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The Best Towns in Iowa for Young Families

Nov. 11, 2013
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When young families in Iowa buy a home, they consider more than property taxes. They look at what a community has to offer in its job market and its schools. With that in mind, we asked the following questions as we analyzed cities and towns across the state to identify the best for young families:

  1. Does the town have good public schools? We measured schools’ academic performance with ratings from GreatSchools. This non-profit compares a given school’s standardized test scores to the state average to obtain a rating on a 1 to 10 scale (10 representing the highest score). Higher ratings led to a higher overall score.
  2. Can you afford to live there? We looked at both median home values in each town and ongoing monthly home costs, including mortgage payments, real estate taxes, insurance costs, utilities, fuel and other bills. Lower costs led to a higher overall score.
  3. Is the town growing and prospering? We assessed a town’s economy by looking at average household income and income growth over the last decade. Higher income and greater growth led to a higher overall score.

The Best Towns for Young Families

1. Ankeny

Ankeny is a suburb of Des Moines, and it is growing quickly. The unemployment rate is exceedingly low, at 3.4 percent as of July 2013 – lower than the state rate of 4.9 percent and less than half that of the nation’s unemployment rate. The schools here are excellent, too, with a graduation rate of 92.8 percent – nearly three points higher than the state average.

2. Waukee

Waukee, just outside Des Moines, is blowing up. The long-awaited Alice’s Road Corridor has begun construction, and, when the road is finished, 1,300 acres of land will be available for development, both for business and recreation. According to city officials, the road could bring in over 25,000 jobs. Beyond industry, too, things are looking up, with the Waukee Community School District graduating 98 percent of its high school seniors in 2012.

3. Pella

Pella is about 40 miles from Des Moines, and it has a beautiful downtown district with restaurants and fantastic bakeries like Jaarsma, which bakes delicious Dutch treats – true to the heritage of many folks who live here. The schools are great, too, with students averaging in the 90th percentile on standardized tests.

4. Urbandale

Urbandale is a suburb of Des Moines in Polk and Dallas Counties. The unemployment rate is low here, at just 3.6 percent – less than half that of the nation overall. Also in town are 900 acres of parkland, including 48 parks and 38 miles of trails. A teacher at Urbandale Middle School, Jon Parrott, was recently named a finalist for the 2014 Iowa Teacher of the Year.

5. Johnston

Johnston is a suburb of Des Moines in Polk County, and it has seen tremendous growth in recent years. The city population doubled in size from 2000 to 2010, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. The school district is also excellent. It is a strong supporter of both the community and its students – the Johnston Community School District is the fourth-largest employer in town and includes a National Blue Ribbon School in its ranks.

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6. Bettendorf

Bettendorf is one of the Quad Cities, a group of two cities in eastern Iowa and two in Illinois, including Moline, East Moline and Rock Island. The labor force of 530,000 people have built a $16.5 billion economy that is home to several Fortune 500 companies. Included in its ranks are John Deere, Alcoa and 3M.

7. North Liberty

North Liberty is conveniently located between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and it is the second-fastest growing city in the state. The community’s population grew by nearly 150 percent last decade, thanks in part to the strong local economy. Big employers in the area include the University of Iowa and Procter & Gamble.

8. Clive

Clive is a 15,447-person city near Des Moines. One of its hallmarks is its Greenbelt Park, over 290 acres of green space and 11 miles of trails that stretch nearly as long as the community. Residents in Clive demand the highest median income on this list, at $101,875. Top employers in the community include the American Cancer Society and Wells Fargo.

9. Coralville

Coralville is a suburb of Iowa City in Johnson County. Students here – and in Iowa in general – do exceedingly well. On the ACT, students in the Iowa City Community School District scored an average 25.5, and the state overall posted a 22.1. Meanwhile, students across the nation earned a mean score of 20.9.

10. Altoona

Altoona is just outside Des Moines in Polk County. Facebook recently announced that it would build a data center in the community, which is expected to add over 2,500 jobs and $450 million in high-tech and construction salaries. Beyond industry, there is a lot to enjoy in Altoona. The city includes 18 miles of bike trails and a 68-acre athletic complex.

Rank City Nearest big city GreatSchools rating Median home value Monthly owner costs Median household income Growth,’99-’11 Overall score for young families
1 Ankeny Des Moines 10 $173,500 $1,511 $72,703 31.8% 75.9
2 Waukee Des Moines 9 $191,200 $1,634 $80,863 39.4% 75.0
3 Pella Des Moines 8 $163,900 $1,230 $60,184 32.3% 68.1
4 Urbandale Des Moines 7 $193,100 $1,611 $83,401 39.6% 67.4
5 Johnston Des Moines 9 $237,600 $1,839 $93,042 22.3% 67.3
6 Bettendorf Davenport 8 $166,600 $1,382 $69,239 27.7% 66.4
7 North Liberty Iowa City, Cedar Rapids 6 $154,100 $1,359 $61,304 44.2% 64.3
8 Clive Des Moines 6 $229,700 $1,752 $101,875 37.4% 63.6
9 Coralville Iowa City 7 $186,100 $1,523 $53,273 39.9% 63.4
10 Altoona Des Moines 7 $162,900 $1,390 $65,781 31.1% 63.2
11 West Des Moines Des Moines 8 $183,000 $1,534 $67,179 24.1% 63.1
12 Marion Cedar Rapids 8 $143,100 $1,305 $58,551 20.5% 62.7
13 Spencer 6 $105,300 $931 $43,208 31.1% 60.0
14 Carroll 8 $119,000 $1,122 $45,316 13.7% 59.6
15 Indianola Des Moines 7 $144,900 $1,300 $53,162 21.6% 58.2


The overall score for each city was derived from the following measures:

  1. GreatSchools city rating. GreatSchools city ratings are calculated by averaging the weighted overall rating for each school in the city (weighted by the number of students enrolled at the school)
  2. Median home value from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP04, half-weighted)
  3. Monthly homeowner costs from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP04, half-weighted)
  4. Median household income from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP03, half-weighted)
  5. Income change between 1999 and 2011 from the U.S. Census (data sets P053 and DP03, half-weighted)

38 Iowa cities and towns designated as places by the U.S. Census were included in this analysis. Only places with a population greater than 10,000 were considered.

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