The Best College Towns in America

A Place to Learn and Live

Our parents always told us that the decision of where to go to college would be the most important in our whole lives, and some even took it upon themselves to decide for us. But what makes a school attractive for a parent (cost? reputation?) may not be the same as what incoming freshmen are looking for (bar scene? extracurricular activities?). Well, one metric new students are likely to be interested in is what the local town or city where their potential alma mater sits is like. How many students are there and how diverse are they? Are there professional opportunities and do students stay to take advantage of them? The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) looked at these criteria and more to compare 222 metropolitan areas in the U.S. with student populations of 15,000 and up. Photo Credit: Michael Surran


What Makes a Good City for Students?

In addition to student concentration and diversity, the 2010 “College Destinations Index” looks at research expenditures, cost of living, cultural entertainment options, accessibility and transportation, the local economy and amount of entrepreneurship, education levels, and retention of local talent. The study stands out as it uses no self-reported information from the schools themselves, rather relying on census bureau and other government data to get a neutral appraisal of college hubs ranging in size from towns (under 250,000 residents) to small cities (up to 1 million) to mid-size metros (up to 2.5 million) and major metropolitan areas (anything bigger). Yes, there are many ways to choose a school, but if you were going to live somewhere for four-plus years you might want to take a look at what the local community has to offer. Here we give you the top five in each category, just as senior classes in high schools around the country start the year and their college preparations. Photo Credit: John Seb Barber


5th Best College Town: Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Home to the central campus of the University of Illinois system, in competition with nearby Northwestern University, Champaign-Urbana has taken a number of steps to make itself attractive to students. Despite an unemployment rate slightly above the national average and just below 10%, the town has earned accolades for its green credentials (ranked 10th in the U.S. by Country Home Magazine) and its local arts and sports scene, the vast majority of which are linked in some way to the university. One downside: Protests earlier this year exposed the university system’s financial troubles, suggesting that the town’s ranking next year may fall out of the top five. Photo Credit: Artotem


4th Best College Town: Ames, Iowa

Those who don’t know Ames may be surprised at what this town has contributed to the country. Besides playing an important role in the early stages of the Republican Party’s nomination process, Ames hosts the National Animal Disease Center, a vital part of our public health and food safety infrastructure. Iowa State University, the country’s first ever land-grant university, is in Ames as well, providing the town with leading colleges in veterinary medicine, agriculture, and engineering. With an unemployment rate of 5.4% well below the state and national averages, it’s clear Ames is doing well. Photo Credit: Shubert Ciencia


3rd Best College Town: Iowa City, Iowa

Another one of Iowa’s most successful economies, Iowa City has bounced back impressively from massive floods of the Iowa River in 2008 and its first-ever tornado in 2006 that wreaked millions of dollars’ worth of havoc across the city. Its unemployment rate of 5.1% is well below state and national averages, due in part to the presence of the University of Iowa campus. The massive campus serves a student population of over 30,000, with recognized programs in Otolaryngology, Ophthalmology, and visual sciences. As the inventor of the Master of Fine Arts degree, the school has long been a leader in the academic world, and with the town’s designation as a City of Literature by UNESCO (the same one that designates world heritage sites), there are many reasons for Iowa’s ranking last year as the second happiest state in the U.S. Photo Credit: Kris


2nd Best College Town: State College, Pa.

Home to the famous Nittany Lions, State College and its raison-d’etre Penn State University have long been revered as one of the best places to go to school. While some parents may be apprehensive at the University’s consistent ranking as one of the country’s top party schools, they will be comforted to know that it has also been ranked as the safest metro area in the country. Entertainment is a priority in State College, and the University’s theaters and top-ranked sports teams provide options for students of all interests. Photo Credit: William F. Yurasko


Best College Town: Ithaca, N.Y.

Even people who have never visited this pastoral town in upstate New York may have seen the town motto on t-shirts and bumper stickers everywhere: Ithaca is Gorges. The many rivers and streams have carved out a number of deep canyons and tumbled in waterfalls down the valley, making it an outdoorsman’s paradise. As a center of learning, Ithaca plays host to both the Ivy League Cornell University (20,000 students) and Ithaca College, with over 6,000 students. Perhaps its educational credentials played a part in the establishment of Ithaca’s Namgyal Monastery as the Dalai Lama’s seat in the U.S., an impressive credential for a town of just over 100,000. Photo Credit: Doug Karr


5th Best Small City for College: Gainesville, Fla.

