Think back to your college years: If late nights studying in the library and sitting in the lecture hall are the first memories that come to mind, you were a better student than most. (Ahem, me—you were a better student than me.) College is about the grades, programs, and maintaining a good GPA, but it’s just as much about the overall experience.
If your kids are at the age where they’re starting to think about higher education, your family may be interested in learning more about the best college towns throughout the U.S. After all, it’s not just about the academic program or proximity to home—it’s also about the surrounding town, the college town, your teen is about to call “home” for the next four years. Is it fun? Is it walkable? Most importantly, is it safe?
Keep reading for the 50 best college towns in the U.S.
50 best college towns
1. Boulder, CO
In Boulder, Colorado, you’ll find The University of Colorado and the first Buddhist university in the U.S., Naropa University. With two universities in town, Boulder has become an epicenter of student living and as an added bonus, it’s one of the healthiest towns in the U.S. to boot. (After all, Boulder is regularly voted one of the best outdoor towns in the nation, as well as one of the top cities for foodies.)
But good food and lots of outdoor recreational activities aside (rock-climbing, trail-hiking, biking, and more), there’s also a lot to do in town entertainment-wise, too. Boulder is about a 45-minute drive away from the Red Rock Amphitheater, a famed (and physically gorgeous) concert venue in Denver. In town, you’ve also got the Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor shopping area abundant in coffee shops and book stores. All of Boulder is completely walkable, too, and when you consider that out of Boulder’s population of about 97,385, students make up about half the population.
2. Madison, WI
Right on the water between two lakes, Madison, WI features a walkable downtown that’s been basically built around the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While walking along Triangle Market, you’ll find everything from shops and cafés to galleries and bars, but if it’s warm-weather activities you’re looking for, just hop in the lake! In Madison, people boat, kayak, fish, swim, and paddle-board for fun and for work post-graduation, there are ample job opportunities at Google, Microsoft, and more.
3. Ann Arbor, MI
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, it sometimes feels like just about everyone is connected (in some way or another) to the University of Michigan. That’s because the university employs more than 30,000 workers and one out of two Ann Arbor residents is a student—both of which make it feel super college-towny. Apart from the fun entertainment aspects of Ann Arbor that make it a great place to live during your college years—ample restaurants, bars, nightlife, parks, museums, and more—it also has a handful of post-graduation employment opportunities. As anyone in their senior year knows, that’s always a plus.
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4. Ithaca, NY
With Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) nearby, Ithaca has remained one of the top college towns in the U.S. over the years. Liberal and known as somewhat of a hippy town, Ithaca is tight-knit and most of its residents are part-time students that flood in every August and leave every May. As a college town, Ithaca hits about every main marker you can think of—for satisfying nature views and activities there’s Buttermilk Falls and Robert H. Treman State Park, for nightlife there’s Ithaca Ale House and a slew of local breweries, and for all-around fun, there’s a diverse music scene as well.
5. Oxford, OH
Though it perhaps sounds like it should be located amongst the palm trees and the inlets of Florida, you’ll find Miami University in the small-but-adorable town of Oxford, Ohio. As recently as 2016, Oxford made Forbes renowned list of best college towns, taking the #1 slot. With fewer than 8,000 full-time residents, Oxford has a large student-to-resident ratio, and boasts relatively affordable living costs, an active nightlife scene, and features both academic and economic opportunities in the area.
6. Ames, IA
Besides a large student-to-resident ratio (the total population of 58,000 includes about 33,241 students), and ample job opportunities in town (you’ve got 3M, the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Animal Disease Center, and the National Farmer’s Association in town), one of Ames, Iowa’s biggest draws is its low cost of living. After all, Payscale reports that the cost of living in Ames is approximately 7 percent lower than the national average. With so many students in town getting their degrees at Iowa State University, it’s hard to ignore low rents and other affordable living costs.
Related: Graduation Quotes
7. Tuscaloosa, AL
Tuscaloosa, Alabama is home to the University of Alabama and of course, by extension, their incredible football and basketball programs. In Tuscaloosa, you’ll be welcomed into the community motivated by a mutual desire for Alabama to win—roll, tide, roll! But that much-talked-about Southern hospitality (and the pride that comes with being one of the Crimson Tide) isn’t all there is to love about living in Tuscaloosa as a student. Frequently named high on the list of America’s most livable cities, as well as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People, there’s a lot to do in Tuscaloosa—while you’re a student (don’t sleep on America’s #1 sports bar, Houndstooth) and after, too. In the way of post-graduate employment opportunities, Tuscaloosa is home to a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant, BF Goodrich Tire manufacturing, and more. Oh, and you just can’t beat Alabama’s Southern style comfort food.
8. Berkeley, CA
The University of California Berkeley is one of the most renowned universities in the U.S. First foundedin 1868 as the state’s first land-grant university, the college that has now become known as simply “Berkeley,” was the first-ever campus of the University of California system. The college’s surrounding town is just as much a part of the college as the campus itself and it’s known for progressive politics, people, and activism. Also, who doesn’t want to go to school in California? Unlike some other college towns or campuses on the East Coast that freeze come the wintertime, Berkeley is a 24/7 destination for outdoor fun. There’s hiking, biking, swimming, surfing—whatever you want to do. And don’ forget, this is Hollywood! Berkely maybe five to six hours away from La La Land, but it still boasts pretty incredible music, culture, and arts scene.
