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Best Cities in Illinois for Young Families

June 10, 2013
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All throughout the Land of Lincoln, you can find small-town charm and inviting, happening downtown areas — Midwestern manners are no myth. But are the economy and schools just as welcoming? NerdWallet sought out the best cities for young families in the state, and we asked the following questions as we ran through the list:

  1. Does the town have good public schools? We incorporated scores by GreatSchools, a nonprofit that rates a school with its standardized test scores. Those results are then compared to the state average to arrive at a final rating on a 1 to 10 scale. Higher ratings led to a higher overall score.
  2. Can you afford to live there? We looked at the cost of homeownership, including ongoing, monthly home costs like mortgage payments, real estate taxes, insurance costs, utilities, fuels and other bills. Lower costs led to a higher overall score.
  3. Is the town growing and prospering? We evaluated a town’s economy with its median household income and income growth over the last decade. A higher income and greater growth led to a higher overall score.

Best Cities for Young Families

1. Edwardsville

Edwardsville is consistently cited among the best places for families in both statewide and national studies — and for good reason. The town’s public schools at every level, from elementary to high school, have a near-perfect rating from Great Schools. Given Edwardsville’s proximity to St. Louis, quality jobs are plentiful, providing a high median household income while the town’s suburban location keeps home costs low. This bustling community also boasts 86 miles of bike paths maintained by Madison County Transit. As the third-oldest town in Illinois, Edwardsville continues to attract families even two centuries later.

2. O’Fallon

O’Fallon is among the largest and fastest growing suburbs of St. Louis. With Scott Air Force Base nearby, the town is also home to many military families and retirees. After the expansion of I-64 in the mid-nineties, the city’s growth accelerated and now 50% of the homes available in O’Fallon are less than 15 years old and relatively inexpensive compared to home costs closer to St. Louis. The city perennially prides itself on great parks, libraries, and schools. 

3. Charleston

In 1831, Abraham Lincoln’s father carved out a homestead on the prairie 8 miles south of Charleston and the town has been growing ever since. The seat of Cole County and home of Eastern Illinois University, Charleston offers extremely low housing prices and, with cost of living in mind, it’s among the best in state for a city its size. Charleston maintains a stable economy with a strong manufacturing center, a plentiful agricultural industry and university all offering jobs while schools continue to thoroughly prepare children for college and life.

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4. Grayslake

Grayslake is 40 miles north of Chicago and 50 miles south of Milwaukee. Its parks department provides excellent programming and facilities that further cultivate the town’s strong sense of community. The village also features a community garden and a farmers market. With home values lower than surrounding, comparable suburbs, Grayslake’s schools remain on par with those in wealthier towns. Bottom line: the village is a great balance of affordability, proximity to Chicago, and quality schools.

5. New Lenox 

New Lenox is about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. The Village was officially incorporated in 1946 and has continued to blossom since. It was recognized by the World Health Organization and the National Safety Council as the “9th Safest Town in the US.” Its hospital, Silver Cross, has been listed among the top 100 hospitals in the US for 7 years in a row. New Lenox also boast 569 acres of parks, several nature preserves, biking and hiking trails, as well as an excellent golf course. The town also has a semi-pro football team, the Lincoln-Way Patriots. The local high schools offer competitive sports and rigorous academic programs. 

6. Geneva

Geneva is one of the most happening Illinois cities outside Chicago. It’s home to the Kane County Cougars, the minor-league baseball team, and it pulls fans from all over Chicagoland – not to mention they serve excellent funnel cakes. Beyond the frivolity, there’s a lot to love here, too. The schools are top-notch. The local school district was just given the Bright Red Apple Award for academic excellence. This prize takes into account schools’ academic performance, pupil-to-teacher ratio, expenditure per pupil and the teachers’ level of eduction and pay.

7. Huntley

Despite massive growth — the town has quadrupled in size in less than a decade — Huntley’s schools have managed to keep up. Parents report that the elementary schools maintain a ratio fof 20 students per teacher. The high school continues to do well, too.  Its journalism program just earned 2nd in State at the IHSA competition 

8. Downers Grove

Downers Grove made the Chicago Tribune’s Top 10 List of Downtowns, with its sidwalk cafes, shops and pedestrian-friendly feel. The town’s schools are crème de la crème, too. North High School was recently named one of “America’s Best High Schools” by Newsweek, based on the strength of its AB, IB and AICE programs.

9. Elmhurst 

Business and schooling in Elmhurst have some of the best support any town can offer. The city helps small retail shops get off the ground with a grant porgram. While most small business fail in the first two years, this program has managed to extend the life of its own shops: nearly 80% of grant recipients are still in operation since the program began in 2002. Meanwhile, the schools have seen similar success. They’ve retained some of the best and most seasoned teachers: on average, the teachers in district 205 have 11 years of experience in their profession

10. Orland Park

Orland Park is very active in promoting local business. The Village government gives help particularly to those looking to relocate or simply grow. Among its services is a financing program, which gives loans at half the prime rate. Businesses have followed suit, too: Orland Park’s become a shopping capital south of Chicago. Beyond the shopping malls, there’s plenty to do outdoors on the weekends, too — at least when it’s not wintertime. Throughout the summer, Orland Park residents can enjoy free concerts at an outdoor amphitheater, ball games and more.

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 Edwardsville city, Illinois St. Louis, MO 9 $197,500 $1,631 $74,012 45.35% 74.35
2 O’Fallon city, Illinois St. Louis, MO 8 $198,200 $1,845 $77,348 38.30% 67.70
3 Charleston city, Illinois n/a 8 $97,000 $1,026 $28,960 19.97% 63.78
4 Grayslake village, Illinois Chicago 8 $250,900 $2,232 $95,067 29.97% 63.69
5 New Lenox village, Illinois Chicago 8 $295,700 $2,261 $90,414 33.56% 63.62
6 Geneva city, Illinois Chicago 9 $330,700 $2,329 $95,467 23.50% 63.56
7 Huntley village, Illinois Chicago 9 $249,700 $2,035 $71,340 18.00% 62.75
8 Downers Grove village, Illinois Chicago 9 $348,900 $2,147 $80,314 22.54% 62.68
9 Elmhurst city, Illinois Chicago 9 $383,000 $2,443 $87,935 25.99% 62.41
10 Orland Park village, Illinois Chicago 9 $306,100 $2,130 $80,328 18.87% 62.30


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 from the U.S. Census (data sets P053 and DP03, half-weighted)

124 Illinois cities, towns and villages designated as places by the U.S. Census were included in this analysis. Only places with a population greater than 20,000 were considered.