Cramming for final exams is over and you've got your degree. Now the real test begins. As graduates prepare to enter the workforce, they'll find the best job market in the last five years, according to career experts. The bad news: average starting salaries for new grads have dropped below $30,000 during the same time frame.

We began our search using the same criteria we applied to select our list of Best Cities for the Next Decade: healthy economies fueling new job growth. We then refined our search by looking at factors of interest to the post-grad set, such as rent affordability, access to public transportation, overall cost of living, culture, nightlife and the percentage of people ages 20 to 24.

Here are 10 U.S. cities that may offer exceptional opportunities for recent grads in a rebounding economy:

No. 10 - Washington, D.C.
Median monthly rent: $1,226 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $40,952 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 4.9%
Unemployment rate: 9.5% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.5% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 10 for grads - Washington, D.C.
Photo: Wendy Harman

The District is a clear choice for new grads looking to start their careers in public service. The nation’s capital led U.S. job growth in 2010, hiring thousands for stable, well-paying jobs in government and government-related sectors, such as like public health, homeland security and legal services.

By 2012, Uncle Sam will make another 25,000 hires in the region -- paying more, on average, than the private sector. As in other large cities, well-paying jobs come with higher rents and living costs. But recent grads can look to eclectic neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan and Columbia Heights for cheaper rent. An abundance of free museums, concerts and other entertainment also lessens the cost-of-living sting.

Pros: An economy insulated from economic volatility because of so many government and government-related jobs, extensive public transportation system, plenty of excitement, history, and nightlife.

Cons: It's pricey. And commutes can be long.


 

No. 9 - Charlotte, N.C.
Median monthly rent: $774 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $28,386 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 4.39%
Unemployment rate: 10.4% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.1% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 9 for grads - Charlotte, N.C.
Photo: Mark Clifton

With a metro population of 1,745,524, Charlotte is the second-largest banking center in the country, and it has the jobs to prove it: Wells Fargo (WFC) and Bank of America (BAC) rank among the city's top employers. Charlotte's diversified economy has also seen gains in fields such as aviation, defense, bioscience and energy production, and the city added 4,900 private-sector jobs last year alone. US Airways Group (LCC) has its headquarters here. Low rents and living costs combined with a glitzy, developing uptown district make it worth a look.

Pros: A cost-of-living bargain compared to other major cities, rebounding economy.

Cons: High, but falling, crime rates, limited public transportation.


 

No. 8 - Seattle, WA
Median monthly rent: $942 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $33,372 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 5.0%
Unemployment rate: 9.2% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.7% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 8 for grads - Seattle, WA
Photo: Daniel Schwen

Seattle is a global hub not just for freight, but also for information technology, clean technology and life sciences. Forty-one percent of Seattle's businesses -- most of them mid-sized -- say they plan to add jobs this year, and Amazon recently posted want ads for 1,900 new jobs in its South Lake Union office. A studio in the hip Capitol Hill neighborhood runs well under $1,000. Take your savings to a theater, club or cafe -- the Emerald City is renowned for its music, theater and coffee culture.

Pros: Stable job scene, relatively low crime rate

Cons: Limited public transit, sluggish post-recession recovery. And hope you like cloudy days.


 

No. 7 - San Francisco, CA
Median monthly rent: $1,259 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $38,448 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 3.9%
Unemployment rate: 10.0% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 5.9% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 7 for grads - San Francisco, CA

Arguably the tech capital of the world, San Francisco is home to 4,133 information technology firms, 50 digital media companies (including Lucasfilm and Yelp, Inc.) and 30 clean tech firms, according to the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. The city expects to add about 16,000 jobs in the next five years. Again, we know it's an expensive place to live. But the job opportunities are exceptional and could be well worth the cost. Plus, San Francisco offers an exceptional cultural atmosphere and a diverse community in a pleasant, if foggy, climate.

Pros: High starting salaries for skilled workers, relatively low crime rate, an extensive public transit system.

Cons: It comes with a high pricetag in rents and living costs.


 

No. 6 - Philadelphia, PA
Median monthly rent: $895 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $30,974 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 4.6%
Unemployment rate: 8.5% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.5% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 6 for grads - Philadelphia, Pa.
Photo: Bobak Ha’Eri

The number of college-educated young adults in Philadelphia has jumped 57% from 2000 -- evidence of the city's diverse entry-level job opportunities and relatively low cost. In the past year, Philly added 22,500 jobs in fields such as health and education. The country's fifth largest city also boasts one of the most competitive bioscience and medical technology hubs, which includes companies such as MedImmune and Bio-Rad Laboratories (BIO). Recent grads can live in Old City, Northern Liberties or Fairmount, where a two-bedroom runs a little over $1,000 and galleries, bars and boutiques abound.

