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Living Life After College

An Interactive Visualization of the Decisions Facing Recent Grads

You’ve probably watched at least one episode of Entourage, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother: shows about 20-somethings living out their post-college lives, stumbling through life, love, and … not making a single college loan payment.

Today’s graduates are facing a different reality, and it shows. College students and recent graduates are facing stress levels higher than any other generation.1 The picture can look bleak: even if you didn’t graduate from college this year, you probably know that the average student loan debt is at an all-time high, at $37,172 per graduate.2

Even though employment rates for college graduates are the highest they’ve been since the recession,3 the bias towards doom and gloom still prevails in social and mainstream media. To present a clear picture of the large number of options recent graduates have, Polygraph and Prudential collected and analyzed historical data on what recent grads earn, and where jobs are, and what cities have to offer. Whether you're a recent graduate or not, we hope you enjoy exploring what we've found.

First, let’s take a look at how the career landscape has changed over time.

A quick note on our process: we took a random sample of 10,000 US citizens from census responses to represent a broad range of Americans. Salary data represents all career stages, from first-time jobholders to high-level professionals.

More range in salaries

It’s true that not all careers are created equal; we tend to think of doctors and lawyers as being the highest-paying professions. And while that might have been true in 1980, the data shows that today, many careers have a similarly high earnings potential: technicians (including scientists and researchers), engineers, architects, media professionals (including designers and producers), and programmers have seen their salaries increase quickly in the past 20 years.

Salary Range By Profession

Use the slider to view changes over time and hover to see salary distribution



Healthcare Practitioners


Architecture & Engineering

Business Operations

Life & Social Science

Computer & Mathematical


Protective Service

Entertainment & Media


Education & Library

Community & Social Services


Maintenance & Repair

Administrative Support





Cleaning & Maintenance

Healthcare Support

Food Preparation

Personal Care & Service

Farming & Forestry

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

In addition to the top earners in each field, you can see that the distribution — the overall spread — of the salaries is at a 20-year high. This means there’s a lot of latitude between an entry-level job and one with seniority; this matters to recent graduates who are increasingly valuing jobs that contribute to society.4 Sticking with a career can pay off, and following a passion into a given field doesn’t sting as much if that field happens to be farming.5

More cities for recent graduates

Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco will always be destinations for graduates; larger cities have an ever-evolving culture that draws more people than smaller cities can. However, in the last 10 years, so-called “secondary cities” have drawn more and more young professionals, creating pockets of culture in cities like Denver, Nashville, Philadelphia and Phoenix. You can see this in the following chart by moving between the years on the slider; between 1990 and 2014, states like Tennessee, North Carolina, and Ohio grow larger, representing a greater influx of recent graduates.

Where Recent Graduates Live

Hover over the map to highlight states
= 24,870 graduates

Source: IPUMS

More Jobs in More Places

Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a shift in how careers are spread out throughout the US.

Employment per Capita

Select a career and year to see how career concentration changes

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

In many fields, like Finance and Management, you can see careers becoming more concentrated over time. This means that, for any given field, recent grads have a much more direct path to a career; more concentrated industries means more concentrated job opportunities, stronger communities, and an increased likelihood of company softball leagues.6

Deciding where to move isn’t only about where the jobs are, but how far graduates are moving to get there. Let’s look at the cities that recent graduates are moving to:

Where Are Graduates Moving?

Hover over a city to see more details

Source: IPUMS

Graduates are moving farther and farther away from their alma mater. This isn’t limited to a particular interest; the mobility of 20- to 30-year-olds is increasing, due in part to the accessibility of job listings, applications, and interviews over the internet. The time and energy required to move is decreasing, and with it is going the stress of limited options.

In addition to the trend of moving further, today’s graduates are more frequently moving back in with their families, saving money on rent in order to open up more opportunities. Of course, living with one’s parents can have its own downsides, but depending on other factors and goals, it can be a very attractive option.

Graduates who live with at least one parent

Source: IPUMS

Living the life

In addition to career and location choices — or, perhaps, at the intersection of the two — recent graduates are making lifestyle choices. Balancing the excitement of a new career with the responsibilities of debt means trade-offs; decisions about what they do and where they live have a big impact on the lifestyle they can afford.

Expenses can be broken down into three categories: living expenses (rent, groceries, gym membership), savings, and paying off debt. While everyone has a different approach to budgeting, a good place to start is the 70/20/10 rule: 70% of your paycheck goes to living expenses, 20% goes to savings, 10% goes to repaying debt.

The lifestyle options available to graduates largely depend on how they make those divisions. Want season tickets? That means less savings, or a longer timeline to being debt-free. Saving or repaying debt comes with trade-offs, too: it means living frugally in an expensive city like San Francisco, or finding a less populous city like Cincinnati or Tempe.

We’ve wrapped up all the data into an exploration of the trade-offs and decisions recent graduates are making; let’s explore.

Putting it all together

Select a city and change your budget to see how much money you can save
Slide the handles to change the percentages.
  • 70%Living expenses
  • 30%Saving + Paying Off Debt

Atlanta, GA

Compared to the national average,

  • Legal professionals make 14% more per year
  • There are 5% more legal professionals per capita

Based on your budget, you'd have

$25,124each year for saving and paying off debt.

Median Salary


Cost of Groceries

CheapestMost Expensive
El Paso, TXSan Francisco, CA


CheapestMost Expensive
Augusta, GASan Francisco, CA

Price of Gas

CheapestMost Expensive
New Orleans, LASan Francisco, CA
Sources: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, IPUMS, Numbeo

Keeping it real

All in all, today’s graduates have more choices than previous generations — with the concentration of careers, the broadening of salary ranges, the ability to work remotely, live with parents, or even start their own business, nearly any lifestyle is attainable.

To the recent graduates: at the end of the day, finding the right city and the right career depends on the lifestyle you want to live. Set some goals, look at the data, and figure out what’s right for you (even if that's becoming a mermaid). Equipped with the right tools, decisions about your lifestyle can be responsible ones; laying the best foundation for future financial success doesn’t have to be at the expense of your passions.

  5. The author almost went into farming, so this comment is entirely tongue-in-cheek.↩︎
  6. This one’s anecdotal, and not limited to softball, but includes kickball, soccer, and frisbee golf.↩︎


Demographic and household data was retrieved from the United States Census, including estimates for years between the census, using IPUMS. Career and income data was retrieved from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Cost of living data was retrieved from the Numbeo cost of living database. All visualizations are based on a sample of 10,000. Historic economic data has been adjusted for inflation using the consumer price index. State career data has been weighted by state population.

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