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America’s Smartest Cities

Which city has the biggest brains? Which cosmo would dominate Jeopardy? Movoto's latest Big Deal List has the answers to your brainiest questions.

David Cross

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Living in the Bay Area, the Movoto gang is constantly amazed at the certifiable geniuses we bump into around town. Recently, one of our bloggers had the enlightening experience of going to a bar trivia night near the Berkeley campus. It was, to be perfectly honest, an awe-inspiring experience getting drubbed by students and professors alike. This brain show led us to think about what city in the country has the smartest population—the literal smartest city in the States. Instead of wondering, we put on our glasses and went at it.

What Did We Find?

It turns out that Pittsburgh is kind of a big deal when it comes to being smart. The home of the Pirates, a surprisingly cunning mascot, beat out Orlando for the top honor. According to our data, here are the 10 smartest cities in America:

While not all these cities on this list surprised us—we’re looking at you Washington, D.C.—the inclusion of other cities were surprising, namely Cincinnati and Orlando. Neither city has shown up often on our multitude of top 10 lists.

If you’d like a breakdown of how we came up with our list and an explanation of the criteria we chose, pull out your composition notebook and get ready to take some notes.

How Did We Do It?

As with our previous Big Deal Lists, we looked at the 100 most populous cities in the country, and then ranked each city from 1 to 100 based on each criteria. After we slogged through data entry, we calculated The Big Deal Score, the average score a city received across all our criteria. The city with the lowest average score earned the title of smartest city in the country. For more details you can check out this page, which explains our process in more depth.

For this list, we looked at six pieces of criteria. We’ll explain why we picked them in the next section along with cities that ranked high in these areas. Here’s our criteria:

  • Universities and colleges per person
  • Libraries per person
  • Education level
  • Media per person (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines)
  • Museums per person
  • Public school rank

Now let’s take a look at what cities earned the lowest (best) score across our categories.

Universities

Why universities? It’s a simple answer. Universities act as an incubator of knowledge, and not just for the students who attend the school. The general public also sees the benefits of universities through community projects such as free seminars, to name just one example. A smart city needs areas that focus on education and exploration. Pittsburgh took the top spot in this section followed by St. Louis and Baton Rouge.

Libraries

Libraries can be similar to universities, though we aren’t saying you can get your Ph.D in the stacks. What we mean is libraries give a city’s residents a place to borrow free media. Sure, people can plow through CDs and movies, but they can also check out non-fiction books and even technical manuals. Also, let’s not forget free community workshops. If these don’t scream smarts, we aren’t sure what “smart” means.

In this section we looked at the number of libraries in a city’s library system. Buffalo ranked the highest in this category. Cincinnati and Miami came in second and third, respectively.

Education Level

Education level was, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. For this section we looked at the number of residents in a city with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Our thought was that a higher percentage of educated residents equates to a higher willingness to learn.

Using Census data, we found that Irvine had the highest number of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher, followed by Seattle and, to our surprise, Plano, TX.

Media

Being smart isn’t all about being educated—it’s also about being able to continually educate yourself. This is one reason libraries factored into our list. In the same vein, this is why we chose to include the number of local media outlets available in each city. This includes newspapers, television stations, radio stations, and magazines. The concept is that residents in a city with access to more media will be better informed in all sorts of areas. At the very least, these folks will be able to keep track of their hometown.

The city with the most media outlets per person was St. Paul, followed by St. Petersburg, and then North Las Vegas.

Museums

It’s hard to argue that museums don’t benefit a city’s population. Whether the museum focuses on a single topic or hosts traveling exhibits, museums are academic institutions that educate the public. A city with multiple museums is a city that’s supercharging its residents’ collective brain power.

Our survey showed that Washington, D.C. had most museums per capita, which, if you’ve been to the city, is completely realistic. The next two cities on our list were Scottsdale and Anaheim.

Public Schools

When creating this list, we debated whether to include public school scores to the list of criteria. In the end we decided that cities with strong school systems were better preparing their children—and by extension the city—for the future. For this category, we relied on data collected from GreatSchools.org, a not-for-profit organization that ranks school districts across the country. Irvine earned the top spot in this section. Close behind was Scottsdale and then Chesapeake, VA.

Final Exam

What should you take from all this? While the Bay Area has its fair share of brains, be wary of trivia nights in Pittsburgh. I’m sure they’d be able to answer this head-scratcher no problem: Which country shares the longest border with France?