Pros: Relatively low rent and cost of living when compared with other major cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C., extensive public transportation system, high job growth in healthcare, science and technology

Cons: Persistent high crime, rents still slightly higher than national average


 

No. 5 - Omaha, NE
Median monthly rent: $711 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $27,075 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 3.5%
Unemployment rate: 5.1% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.9% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 5 for grads - Omaha, NE
Photo: onClee86 at en.wikipedia

Omaha's metro area population comes in at 829,702. Five Fortune 500 Companies -- Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A), Union Pacific (UNP), Mutual of Omaha, ConAgra Foods (CAG) and Peter Kiewit Sons -- call Omaha home, and the city offers thousands of high-paying, high-skilled jobs in finance, defense and information technology. Starting salaries go further in the Midwest: Omaha's rock-bottom rents put a two-bedroom apartment within easy reach of most recent grads, and the cost-of-living falls way below that of the other cities on our list. Omaha also offers a surprising mix of culture and nightlife, especially in the trendy Old Market arts district and the dozens of jazz, rock and indie-rock clubs downtown.

Pros: Low unemployment rate, low crime rate, short commutes

Cons: Limited public transit system, low median income overall


 

No. 4 - New York, NY
Median monthly rent: $1,072 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $34,039 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 4.6%
Unemployment rate: 8.4% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.2% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 4 for grads - New York, NY
Photo: Terabass

Let's start at the top. No U.S. city can match the Big Apple in terms of job opportunities or cultural fare. Yes, it can be ridiculously expensive, especially for those on a starting salary. But with a little digging, you can find cheaper rents in outer-borough neighborhoods--Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, Sunnyside and Jackson Heights in Queens--or across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. An extensive public transit system makes getting around a snap. And it's the city that never sleeps. No wonder droves of recent grads seek their fortunes here each year.

Pros: Unmatched career opportunities, culture and nightlife, falling crime rates

Cons: Sky-high rents and cost of living in most areas


 

No. 3 - Colorado Springs, CO
Median monthly rent: $802 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $26,977 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 3.4%
Unemployment rate: 10.1% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 7.9% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 3 for grads - Colorado Springs, CO
Photo: David Shankbone

Located 60 miles south of Denver, Colorado Springs has the lowest metro population on our list at 608,000. But the city offers an unbeatable combo for recent grads: A vibrant, tech-based economy plus rock-bottom living costs. In 2010,the city made plans to add 1,398 new jobs in fields like information technology, banking and higher education, with average salaries around $36,900. Major companies like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Verizon Communications (VZ) and FedEx (FDX) have corporate offices here.

Rents remain low -- even downtown, with plenty to do in a walkable, nine-block radius. And with the Rocky Mountains looming over the city, it's an outdoor enthusiast's delight, ranking among the country's fittest cities, according to a recent Gallup survey. It's home to Colorado College, the Air Force Academy, and many evangelical Christian organizations.

Pros: Educated community, low crime rate, 118 miles of urban bike trails, high percentage of residents ages 20-24 compared with other cities on our list.

Cons: High unemployment rate for low-skilled workers (opportunities skew toward the highly-skilled), limited public transit, low median income.


 

No. 2 - Boston, MA
Median monthly rent: $1,112 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $36,174 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 4.3%
Unemployment rate: 7.1% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.7% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 2 for grads - Boston, MA
Photo: randomduck

Sixty colleges and universities, 15 hospitals and 18 Fortune 500 companies call the Boston area home -- including Liberty Mutual, Boston Scientific (BSX) and State Street Corp. (STT). That makes Beantown a promising choice for recent grads seeking careers in science, medicine, finance and academia. It's expensive. Rents skew high here, but so does the income -- and unemployment is impressively low. There's also Fenway Park, the Faneuil Hall marketplace, Cambridge, cheap lobster, and the best pizza outside of New York.

Pros: Educated workforce, diverse nightlife and entertainment, extensive public transit system and renowned walkability, relatively low (and falling) crime rates

Cons: Overall cost of living is high, average commutes are long


 

No. 1 - Baltimore, MD
Median monthly rent: $972 (nat. average, $817)
Median income (2009): $32,994 (nat. average, $30,402)
Income growth (2005 to 2009): 5.6%
Unemployment rate: 7.4% (nat. average, 9.2%)
Percentage of residents ages 20-24: 6.8% (nat. average, 7.0%)

No. 1 for grads - Baltimore, MD

Baltimore's diversified economy includes high-paying jobs in defense, finance and information technology. It's home to Constellation Energy Group (CEG), a Fortune 500 company. Lockheed Martin Corporation (LMT) and Grant Thornton International also have offices here.

Charm City weathered the recession with low foreclosure rates, and income growth remains strong. Downtown Baltimore is in the midst of several multimillion-dollar development projects. It ranks higher than Austin, Denver and Atlanta in per capita income for downtown residents. And as many music fans know, few cities can match Baltimore for its innovative, eclectic art and music scene.

Pros: Relatively low costs of living and rent compared to other major cities, strong income growth, waterfront and downtown districts, extensive bus and subway system, easy train commute to Washington, D.C., violent crime dropped 4% between 2009 and 2010.

Cons: Long average commutes from the suburbs. Despite a drop in crime rate, some of Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods still struggle with serious crime.

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