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The Most Educated Places in America 2016

Aug. 2, 2016
Loans, Student Loans, Studies
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“The beautiful thing about learning,” blues great B.B. King once said, “is that no one can take it away from you.” Some communities take that spirit to heart more than others and are among the most educated places in America. NerdWallet combed the country to find the cities and towns with the highest percentages of residents with college degrees.

NerdWallet analyzed Census Bureau data on education levels achieved by residents over 25 in more than 17,000 places with populations of at least 25,000. The places at the top of the list have the most residents with degrees including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional. (See our methodology section below for additional details on the rankings.)

To get a sense of how much more formal education the top 10 places have compared to the full list, consider the average for all the cities and towns we measured. We found that on average, 37% of people in these places hold at least an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some 10% of residents have a master’s degree, 1% have a doctorate, and 2% have a professional degree. A professional degree is defined as an advanced degree focused on skills necessary to work in specific profession, usually one that requires a license such as Juris Doctor or Doctor of Optometry.

Now here’s a look at places where it’s hard to find a resident who doesn’t hold a college degree, and someone in every other home has an advanced degree as well.

Key findings

Degree holders flock to the greater Boston area. Four places on the top 10 list are less than 20 miles from Beantown. There are more than 35 colleges and universities in Boston, so it makes sense that the surrounding areas are popular places for grads to settle down.

Maryland’s Washington, D.C., suburbs rule. Of the top four places on our list, two are in Maryland: Bethesda at No. 1 and Potomac at No. 4. Nearby McLean, Virginia, also a D.C. suburb, is No. 6.

College towns have the degrees. Princeton and Wellesley both have namesake colleges, while the majority of all places on the top 10 list also have at least one college within their borders. The top places without local colleges are typically suburbs of larger cities that have numerous colleges and universities.

Most educated places in America

1. Bethesda, Maryland

In Bethesda, a bedroom community outside of Washington, D.C., 16% of residents have a professional degree, one of the highest percentages among all places measured. In this city, 85% of all residents have an associate or bachelor’s degree, more than half have a master’s degree, and 11% have a doctorate. Biomedical engineering is a common profession here. Bethesda is well-known for being the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health and Lockheed Martin, as well as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bethesda is also home to the American College of Medical Informatics and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

2. Brookline, Massachusetts

Brookline is minutes away from three major colleges: Boston University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brookline itself is home to Newbury College, Hellenic College Holy Cross and the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Here, 52% of all residents have a master’s degree, the third-highest percentage among all places measured. Some 83% of residents have an associate or bachelor’s degree, 14% have a doctorate, and 13% have a professional degree.

3. Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton is the namesake for its famous Princeton University, one of eight Ivy League institutions in the U.S. It’s also home to Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute of Advanced Study, where Albert Einstein was a faculty member until his death. The township is in central New Jersey between two major urban centers, New York City and Philadelphia. In Princeton, 55% of all residents have at least a master’s degree, and 17% have a doctorate — both are the highest percentages among all places measured.

4. Potomac, Maryland

Potomac’s location outside of Washington, D.C., makes it popular among commuters. Here, 16% of all residents have a professional degree, one of the highest percentages among all places measured. Half of the residents have a master’s degree, and 9% hold a doctorate. There are no colleges in Potomac, but these suburban residents are close to all of the colleges the D.C. area has to offer. It’s also known for having some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country.

5. Palo Alto, California

Palo Alto, the largest place on the top 10 list, with 66,000 residents, has the fourth-highest percentage of residents who have a master’s degree (51%) and/or a doctorate (14%). The highly selective Stanford University is in Palo Alto, as is the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. Company headquarters in the city include Hewlett-Packard, Tesla Motors, Skype and the Ford Research and Innovation Center.

6. McLean, Virginia

McLean is a suburb in the Washington, D.C., area where many politicians and government workers reside. The Langley neighborhood in McLean is home to George Bush Center for Intelligence, the headquarters of the CIA. McLean is home to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Transportation’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. Corporations based in McLean include Hilton WorldWide, Mars Inc., Freddie Mac and Capital One. Of all residents, 85% have at least an associate or bachelor’s degree, one of the highest percentages among all places measured.