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posted on: June 25, 2013
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  1. anon

    These aren’t the “smartest cities”, these are “the cities with the most access to education”. Those two concepts are not interchangeable. Just because there is abundant access to knowledge does not mean the people of that city access that knowledge. Believe me, the people in Pittsburgh are not traditionally “smart”

    • Quinn in response to anon

      Your obviously judgmental if you don’t think Pittsburgh is smart. There are many hard workers around that area it’s a pretty awesome place to live as well and we have the resources necessary because we were smart enough to build them.

    • M in response to anon

      Why should we believe you, Anon

    • Anonymous in response to anon

      I also grew up in Pittsburgh as well and returned for a few years to set up a tech company….then leaving a few years later after realizing the futility of such an effort. Its a very economically, intellectually and psychologically depressed area. This “ranking” is truly baffling since outside a few of the universities, the best of which have mostly foreign students/students from outside the area, education levels are quite low. Well over 80% of the graduates from the best school (CMU) leave right after education…and most of them are from somewhere else. They often settled on CMU as a backup to some top-tier school in a much better city….the univ surely wishes it was in another location (they used to have marketing materials that never mentioned the fact they were in Pittsburgh.

      Employers in tech have a very difficult time recruiting the right people and often need to “import”, sometimes most of their staff. Seagate did this before shutting down their R&D facility a few years ago (note the SEAGATE sign still on top of the building…located in the Strip District is STILL up years after the company left. NO doubt its to give the impression they are still there…that is a very Pittsburgh thing to do.

      The city has some of the lowest education levels in the country. Over 90% of people signing up for the military could not enter either due to low education levels and/or not being able to pass the health exam. There is a very strong, local aversion toward education…with people who leave and/or highly educated being perceived as “arrogant” or “strange”…I kid you not. There is a strange arrogant, callousness toward new people…mostly triggered by a deep seated inferiority complex and fear of competition/loss of control. As a result, the “local experts” skill set is quite low compared to what you see in the rest of the country….isolation does that to a community.

      You can very frequently find parents insisting their kids not leave the area for univ…they of course have lower education levels as well. HOWEVER, those people who also live in well-to-do areas also exhibit this strange local mentality in many ways. They continue to stay since they are on the top of the local heirarchy….read up on this part of the history of the city. Its been a contributing factor to its sad current economic state and its inability to change. It was a key factor in my decision to leave (again)…the city perhaps has less than 10 years before the health care and university “industries” collapse. UPMC knows it so they are desperately trying to “build their business” outside the region….good luck, the rest of the world isnt Pittsburgh.

      Lastly, to the person who met “many smart people” in Pittsburgh….you must be from Pittsburgh and/or have not lived in too many other places. It is truly unique for its combination of lack of educated people (INCLUDING the “professionals” working downtown, the majority lawyers and useless consultant and service types), stubborn resistance to change and learning, and antipathy toward anyone or thing that seeks to alter this mentality. Its why the MAJORITY of returnees, like myself, end up leaving a few short years after coming back….

      • jessie in response to Anonymous

        i gotta agree with more anonymous.. if Google is booming and continues to boom then pittsburgh is going to continue to grow.. i work for a company that is a partner w Google and trust me, they don’t just set up shop anywhere..
        but for Anonymous… where are you getting your info?

      • Even More Anonymous in response to Anonymous

        Someone should tell Anonymous that marital aids do not a tech company make.

        • Wanna grab an 'Arn? in response to Even More Anonymous

          Yes, I’d like to know where anonymous got those statistics from as well, and also the year for which they were compiled.
          It seems to me that with those figures, Pittsburgh shouldn’t have ranked anywhere near the top 10…yikes! I’m just so
          glad nothing was based upon the opinions of well traveled, tech and business savvy former residents who are obviously of superior intellect compared to that of your average Pittsburgher. Thank goodness the tech venture didn’t thrive! Had anonymous stayed any longer he may have unwittingly found himself in the (eventually necessary) roles of leader, teacher and life coach to all those underachieving, dimwitted Pittsburghers! I shudder at the thought!

  2. Dustin

    I fail to understand the reasoning of the colleges category. You can’t directly relate the number of colleges/universities to the urban population when a vast majority of the students are not necessarily registered residents of that city. Hence smaller cities get skewed higher ranks just because of smaller population and not greater prevalence of higher learning opportunities.

