Do you feel especially brainy? It could be thanks in part to where you live. Here at the Movoto Real Estate Blog, we’ve long believed that the place you call home can actually make you smarter. That’s why last year we released our first ranking of the smartest cities in America. Now we’re back at the chalkboard donning our finest professor getup to tell you where the smartest places are on a state level.
At the head of the class is the state of Alabama, America’s first-ranked state alphabetically, but only its eighth-ranked in terms of cotton—which is surprising since it’s known as The Cotton State. This is the sort of thing you’d know off the top of your head if you were as smart as the people in the places we’re about to discuss. We needed the internet to pull that out.
We are good with numbers, though, and they tell us that Mountain Brook, AL is the smartest place in Alabama according to our six criteria. Like a school valedictorian, this city had a bunch of other smartypants gunning for its crown, and they comprise our top 10 smartest places in the state:
1. City of Mountain Brook
2. City of Fairhope
3. City of Chelsea
4. City of Helena
5. City of Homewood
6. City of Calera
7. City of Vestavia Hills
8. City of Huntsville
8. City of Irondale
10. City of Muscle Shoals
10. City of Montgomery
That’s one smart looking list—even though it has the brawny-sounding Muscle Shoals on it—but how did we come up with it? Despite what some smart aleck will surely suggest, we didn’t simply pick these places out of the air and assign an order to them. We make our rankings the brainy way: using data. Next up, we’ll go over exactly how that data becomes one of our Big Deal Lists. We promise you’ll come away from this well educated.
How We Judged A Place’s Smartness
When you’re looking to get an idea of how smart a person is, there are plenty of ways to do so; you can give them an IQ test, make them take the SAT, and so on. Figuring out how smart a place is, well, that takes both brains and creativity. Fortunately, we’re used to coming up with creative ways to measure places, such as their nerdiness or how exciting they are, so this was no problem.
As with our other rankings, we started with a list of places to look at. In this case, they were all the places in Alabama with a population over 10,000. That left us with 61 places to study, and only one question: Which criteria would we use? We came up with six in all:
- Colleges and universities per capita
- Libraries per capita
- Museums per capita
- Percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher
- High school graduation rate
- Average K-12 class size
For colleges, libraries, and museums, we only considered those physically located within each place’s borders and used resources including publiclibraries.com and collegestats.org for our totals. The rest of our data came from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey.
Each place was scored from 1 to 61 based on these criteria, lower being better, and those individual scores were ultimately averaged into one overall Big Deal Score. The lower this score the better, as well, and Fairhope beat out its closest rival by half a point. You can see how the top 50 stacked up in the chart at the end of this post.
With that methodology out of the way, let’s talk about what made each of the top 10 places on our list so smart. We recommend grabbing some blueberries to snack on while you read—they’re considered one of the very best brain foods, after all.
1. Mountain Brook
This affluent suburb of Birmingham shot to the head of the class for a number of reasons, namely its first-place grades in both bachelor’s degree attainment and high school graduation rate. For the former, 29.3 percent of its total population have graduated college with at least a bachelor’s degree, while a stellar 99 percent of all high school students get their diploma.
Mountain Brook also did particularly well for class size, tying for second overall with a 13 to 1 student-teacher ratio. Its lack of colleges and museums within the city limits (you can find plenty of the latter in nearby Birmingham) kept those criteria from scoring any higher than 22nd and 29th, respectively.
Once known as a popular winter retreat for intellectuals and artists, this picturesque city near Mobile Bay clearly hasn’t lost its smarts. In fact, it ranked sixth overall for the number of residents who hold bachelor’s degrees or higher: 21.1 percent.
Fairhope’s high school graduation rate of 89 percent was high enough to rank 10th overall, while its 14 to 1 student-teacher ratio ranked eighth. The city’s sole museum, devoted to the history of Fairhope, earned it 20th place for that criterion, while Fairhope placed 29th for libraries per capita. Without any colleges or universities to call its own, it tied for last place in this category (a trend you’ll see across most of the top 10).
Chelsea is a bit of a child prodigy. Having been incorporated in 1996, it’s only just turned 18, and, like a youngster, it’s growing fast. Education clearly hasn’t been left by the wayside in lieu of rapid expansion, however, as Chelsea was 13th for high school graduation rate (86 percent) and 17th for class size (its student-teacher ratio is 15 to 1).
Plenty of well-educated people have also chosen to call Chelsea home, as evidenced by the 20.6 percent of the city’s residents who hold at least a bachelor’s degree (although they didn’t earn them on this college-free place). Given it small size (only slightly more than 10,000 people) the presence of a single library was enough to make Chelsea rank 10th overall in that per capita category.
Set to get its first high school later this year, this small (16,000 resident) city is already a smart place. Helena had its best showing—you might say its highest grades—in bachelor’s degree attainment and high school graduation rate. It placed fifth and third for those, respectively, with 21.4 percent of residents possessing at least a bachelor’s degree and a phenomenal 95 percent of students graduating from nearby Pelham High School.