7. Wellesley, Massachusetts

Wellesley, 12 miles southwest of Boston, is the namesake of Wellesley College, one of the Seven Sisters liberal arts colleges. It is also home to Babson College and Massachusetts Bay Community College. In Wellesley, 86% of residents have an associate or bachelor’s degree, the highest percentage among any place measured. Nearly half of all residents also hold a master’s degree, and 11% have a professional degree. Companies with headquarters in Wellesley include the U.S. office of Sun Life Financial and Roche Brothers.

8. Wilmette, Illinois

Wilmette is the smallest place on the top 10 list, with only 27,345 residents, but there’s no shortage of degrees among the population. Of Wilmette’s residents, 84% have an associate or bachelor’s degree, and 14% have a professional degree, some of the highest percentages among places measured. No colleges are within the village’s borders, but residents of this suburb north of Chicago live close to more than 100 colleges and universities in the metropolitan area.

9. Newton, Massachusetts

Newton, a city west of Brookline, is home of the Newton campus of Boston College. Other schools in Newton include Andover Newton Theological School, Hebrew College, William James College, Lasell College and Mount Ida College. Some of the city’s largest employers beyond the colleges include Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Communities Without Borders and Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. In Newton, 48% of residents hold a master’s degree, 11% have a doctorate, and 12% have a professional degree. Other companies based in Newton include New England Cable News, Upromise by Sallie Mae and TechTarget.

10. Lexington, Massachusetts

Lexington may not have colleges within town limits, but it’s less than 20 miles from Boston, one of the biggest college and university hubs in the country. It’s best known as the site of the Battle of Lexington, which kicked off the American Revolutionary War. Half of all residents in Lexington have a master’s degree, and 13% have a doctorate. The largest employment sectors in Lexington are services and manufacturing. It also has a cluster of biotech and pharmaceuticals companies.

Methodology

Each place has a minimum population of 25,000. We examined degrees held by people 25 or older in each place, according to 2014 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The overall score for each place comprises the following:

  • Percentage of the population with at least an associate or bachelor’s degree: 55% of the overall score.
  • Percentage of the population with at least a master’s degree: 15% of the overall score.
  • Percentage of the population with a doctorate degree: 15% of the overall score.
  • Percentage of the population with a professional degree: 15% of the overall score.

Some of the education is cumulative. For example, the percentage with master’s degrees includes those with master’s, professional and doctoral degrees.

With advanced degrees comes high debt

Advanced degree holders like the residents in the top 10 most educated places typically carry high student debt. For example, borrowers with doctorates in medicine or osteopathic medicine carry a median combined private and federal debt of $200,000 in 2012, with an APR of 9.56% on private debt and 6.80% on federal debt.

Those struggling with high interest rates and pricey monthly payments might benefit from student loan refinancing.

When you refinance, you work with a private refinancing company or financial institution to replace multiple loans with one new loan at a lower interest rate and, often, an extension of your repayment term. Refinancing isn’t right for everyone, especially if you think you might need to use federal protections such as income-driven repayment, loan forgiveness, deferment or forbearance. Consider your own situation before refinancing your loans.

In the table below, scroll right to view the complete data.

