Top 100 Best Places To Live - Education as a Criteria for Livability

We want to love where we live. That’s part of why we’re not a very mobile society. We have our habits, our networks (and sometimes our mortgages) and our jobs. Each year about one in eight households moves, but that varies a lot by age and other factors. A sizable majority stay within the same county or metro area.

So why do we move? We get new jobs, or want to be closer to family and friends. Sometimes, we just want to trade up to a better home or trade down to something more manageable. But often it’s demographic changes that lead to relocation. We hit retirement age or graduate from college. One major driver is having kids. That can immediately lead to a move for a larger living space. And five years in, those with options will often pack up the condo, apartment or house in search of the best school district possible. 

That’s one reason education is important for livability. But education occurs at all levels, so we examined indicators for public schools, colleges and universities, and the education levels of the adults in the city. Cities with higher-rated public schools, more colleges and universities, and well-educated adults scored best. The average score across all the cities we measured was 40.

Let’s start with the public schools. We used data provided to us from GreatSchools to measure the quality of public schools in a city. As the oldest of the millennial generation move into their 30s and begin forming their own households, getting married and having kids, will denser cities be able to retain them? After all, the millennials are the best-educated generation in history. It stands to reason they’ll want the best schools for their little ones.

This could be a great advantage for smaller cities and suburbs in the coming years. Looking at the GreatSchools data, cities with populations between 20,000 and 50,000 had scores that were on average 25 percent higher than the cities with populations greater than 500,000. Urbanist Joel Kotkin points out in a blog post that many big cities saw shrinking populations of children during the past decade as they struggled with reduced spending on education and school closures.

“The 14-and-younger population increased in only about one-third of all [cities], with the greatest rate of growth occurring in smaller urban areas with fewer than 250,000 residents,” he says.

Having quality public schools in a community is a boon in a number of ways.

“There’s a ripple effect into other livability factors when the schools are strong,” Carol Lloyd, executive editor of GreatSchools tells “There’s more impulse for homeowners to spend tax money and local dollars in that community. It’s a virtuous circle that we’ve found. There’s more money spent in a community on things that have a long-term effect on their community.” She says that communities with the best schools often have made education a focal point for policy development at the city and school district levels.

For our Index, we also looked at the educational attainment of its residents. The more highly educated the parents, the theory goes, the more emphasis they’ll place on their own children’s education. But it’s more than that. Having at least a bachelor’s degree is highly tied to higher incomes, and that continues to increase with higher education levels. There’s evidence that better-educated people lead healthier lives as well. 

The other major component of our education rating was the presence of colleges and universities within a town. If you look at the top cities on the list, they typically have a major college or university located within their borders. This is likely not coincidence. College towns have a number of key advantages: a constant influx of new residents; enhanced cultural opportunities often of a scale you’d find only in the largest cities; a more stable economy due to a dominant industry that is less volatile than most; and a means of creating a unique identity and sense of pride in the community. You see that in cities like Boulder, Durham, Berkley, and of course, our No. 1 city, Palo Alto. For a smaller city, having a major college can propel them from a good place to live to a great place to live.