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‘Brain Drain’: How Big Cities Are Pricing Out New College Graduates

Danger looms on the horizon for America’s biggest cities as prices continue to rise and young graduates continue to leave.


It’s no secret that city living is expensive. For years, lower-paid workers have fled big cities in favor of quieter, lower-priced towns.

However, recent college graduates, who are typically more highly paid, have been following in their footsteps. What changed, and where are they going instead?

Big Cities, Big Bucks

First of all, let’s look at the typical cost of living in today’s biggest cities. This data is from Numbeo, which provides information regarding the cost of living, quality of life, and more in cities, states, and countries around the globe.

  • New York City
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $3,773
    • Average utility cost: $169
    • Cost of living index: 100.0
  • Seattle
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $2,508
    • Average utility cost: $273
    • Cost of living index: 97.2
  • San Diego
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $2,724
    • Average utility cost: $265
    • Cost of living index: 88.9

Yikes! With some of the highest prices in the country, it’s no wonder that young people are looking to move. Even a decent salary isn’t enough to compensate for these costs, especially with everything else factored in alongside it. When additional costs such as food, necessities, insurance, entertainment, and travel are added to the total, the price of living can easily go upwards of $6,000 a month, or a whopping $72,000 a year. And that’s without savings!

Let’s meet the competition.

Small Town Savings

America’s small towns, unsurprisingly, have some of the lowest prices in the country. However, “small” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “unpopulated”—even popular cities like Houston and Orlando are considerably more affordable than New York or Seattle. Here are the same cost-of-living markers, compared:

  • Orlando
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $1,904
    • Average utility cost: $162
    • Cost of living index: 75.1
  • Houston
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $1,573
    • Average utility cost: $172
    • Cost of living index: 71.1
  • Memphis
    • Average one-bedroom rent: $1,330
    • Average utility cost: $236
    • Cost of living index: 65.0

Monthly costs in these cities, including rent, reach somewhere around $3,000. This makes them 50% less expensive than America’s biggest cities, with an incredible savings of $36,000 a year. On paper, it’s a no-brainer: of course, young people would choose to live here. Why would they want to live anywhere else?

The Catch

Here’s where it gets complicated. Although living in less-populated states is considerably cheaper, the savings often come at the expense of safety, comfort, and community. One in five Gen-Z adults identify as LGBTQ+, and 83% are Democrats or Independents. Big cities like New York and Seattle may be more expensive, but they’re also well-known for being progressive and accepting, while red states like Florida and Texas are decidedly less so. In fact, in light of recent legislation, there is currently a travel advisory in place for LGBTQ+ individuals who may wish to visit or move to Florida.

Additionally, gun violence is far more prevalent in Southern states, with frequent mass shootings such as Uvalde and Pulse Nightclub. Reports done between 2000 and 2020 showed that Republican-led states had a 12% higher murder rate than Democratic-led cities. Even for college graduates who aren’t LGBTQ+ or left-leaning, the threat of danger is still high.

However, there’s still something to be said for building a home in an otherwise hostile state. Despite the unwelcoming atmosphere in red states like Florida, Texas, and Tennessee, the LGBTQ+ and progressive presence is still alive and well—primarily in the States’ biggest cities, like Orlando, Houston, and Memphis. Ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide which factors are most important to them when choosing their new home.

The Compromise

Not all hope is lost for young progressives. There are plenty of cities in the US that are both affordable and welcoming, such as Spokane, Baltimore, and Detroit, with cost of living indexes around 74.0. Recent college graduates should do plenty of research when comparing cities, taking into account the values, costs, and available opportunities in each area.

As for the higher-priced cities, soon they will face a tough decision: lower costs, or continue to watch as young talented individuals leave the area in droves. Without a steady influx of college graduates, these cities will undoubtedly begin to fail. Already, we are seeing a massive brain drain as educated workers move out of cities such as San Francisco and Washington DC. Hopefully, this serves as a wake-up call to landlords and business owners in the area: prices can’t rise forever. One of these days, something’s got to give.

To read more about the moving patterns of college graduates, click here.

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Written By

Haven, she/her, 21 year old English student from University of Florida.

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