest median annual salary on this list but also the highest median home value, San Francisco is a magnet for highly educated professionals despite its steep expenses.

Around 35% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 23% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

smartest cities in the US

Madison is famous for its beautiful lakes and park, and now for being one of the top 10 smartest cities in the US.

5. Madison, Wisconsin

With nearly 81% of its population having attended or graduated from college, Madison is one of the most educated cities in the US.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison serves as the main university, contributing to Madison’s rank as the fourth most educated city. This university is a prominent research institution that produces a substantial number of graduates ready to enter the workforce.

Madison Area Technical College provides students access to quality technical and trade education, enriching the skilled labour force.

With a well-educated population and a growing tech sector and healthcare industry, this city is one of the best places to live and work in the US.

6. Durham, North Carolina

According to WalletHub, Durham ranks as the sixth most educated city in the US.

Its high ranking is partly due to its high percentage of graduate or professional degree holders.

This city is also home to renowned universities such as Duke, North Carolina Central, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

cities in the US

Harvard University is located in one of the most educated states in the US. Source: AFP

7. Boston, Massachusetts

Known for its numerous colleges, Boston is close to institutions like Northeastern University and Boston University, as well as some of the top universities in the world, like Harvard and MIT.

The city’s technical institutes, such as Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology and Wentworth Institute of Technology, contribute to the 45% of degree holders who have specialised in STEM fields.

Around 26% of adults possess a bachelor’s degree, while 22% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

Despite its high level of education, Boston also experiences the highest unemployment rate among the cities listed, at 6.7%.

8. Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, along with Durham and Chapel Hill, forms part of the “Research Triangle” region in North Carolina, which is home to several top universities in the country.

Notable universities in Raleigh include North Carolina State University, while Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill are within an hour’s drive.

With a multitude of nearby colleges, it’s not surprising that one-third of Raleigh residents have earned a bachelor’s degree.

Approximately 33% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 18% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

cities in the US

Did you know that the Starbucks headquarters is located in one of the most educated cities in the US? Source: AFP

9. Seattle, Washington

Approximately 36% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 27% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

Seattle boasts one of the highest percentages of adults with a bachelor’s degree among the cities mentioned. Approximately 36% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 27% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

The city offers diverse career opportunities across various industries, such as global health, information technology, and green technology.

It is home to the headquarters of several major businesses, including Starbucks, Costco, and Amazon. For graduates interested in starting their own businesses, Seattle provides numerous incubators to support the growth and development of startups and small enterprises.

smartest cities in the US

Then US President Barack Obama speaking with local residents about jobs and the economy while eating lunch at Stubbs Bar-B-Q in Austin, Texas, one of the smartest cities in the US, on May 9, 2013. Source: AFP

10. Austin, Texas

Around 32% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree, while 19% have pursued a graduate or professional degree.

Not only is Austin one of the most educated cities in the US, but it is also the largest city on this list. The city has become a significant technology hub in the South.

Austin hosts major tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Dell, benefiting from its pro-business environment. The city’s economy is also dominated by sectors like aerospace, clean technology, and data management.

Located in Texas, it is home to several higher education institutions, with UT-Austin alone accommodating over 50,000 students.