Helena’s elementary and middle schools tied for eighth in terms of class size, with a 14 to 1 student-teacher ratio. Hopefully that will carry over to Helena High School when it opens its doors this fall.
Homewood placed as well as it did for a couple of reasons. For starters, it ranked second overall for class size with a student-teacher ratio of 13 to 1. It also had top 10 finishes in high school graduation and college degree attainment, with the former placing sixth at 93 percent and the latter placing ninth with 19.12 percent of residents holding at least a bachelor’s degree.
What really helped Homewood, however, was its colleges per capita ranking. Since it’s a relatively small city of just over 25,000, the presence of just one higher learning institution—Samford University—was enough to place it at 13th for this criterion.
Calera might be one of the smallest places we looked at (11,743 residents), but that does have an upside. This city’s student-teacher ratio is 13 to 1, which was good enough for a second-place rank in that criterion.
On top of this, Calera placed 14th in college degree attainment, libraries, and museums per capita. There’s one library and one museum for residents of this small city, and 14.5 percent of the people who live there have at least a bachelor’s degree. The only bad mark on Calera’s report card is its high school graduation rate, which at 76 percent is ranked 40th of the 61 places we studied.
7. Vestavia Hills
From the lowest high school graduation rate in our top 10, we go to second-best out of any place we looked at. An absolutely brilliant 96 percent of students who attend high school in this city of about 34,000 leave with a diploma, perhaps due in part to the fact that its 12 to 1 student-teacher ratio is the lowest (and thus best) on our list.
The residents of Vestavia Hills also have more college degree holders among them than nearly anywhere else we studied. At nearly 5 percent higher than Helena, 26.1 percent of the people here have at least a bachelor’s degree.
As the second-largest place in our top 10 at nearly 181,000 residents, Huntsville had some math on its side. This city has five colleges, placing it at 18th overall for that per capita criterion, while it has six libraries and 15 museums; enough that it placed 47th and 14th for those, respectively.
Despite being a larger city, Huntsville still posted good class size numbers, with its 14 to 1 student-teacher ratio good enough for eighth overall. With 86 percent of high schoolers graduating, it ranked 13th for diploma attainment. When it came to college graduation, Huntsville placed 13th overall, with 15.7 percent of its residents able to hang at least a bachelor’s degree on their walls.
Irondale might be much smaller than Huntsville (it has only 12,349 residents compared to more than 180,000), but it still managed to tie for seventh overall with its larger neighbor. Irondale served as the inspiration for Fannie Flagg’s classic novel “Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe”, a book you’ll likely find on the shelves in the city’s single library. Tomatoes are great brain food, which may account for the 12.4 percent of residents who have at least a bachelor’s degree, a figure that placed the city at 16th overall for that criterion.
In terms of high school, Irondale placed 15th with an 85 percent graduation rate. The average student-teacher ratio is 15 to 1, good enough for 17th in that category.
10. Muscle Shoals
We joked earlier that Muscle Shoals sounds more brawny than brainy, but the numbers back up the fact that it’s definitely more the latter. Percentages-wise, 11.7 percent of its residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, placing it at 18th for college graduation, and 85 percent of its high school students graduate, a 15th-place finish there.
Muscle Shoals had a strong student-teacher ratio, too, of 15 to 1, a figure worthy of a 17th place ranking in that category. The presence of just one library, and no museums or colleges, kept this city from ranking higher overall.
The state capital of Montgomery managed to squeeze onto our top 10, tied at No. 9. With nearly 206,000 residents, it’s the largest place at the top of our list and as such it got pretty great marks for colleges and museums per capita. It has nine of the former, which earned it 11th overall for that criterion, and a whopping 23 of the latter, which was good enough for eighth. Even with eight libraries, Montgomery only placed 43rd for that category since it’s based on per capita numbers.
In other areas, Montgomery ranked 17th overall for college graduation, with 12.04 percent of its residents possessing at least a bachelor’s degree. High school graduation was a bit less impressive at 23rd, with 81 percent of students obtaining a diploma. Still, that probably can’t be attributed to the 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio, which is less than the national average of 16 to 1 and good enough for 17th place.
Alabama’s Real Bright Spots
As you’ve seen, Alabama may be The Cotton State, but its residents—especially in places like Fairhope—certainly don’t have a bunch of batting between their ears. Still, there are some dimmer spots, like Albertville, where the high school graduation rate is merely 62 percent. Thankfully, they’re not the norm, and you’ve now got the smarts to find the best places to grow your brain—and maybe some cotton, if that’s your thing.
Editor’s Note: Due to a transcription error, this ranking originally had Fairhope listed in the No. 1 spot. In actuality, first place is occupied by Mountain Brook. the post has been updated accordingly and places one to 10 retain their original order. The chart below has also been updated to correct the original error.