    • Mike in response to Dustin

      Case in point: Tulsa. However, there are pure college towns where the student population completely dwarfs the locals, so by that measure I’d expect them to be at the top.

      So how did they choose which cities to rank? Was it just those 50, or are there hundreds more they decided not to embarrass?

  3. Chris

    You must be from Cleveland, anon.

  4. steve sabol

    Cleveland #45. Bogus study

  5. Laurie Mann

    I have trouble seeing Orlando or Tampa being in the top 10 or New York, Chicago or Boston being out of it. I’ve live in Pittsburgh over half my life and have met many smart people here.

    • Anonymous1 in response to Laurie Mann

      Laurie, Orlando and Tampa have some of the best healthcare facilities and research institutions in the country along with major engineering roots. Additionally, Orlando is close to NASA and employs some of the most intelligent aerospace and technological workers. Also, the disparity between education level is probably larger in bigger cities such as New York and Chicago.

  6. Anonymous

    I am from Pittsburgh and I will say we are not the smartest but if we are God help the rest of the country.

    • Anon2 in response to Anonymous

      I agree. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and even went to Pitt. The data is skewed because their is no weight assigned to the different categories. For example, the bachelor degree score should outweigh libraries by 1.25. Just because you have them doesn’t mean individuals actually go. The way this data has been presented, all categories are equal which is not true.

  7. Anonymous

    In re to the comment about there are “many hard workers”, that is just ridiculous. The deep seated union mentality has crushed the work ethic and unless you are in your 70s there, you usually have a pretty strong aversion to work. You will very frequently hear people talking about quiting time hours before closing…and they have no problem chasing customers out BEFORE closing if they are trying to get ready to close. Stores close very early for a reason. Go and ask store owners in the Strip District why they close so early….the only ones open until normal hours are the ones run by the Chinese.

    As a former employer there, it was very difficult to find qualified, motivated people for admin positions. I heard the same thing from other CEOs so its quite common. They do have the old steel mill, unionized punch-the-clock mentality…there is little motivation to learn and grow. I would say that if you could manage to find staff, they will stay in the same job for decades if they can (I have relatives who have been in the same job forever….of course complaining about something or another about their employer, etc.).

    You hear the “hard worker” comment a lot from the locals but its just BS. Their parents, grandparents….definitely yes….but, again, they are over 70…no younger than 65 or so…

  8. J.C.B.

    Pittsburgh not “traditionally smart”…Here’s a little history. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh cured Polio. Pittsburgh has been the home, several times, to the largest/fastest computational computers in the world. Carnegie Mellon University School of Robotics “example Did you see the apple launch this month..I’m sure you did..those guys with the A.I. cars.. CMU/Pittsburgh”, Leaders in engineering (Westinghouse engineers from Pittsburgh ran the Manhattan Project- My grandfather was one of them), sciences and health care. Dr. Starzl at the University of Pittsburgh perfected the heart transplant surgery procedure that is now common through out the world…The Carnegie Museum is a leader in anthropological studies and has the largest collection of fossilized dinosaur bones in the world.
    If you would like to enhance your education in the study of historical “tradition” please submit you application to one of our Universities.. Best of Luck.

  9. anon2

    This list is laughable. Baton Rouge at #3 for college rank, with Boston at #11? So having LSU and Southern in BR beats Harvard, MIT, BC, BU, Northeastern in Boston? (Unless you’re counting Cambridge as a different city–which if it were, should be high on the list on its own merits).

  10. Pat

    Obviously, the journalist wanting to elicit the most readers and responses will use sensational language for their title ie.. “America’s Smartest Cities”. The correlation between access to knowledge and # of bright individuals is probably valid but obviously the whole list is very subjective especially as to the rankings. I think the writer of the article accomplished their goal. There are very intelligent folks and complete dunces in every city.

  11. More Anonymous

    Anonymous just sounds like he runs a sh*tty tech company then blames the region/workers for his failure. If Google can thrive in Pittsburgh & keeps expanding its operations there it must actually be a good market for tech workers.

  12. anonymous

    This has the makings of an article from The Onion. Orlando at #2??? It has one of the lowest percentages of college educated residents per capita of any major city. How in the world would that qualify it as being one of the smartest cities?