Leading the small city category, Gainesville is one of Florida’s most vibrant cities and home to one of the country’s biggest universities, the University of Florida and its more than 50,000 students. Besides a vibrant economy in the midst of national recession, Gainesville has seen rising student enrollment make a significant impact on the local housing industry. Perhaps of more interest to prospective students is the city’s reputation for live music, as the city has given rise to iconic bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and two members of the Eagles. Photo Credit: Steve Burns


4th Best Small City for College: Trenton-Ewing, N.J.

This community in central New Jersey is perhaps known more for Princeton University than the other six institutions within its borders, giving it a privileged status in the academic world. Home to the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team, the city plays a role in national sports as well. While the community has been hit hard by the recession, most recently concerning state pensions, the area’s 8.8% unemployment rate is well below the national average. Photo Credit: Linda


3rd Best Small City for College: Bridgeport, Conn.

How could the city that invented the Frisbee not be one of the best cities to go to college in? The home of the Frisbie Pie Company that is thought to have spawned the classic flying disc, Bridgeport is also forever associated with circus promoter P.T. Barnum, whose playful spirit set the stage for the city’s many entertainment options. Gathering of the Vibes, a multi-day music festival featuring folk and rock music that tends toward the psychedelic, is one of many ways for students from the city’s four colleges and universities (University of Bridgeport, Housatonic Community College, Yeshiva Gedola of Bridgeport, St. Vincent’s College) to enjoy their study breaks. Photo Credit: Terry Alexander


2nd Best Small City for College: Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Michigan Wolverines have long captured the imaginations of football fans everywhere, not only those who have attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The university, with over 40,000 students, boasts the largest stadium in the country built specifically for college football and only college football. Ranked third last year for its affordability, Ann Arbor has many attractive features for parents and students alike. Photo Credit: John Amato


Best Small City for College: Boulder, Colo.

At the top of the list for the small city category is Boulder, a mountain oasis nestled in the Colorado Rockies and home to the flagship campus of the University of Colorado (30,000 students). The University’s affordability and research opportunities make it an attractive school for out-of-state students as well. For those more inclined toward a non-traditional education, Boulder also plays host to Naropa University, one of only two accredited universities in the U.S. established under Buddhist principles. Whatever persuasion, everyone will enjoy the music, film festivals and adventure sports that give residents a slew of ways to entertain themselves, and stay healthy, to boot. Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete


5th Best Mid-size Metro for College: Portland, Ore.

For mid-size metro areas, Portland, Ore. takes the fifth spot in the ranking, with its mix of natural resources and its leadership in many areas of city planning. It has long been known as one of the country’s greenest cities, winning top honors for that more than once. Innovations in transportation have seen Portland take a leading role in the use of light rail and bike paths to encourage alternative transport. For students at its dozen colleges and universities, jobs in the green economy will surely provide continued opportunities for graduates. While the city’s commitment to clean transport is a clear draw for many Americans, its reputation for rain might make some think twice before riding to class. Photo Credit: Salim Virji


4th Best Mid-size Metro for College: Hartford, Conn.

Recently named one of the 10 easiest cities in which to find a job, Hartford can thank its thriving insurance industry (many of the country’s biggest insurance companies have their headquarters here) for helping keep the local economy above water. While a few insurance firms have left the city in the past couple of years, the industry is likely to provide a job to many graduates of the city’s top schools, such as Trinity College. Photo Credit: Global Jet


3rd Best Mid-size Metro for College: Raleigh, N.C.

The fastest growing city in the U.S. from 2000-2008, Raleigh is so hot right now. Perhaps for its position as one corner of the so-called “Research Triangle,” a collaboration between Raleigh’s North Carolina State University (over 30,000 students), Duke, and the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, there are many exciting opportunities for students and grads alike. Photo Credit: joanna8555


2nd Best Mid-size Metro for College: Austin, Texas

Young people have long flocked to Austin for its live music and bar scene, favorite pastimes of college students everywhere. I mean, the official slogan of the city is “The Live Music Capital of the World”. Serving the student body of the University of Texas’s main campus (around 50,000 students) and budding scholars from over a dozen other schools in the city, Austin is also one of the fastest growing in the country. Major companies have taken note of that fact, such as Facebook, who has moved some operations to Austin and expects to ramp up to about 200 positions for local Austinites. No wonder it’s the second-best mid-size metro area for college students. Photo Credit: Andi Narvaez


Best Mid-size Metro for College: San Jose, Calif.

