The List: Dozen ‘Smartest’ Towns in New Jersey

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | January 21, 2020 | The List
NJ was recently ranked Number One in US, based on educational achievement and test scores; on that basis, which towns would top a smart list?

Gov. Phil Murphy had a lot to say in his roughly hour-long State of the State message last week, so it wouldn’t be surprising if people missed a comment he made when introducing the new Jobs NJ plan.

“We have been ranked the smartest state in the nation,” Murphy said, “yet I have met CEOs and corporate board chairs whose first question about New Jersey is whether we have the homegrown workforce they need.”

Ensuring effective job training will be part of Jobs NJ’s remit. As to the governor’s startling declaration that New Jersey is the smartest state in the nation, he was most likely referring to a ranking put out a couple of months ago by SafeHome.org, which reviews such safety technology as home security systems and identity theft protection.

As the survey put it: “Our analysis of the available data covering educational achievement and test scores found that the smartest U.S. state is New Jersey, and (sorry to this state) the dumbest one is Idaho. New Jersey’s total score of 337.8 was safely ahead of No. 2 Utah, with its score of 324.”

With New Jersey thus established unquestionably as the smartest state, the next logical question is: Which is the smartest town?

The SafeHome ranking took account of college degrees, high school graduation, professional or advanced degrees and test scores, giving various weights to different measures.

As smart as NJ Spotlight is, we looked at only one of those criteria — the proportion of the adult population with a degree in each municipality, according to the most recent American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The five-year 2018 ACS averages annual data from 2014 through 2018 to come up with the best estimate, to minimize the margin of error, for small geographies.

But which is more important — to have more people with at least a bachelor’s degree or the most with graduate (master’s or doctorate) and professional school (medicine, law and theology) degrees? The same communities ranked in the top 12 for both measures, although not necessarily in the same order.

Below, then, are arguably the dozen “smartest” sizeable municipalities (those with an adult population of at least 1,000) in New Jersey, ranked by the percent of the adult population — age 25 and older — with advanced degrees, as estimated on the 2018 ACS. Also noted, though, is the percent of the population age 18 and older (most are likely at least 21 years old) who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

  1. Princeton: Given it is home to New Jersey’s Ivy League university and many of its professors, as well as other professionals who like living in a college town, it is probably not surprising that the Mercer County borough would top the list. If you don’t have an advanced degree here you are in the minority, as more than 56% of adults age 25 and older did. While just 64.2% of all adults age 18 and older had a bachelor’s degree, that proportion is likely skewed downward by the population of students still in college who have not yet achieved a degree.
  2. Mountain Lakes: Advanced education typically correlates with wealth and socioeconomic status. This borough in Morris County was the richest, with a median household income of more than $216,000, according to the five-year 2018 American Community Survey. Close to 53% of older adults had advanced degrees. Mountain Lakes had the highest proportion of all adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 80.4%.
  3. Millburn: This Essex County township is the second wealthiest community in the state, with a median income of more than $214,000, and just shy of half of older adults had advanced degrees. Almost eight of 10 adults 18 or older had at least a bachelor’s degree.
  4. West Windsor: The Princeton region is a corporate and intellectual hub and other municipalities near Princeton have similar characteristics. More than 49% of older adults in West Windsor, also in Mercer County, had an advanced degree and fully 80% of all adults had at least a bachelor’s degree.
  5. Tenafly: Located across from New York City, this Bergen County community had close to 47% of older adults with a graduate or advanced degree. Almost three-quarters of all those 18 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree.
  6. Montgomery: Although it is in Somerset County, Montgomery is just north of Princeton and had the fifth highest median income of almost $192,000. Close to 46% of older adults had advanced education, while 72% had completed at least a four-year degree.
  7. Plainsboro: Another Princeton neighbor, this Middlesex County township had 43% of older adults holding graduate degrees and three-quarters of all age 18 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree.
  8. Pennington: In this small Mercer County borough , almost 43% of older adults had an advanced degree, while nearly 71% of all adults had completed at least a four-year degree.
  9. Bernards Twp.: Almost 41% of older adults in this Somerset County municipality had graduate or advanced degrees and more than seven in 10 of all those 18 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree.
  10. Chatham Twp.: This Morris County community was the eighth wealthiest in the state, with a median income of close to $183,000. More than four in 10 older adults had an advanced degree, while more than 74% of all adults had completed at least a four-year degree.
  11. Essex Fells: This is one of only four New Jersey municipalities with a median household income of more than $200,000. About 40% of older adults in this Essex County borough had graduate degrees and close to 78% of those 18 and older had at least a bachelor’s degree.
  12. Haddonfield: This Camden County borough was the only community in South Jersey to make the list. More than 37% of older adults had advanced degrees, while close to three-quarters of all adults had earned at least a four-year degree.