Where are College Students Going After they Graduate?

At Handshake, we have the unique perspective of being able to see where 9 million students from more than 500 universities across the United States arelooking to go after graduation. As part of our annual Campus to Career Report, we’ve peeled back the layers on where students are looking to move across the four major US regions — from which parts of the country are more likely to retain talent, to the most popular cities among students within each region.

Our analysis is rooted in the more than 13 million job applications submitted by students over the past year. We feel this is a true marker of a student’s intent to move (or stay), rather than something low friction like a location interest checkbox on a survey.

Let’s take a look at regional retention

Interpreting each region: Seen below, 76% of students at universities in the Northeast are applying to jobs in Northeastern cities — most prominently, New York. The other 24% of students are indicating interest in major cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

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While the South sees the least retention of the four regions, Atlanta pulls in 23% of all applications from students in the South.

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We observe strong retention in the Midwest with two-thirds of applications going to local cities. Chicago attracts the solid majority of all applications from students in the Midwest at 44%.

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The West sees the strongest retention of all U.S. regions. Only two non-local cities appeared in the top 10: New York and Chicago.

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Key Regional Takeaways


  • Local tops the list: The most popular city in each region is local to that region
  • Big Apple, big draw: New York City is the most popular city in every region barring each region’s most popular local city
  • No place like home: Every region sees more than 50% retention in talent
  • Coastal draw: Both the West and Northeast see more than 75% retention

In short, contrary to popular assumptions about younger generations, most students are more likely to stay local than to migrate across the country.


The Big Picture

Let’s take a look at the cities attracting the most young talent, nationwide:

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Top 25 Most Popular Cities (Overall) by Application Count

Overall, New York City received more than double the applications of its runner up, Chicago. This makes sense when comparing cities attracting the most applications on Handshake vs. actual city populations.

The graphic below shows the city’s rank by number of Handshake applications versus the city’s rank by actual population. We compared these two metrics to understand the drawing power of cities.

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All of the top 10 cities, as ranked by Handshake applications, align pretty intuitively with U.S. census population data. New York city is the most populous city in the United states and also receives the most applications on Handshake. Thus, the difference is zero. And when considering discrepancies such as Atlanta, which is ranked #4 by Handshake applications, but #38 by US population (making the difference +34), the greater metro area can be taken into account. Atlanta is the ninth-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the United States. And cities such as San Francisco and Boston are major tech and finance hubs, predictably drawing a slightly disproportionate amount of young talent compared to the cities’ populations, +11 and +17, respectively.


However when exploring a little further down the list, we see some more significant deviations, prompting us to dig deeper:

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Left #: Rank by Handshake Applications. Middle #: Rank by U.S. Population. Right #: The difference.

Why do these less populous cities have such drawing power among college students?

These cities aren’t arbitrarily attracting more applications compared to other cities of comparable size — there are some compelling reasons behind it.


Pittsburgh, ranked high at #14 by number of Handshake applications, is ranked 65th in the US in terms of city population.

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Since around 2013, a full city renaissance has been taking place in Pittsburgh. Trendy eateries and avant-garde galleries have been sprouting up like weeds, making Pittsburgh a hot spot for urban college grads. The driver of this resurgence can be attributed to a thriving tech scene, which largely traces back to Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Take Duolingo, for example. This was a CMU project started in 2009 turned international platform used by over 200 million learners. While legacy financial institutions like PNC Financial Services account for more than triple the amount of Pittsburgh applications than any other employer, tech startups like Duolingo are also drawing a large pool of eager college grads.

Palo Alto sees a whopping 300 place discrepancy between Handshake ranking and population ranking.

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A city with a population of only 67,024 drew over 138,000 applications on Handshake last year. But with Palo Alto being the very heart of SIlicon Valley, it’s no surprise. Home to everything from tech giants to venture capital legends to the most revolutionary technologies in the country, Palo Alto has enormous drawing power. Tesla alone has received over 69,000 applications on Handshake over the last year! HP, VMWare, and Palantir also draw an wealth of young technical talent to this San Francisco outpost.


Cambridge, only the 262nd most populous city in the US with just over 100,000 people, sees the 16th most Handshake applications in the US.

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There are many parallels between Palo Alto and Cambridge in this particular context. While they are both secondary to their international city hub counterparts — San Francisco and Boston, respectively — they both also boast world-renowned academic institutions. An astonishing roster of notable technology companies have roots in Palo Alto — from Facebook to Waze to Pinterest. Similarly, Cambridge is either home to, or the birthplace of, countless game changing tech and biotech companies. On Handshake, we are seeing tens of thousands of applications going to Cambridge-based tech and AI companies such as Hubspot, Bookbub, and Learnable, Inc.


Orlando demonstrates strong drawing power, coming in at 22nd in number of Handshake applications, as compared to its 73rd in US population.

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What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Orlando? Is it the magic of Disney? You aren’t alone. Over 68 million tourists visited Orlando in 2016 specifically for its theme parks, spending over $33 billion. Everything related to a Disney vacation — from the actual theme park experience to the hotel stays, restaurants, and spas — feeds heavily back into the economy of Orlando, and employs hundreds of thousands of people. Universal Parks & Resorts accounts for almost 12,000 applications (about 22% of total applications going to Orlando). In tandem, employers such as Darden Restaurants, Hilton Grand Vacations, and various other hospitality-related chains are responsible for thousands more applications feeding into Orlando.

A number of factors play into the “hot locations” of the season, the year, the decade. While they are ever-changing, there are more consistent elements we can take note of that influence these trends heavily, such as the cities producing the most innovative products or touting the best work culture. There is always more employers can do to contribute to the “cool factor” of their city :)

Reach out

Get in touch to learn more about how Handshake is helping employers reach students where they are — effectively and relevantly.

Stay Tuned

We have many more insights to share from this year’s annual Campus to Career Report.

Follow along over the upcoming weeks as we dive deeper into the trends and insights we see unfolding across the entry-talent landscape.

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