The best mid-size metro area to go to college in is San Jose, the south-bay city defined in no small part by its proximity to Silicon Valley, which has led many tech firms and startups to set up shop there. Not surprisingly, local entrepreneurship is an attractive feature for creative students who are not afraid to start their own ventures after they graduate. The city’s largest institution of higher learning, San Jose State University, offers over 130 degree programs to its 30,000-plus students, many of whom are international students. While the city has been ranked as one of the most “Ridiculously Expensive College Towns”, it is also the second least difficult city in which to find a job, which should provide solace to the many parents footing the bill for their children’s education. Photo Credit: the_tahoe_guy


5th Best Major Metro for College: Seattle, Wash.

In the Major Metro category, Seattle leads us off at number five, with its multiple sports teams, museums, and iconic institutions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While it is home to a number of recognized universities, the University of Washington, with over 40,000 students, is the jewel in the crown of the city. The largest university in the Pacific Northwest, it has received several academic accolades this year along, due in part to its top-notch School of Medicine and School of Nursing. With a number of other ranked programs, the school does justice to a city cemented in modern history for producing Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft. While not appropriate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they have put Seattle on the map as a vibrant node in the tech industry. Photo Credit: Bala


4th Best Major Metro for College: Boston, Mass.

The quintessential college city, Boston has perhaps the largest student population of any city in the U.S. More than 100 colleges and universities serve a student population of over 250,000, with Harvard University, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and Boston University leading the charge. The presence of so many students does wonders for the city’s economy. The research activities of all the city’s schools, which have made the city a leader in the fields of medicine and biotechnology, attract a number of startups and high-tech companies looking to take advantage of students’ expertise. They have made Boston a leading city for innovation. While the cost of living in Boston is one of the highest in the U.S., the city features a robust banking industry that has contributed to the city’s schools offering attractive aid packages to their students. With so many schools to choose from, and so many employment opportunities nearby, Boston is sure to be toward the top of this list for years to come. Photo Credit: Francisco Diez


3rd Best Major Metro for College: Washington, DC

No other city in the country provides the same experience for students as our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. With an art and museum scene encompassing the national collections and the sprawling (and free) Smithsonian complex, there is endless culture available to all the city’s residents. The presence of think tanks, international organizations, and government agencies puts internships and job opportunities at students’ and graduates’ fingertips like nowhere else. Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar


2nd Best Major Metro for College: New York, N.Y.

New York, home to eight million of the country’s most diverse, motivated, and resourceful people, is something of a command center for leaders in every field: education, the arts, music, media, politics, finance, small business, etc. With such a diverse range of people and entertainment options, it is arguably the most dynamic city in the U.S. With private colleges such as Columbia University and New York University competing with the many public colleges and universities in town, New York schools have long been innovative in their degree programs. They should be, as the city’s student population of over half a million demands the widest diversity of educational and professional opportunities. While the opportunities are there, however, students in New York will have to fight for them like anyone else in the city that never sleeps. Photo Credit: Joiseyshowaa


Best Major Metro for College: San Francisco, Calif.

Coming in as the best major metropolitan area for college students, San Francisco has long been at the forefront of innovation in computer and personal technology, as well as in green technology and alternative fuels, likely to be THE growth industries of the next decade. Among the city’s best-known schools are the venerated UCSF medical program, ranked among the very best in the nation for many years, and leaders in the arts such as the San Francisco Art Institute, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the California Culinary Academy make the city a magnet for students of many persuasions. Also, the proximity of top-tier schools such as the University of California at Berkeley just across the Bay Bridge and Stanford University a bit to the south make the city a natural site for sophisticated companies to come and take advantage of the high education level of its residents. Unfortunately for those graduates who can’t find a job immediately, San Francisco is also one of the most expensive places to live in the country, with a real estate market and prices that rival those in New York. Photo Credit: Franco Folini


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