  13. Cricket

    You lost me at Orlando.

  14. C anonymous

    To anon in response to: This has the makings of an article from The Onion. Orlando at #2??? It has one of the lowest percentages of college educated residents per capita of any major city. How in the world would that qualify it as being one of the smartest cities?

    Response: Albeit not a high number it is ranked 43 out of 100 so it is not one of the lowest per your comment.

    Not the most accurately weighted survey that is for sure. Since they are only looking at the top 100 largest cities. An equation based on actual population would have been appropriate too.

    But some of the numbers have validity.

  15. Nick

    Where’s Boston? You put Miami ahead of Boston? Wow. This is a joke.

  16. megan

    I think what the article is trying to imply is, that Pittsburgh has the greatest CHANCE and OPPORTUNITY for “smart”. If we’re talking intelligence, then, yes, you could argue that the schools here harbor lots of non-native Pittsburghers, and that “just because there are lots of libraries, doesn’t mean people use them.”

    But what I think the article is doing here, is implying that Pittsburgh, as a city, has the greatest chance for “raising” intellectual residents because of it’s options. Lots of plays and musicals to choose from, orchestras, museums, libraries, colleges; all places where one has a chance to expand their knowledge.

    Things like actual residents with Bachelor degrees or higher, weigh into the final total, and it wasn’t Pittsburgh’s shining category. But I don’t think the article is implying that all Pittsburgh residents are “smart”, it’s implying that the city, itself, offers great resources for one to expand their minds.

    That being said, I am a proud Pittsburgh resident! I could not have attended a better middle or high school, in my opinion (the now downtown-located Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts – CAPA). I’ve not lived in any other city, so I cannot say for certain that other cities don’t offer the same amenities Pittsburgh does, but I love it here. It feels culturally-rich and very accepting. Is it the most “sound” survey? Maybe not. But I’m accepting it for what it is =D

  17. Tampa Smarts

    Well, I totally disagree with this study. Maybe this is a good article to try to persuade some folks to buy houses in these markets, but Tampa and Orlando definitely shouldn’t be in the top 10.

    In this study you talk about the access but failure to address the real quality of this access and there is no mention about how the people of these cities use it.

    Orlando has nothing but a service based industry with very limited skilled jobs, Tampa is a little better than Orlando, but not by much.

  18. MartinF

    Seriously? “pieces of crtieria”?? This is what they teach in journalism school now?

    And although I am a resident of Orlando and glad to see it recognized for UCF’s standing as the second largest university in the nation (after Arizona State), at 59,767 students in its 2012 – 2013 enrollment, I’m a little baffled to see Boston, with Harvard, BU and many other fine centers of learning, coming in at No 12.

  19. anon

    How is Boston, Massachusetts not the smartest city in the US???

  20. Brian

    This is insane. Columbus, OH gets ranked in the top 7 smartest cities in the world (only city in the US) yet doesn’t even make this sites top 50 list. I’m going to go with my source, the one that specializes in creating this list, rather than a real estate company with a blog.

  21. NotMe

    Totally disagree! Philadelphia’s unemployment rate right now is 9.5%, if they were “so smart” it wouldnt be so high. The number of colleges means nothing, most students come from OUT of town and then LEAVE after graduating to begin their lives. Media is not an accurate reflection either. Media has a liberal bias and considering many district voted for Obama 100%, that is proof alone they are NOT smart and have access to bias only media. Museums, LO, this is a real joke. Museums are for tourist. I am betting very few residents actually go to the museums. The only city n that list that truly belongs number one is Hawaii, because anyone living in Hawaii is smart enough to be living in paradise.

    • GeographyB in response to NotMe

      I think you’re confusing Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

  22. LARCAM

    The smartest city is the one that has me for a resident.
    End of debate!

    Hey guys, have some fun with it. Lighten up!

  23. NdB

    How does DC rank #32 in the Colleges category!?
    Off the top of my head, there are at least 7 significant universities within its approx. 60 sq. mile area:

    - Georgetown U
    - George Washington U
    - American U
    - Catholic U
    - Howard U
    - Gallaudet U
    - UDC

    (Not to mention universities, like Johns Hopkins, that have specialized Graduate schools based entirely in DC.)

    Are there really 31 cities that have more higher education opportunities?
    This list desperately needs a fact-check!

 

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