100 most educated places in America

RankCity, statePercentage with at least bachelor's or associate degreePercentage with at least a master's degreePercentage with a doctoral degreePercentage with a professional degreeOverall score
1Bethesda, Maryland85%54%11%16%94.02
2Brookline, Massachusetts83%52%14%13%91.93
3Princeton, New Jersey83%55%17%9%91.05
4Potomac, Maryland83%50%9%16%89.72
5Palo Alto, California84%51%14%9%88.73
6McLean, Virginia85%51%8%14%87.67
7Wellesley, Massachusetts86%49%8%11%85.61
8Wilmette, Illinois84%46%6%14%85.24
9Newton, Massachusetts80%48%11%12%84.32
10Lexington, Massachusetts81%50%13%8%84.23
11Chapel Hill, North Carolina79%45%15%8%82.46
12Los Altos, California84%47%8%8%80.79
13Davis, California76%42%14%9%79.75
14Cambridge, Massachusetts77%45%13%7%78.53
15East Lansing, Michigan76%40%13%7%77.21
16North Bethesda, Maryland76%41%9%10%76.14
17Needham, Massachusetts79%42%5%10%75.75
18Blacksburg, Virginia74%42%13%6%75.38
19West Lafayette, Indiana73%42%16%3%75.30
20Ann Arbor, Michigan76%42%10%7%75.08
21Saratoga, California83%42%5%6%74.92
22Belmont, Massachusetts75%42%11%7%74.72
23Upper Arlington, Ohio78%35%7%10%74.62
24Menlo Park, California75%40%8%8%73.63
25Shaker Heights, Ohio70%40%8%12%72.93
26Cupertino, California80%42%7%4%72.83
27Leawood, Kansas78%33%3%12%72.10
28Berkeley, California74%38%9%6%70.78
29Boulder, Colorado75%37%9%5%70.47
30State College, Pennsylvania72%40%14%2%70.24
31Westport, Connecticut78%38%3%8%70.21
32Arlington, Virginia76%38%4%9%69.82
33Highland Park, Illinois73%36%4%11%69.69
34Ridgewood, New Jersey79%32%3%8%69.55
35Coral Gables, Florida70%33%5%13%69.18
36Manhattan Beach, California79%31%3%8%69.08
37Pullman, Washington71%34%13%3%68.53
38Dublin, Ohio79%30%4%5%67.17
39Northbrook, Illinois73%31%3%10%67.01
40Oak Park, Illinois72%36%5%8%66.96
41Ithaca, New York70%38%10%3%66.90
42Evanston, Illinois70%38%7%7%66.80
43Arlington, Massachusetts72%36%8%4%66.40
44Rockville, Maryland67%36%9%7%66.26
45Rancho Palos Verdes, California72%31%5%8%66.17
46Catalina Foothills, Arizona69%33%7%9%65.96
47Brighton, New York70%35%6%7%65.34
48Los Gatos, California76%29%4%6%65.11
49Carmel, Indiana73%30%5%7%65.10
50Sammamish, Washington79%28%4%3%64.62
51Vestavia Hills, Alabama71%30%4%8%64.60
52Oakton, Virginia72%37%4%6%64.54
53Forest Hills, Michigan73%29%4%7%64.03
54Santa Monica, California70%29%5%8%64.00
55Short Pump, Virginia75%29%3%6%63.81
56Ames, Iowa70%29%11%2%63.78
57Hoboken, New Jersey77%27%2%6%63.75
58Edina, Minnesota73%28%3%8%63.69
59Westfield, New Jersey71%30%4%8%63.27
60Mountain View, California69%35%7%4%63.02
61Ellicott City, Maryland70%33%6%5%63.00
62Iowa City, Iowa65%32%9%6%62.99
63Beverly Hills, California66%29%5%10%62.76
64Irvine, California72%28%4%6%62.66
65South Pasadena, California69%28%5%7%62.04
66Milton, Massachusetts69%32%5%6%61.85
67Lake Oswego, Oregon71%28%3%8%61.81
68Newport Beach, California71%26%3%7%61.71
69Brentwood, Tennessee73%25%3%6%61.36
70Towson, Maryland66%33%5%7%60.98
71Columbia, Maryland69%31%5%5%60.90
72Auburn, Alabama66%30%9%4%60.67
73Reston, Virginia72%30%4%4%60.56
74San Carlos, California68%29%5%6%60.40
75Southlake, Texas74%25%2%6%60.37
76Germantown, Tennessee70%27%3%7%60.32
77West Hartford, Connecticut64%32%4%9%60.29
78Foster City, California69%30%5%4%60.28
79Chesterfield, Missouri69%29%3%6%60.27
80Olney, Maryland69%29%4%6%59.99
81Dix Hills, New York67%28%2%9%59.78
82Naperville, Illinois71%30%3%4%59.77
83Northampton, Massachusetts62%32%8%6%59.60
84San Ramon, California73%25%3%4%59.49
85Dunwoody, Georgia71%27%3%5%59.36
86Ladera Ranch, California73%25%2%4%58.97
87Claremont, California63%30%8%5%58.94
88Alexandria, Virginia66%31%4%7%58.82
89Fair Oaks, Virginia72%28%3%4%58.76
90Wildwood, Missouri71%25%3%4%58.52
91Pikesville, Maryland62%29%4%8%58.32
92Parkland, Florida69%24%3%6%58.10
93Corvallis, Oregon65%27%8%3%57.84
94Glenview, Illinois66%27%2%8%57.83
95Milton, Georgia73%23%1%5%57.74
96Burke, Virginia70%30%2%4%57.73
97Walnut Creek, California69%25%3%5%57.63
98Plainview, New York66%30%1%7%57.59
99Danville, California72%23%3%4%57.50
100Homewood, Alabama63%26%3%8%57.40

Anna Helhoski is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: anna@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski. Victoria Simons is a data associate at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: vsimons@nerdwallet.com.