9. Charlottesville, VA
Known as 2012’s brainiest city, Charlottesville, Virginia’s population is nearly 50 percent students. Here in Charlottesville, UVA boasts some of the most incredible histories a college town could. Not only was it designed by Thomas Jefferson, but it’s close to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Monticello and Shenandoah National Park. Nearby, there’s the Downtown Mall, where you’ll find lots of art galleries, restaurants and bars, and live music playing later in the week.
10. Bloomington, IN
Indiana University students have a lot at their fingertips living in Bloomington, Indiana. Cliff dive in a local quarry, go swimming in Lake Monroe, or buy a flight of beer at any of the craft breweries nearby—Switchyard, Upland, or Function to name just a few. On top of all that, there is to do when you’re not studying, Bloomington is particularly pretty. After all, it didn’t get its name for nothing; “Bloomington” as the town’s name came from the gorgeous blooms settlers saw when they arrived—foxglobe, bergamot, butterfly milkweed, denze blazing star, and more. Flowers aside though, all of Bloomington’s recent accolades really bring it home: one of Entrepreneur‘s 50 Hottest Small Cities for Entrepreneurs and ranked #3 in 2019’s Best Places for Business Careers by Forbes.
11. Chapel Hill, NC
Foodies, pay attention! An up-and-coming hot-spot for food enthusiasts, Chapel Hill, North Carolina is the epicenter for about eight colleges in the area—five private, two public, and one community college that offers its students two-year degrees. With the University of North Carolina being one of those main eight, there’s a high priority put on UNC’s basketball team. But there’s more to Chapel Hill than sports, obviously. In the way of culture, visit the Ackland Art Museum, North Carolina Botanical Garden, Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, Franklin Street, and more.
12. Hamden, CT
Hamden, Connecticut may be most well-known for being the surrounding college town to Quinnipiac University (and of course, those iconic Quinnipiac Polls that everyone knows), and there’s good reason for that. Giant hockey arena-slash-basketball venue on York Hill aside, the rest of the quaint little town of Hamden has become one of the cutest, safest college towns of the East Coast. Across the street from QU itself, you have Sleeping Giant Mountain where students often frequent in the spring, summer, and fall to hike, walk, fish, or even swim. Plus, Whitney Ave. has many delicious food options when you’re not feeling the caf food.
While Hamden itself has some pretty quality (and relatively safe) nightlife options, the city of New Haven is just a short QU-owned shuttle bus ride away, too. Home to Yale, New Haven also features a fun, student-friendly shopping strip, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and it’s also the birthplace of the hamburger.
13. Fayetteville, AR
To live in Fayetteville is to be a Razorback! The University of Arkansas is serious about their live mascot (which just so happens to be a Russian boar native to Arkansas), but that’s not all you’ll love about living here. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to party and eat at, but there are as many coffee shops to study at, too.
14. State College, PA
In recent years, State College of Pennsylvania has taken the cake as one of the smartest towns in America. It’s also repeatedly been named as one of the top music scenes and safest towns in the country, too. So, what’s not to love? Home to the campus of Penn State University, you’ll also enjoy visiting Palmer Museum of Art, Beaver Stadium, Discovery Space, and of course, Rothrock State Forest.
15. Athens, GA
Athens is the surrounding college town to the University of Georgia and it boasts big draws like lower rent, lots of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, and of course, a diverse music scene.
16. Burlington, VT
Though it may be hilly and also, super chilly in the wintertime, Burlington, Vermont is easily one of the best college towns there is. Nearby, there’s Burlington College, Champlain College, and the University of Vermont, so there’s a steadfast student population and as you can imagine, tons of breweries, nightlife, and coffee shops in town to sustain it.
The area itself is big on music, art, and culture, and like many college towns, this one that’s governed by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is also known to be relatively liberal. It’s all very walkable (except for a few pain-in-the-butt hills) and there are even bike trails along Lake Champlain. The outdoor shopping venue Church Street Market is perfect for students on a budget thanks to the many outlets and thrifting options on the strip as well as cute, small, local businesses.
17. Gainesville, FL
You’re in Gator Country as soon as you step into Gainesville! Home to the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, and City College of Gainesville, Gainseville has garnered a bit of a reputation as a party-school area. Still, you’ve got beautiful weather, competitive sports programs, and many entertainment and cultural options as some of your top draws here. Go gators!
18. Tucson, AZ
By far the most popular university in Tucson, Arizona is the University of Arizona—more popularly known as U of A—which was founded in 1885. The first university in the Arizona Territory, U of A is flanked by the Catalina, Rincon, Tucson and Santa Rita mountain ranges. However, it’s hard to ignore the Wildcats’ continual basketball success—after all their men’s basketball program is one of the best in the U.S
19. Austin, TX
Austin, Texas is known for so much—its country music, poppin’ bar scene, and of course, its cultural campaign to #KeepAustinWeird. But it’s not just dope to live in Austin post-grad as an adult—after all, it’s been named one of the most desirable places to live in the U.S.—it’s also equally as fun to live there amidst your college years. Why? A lively music scene, nightlife, history, and renowned BBQ food might have something to do with it.
20. Fort Collins, CO
Fort Collins, Colorado may not be the most famous Colorado town, but it has made Money magazine’s list of Best Place to Live in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010. To-do list items in Fort Collins include visiting local microbreweries, historic downtown (which just so happens to be what Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. is modeled after), and the nearby Rocky Mountain range.
21. Iowa City, IO
Writers from all across the country beg to attend the Iowa Writer’s Conference or be accepted to the University of Iowa’s creative writing program. But once there, there are so many majors for anyone to fall in love with. The University of Iowa was ranked a top party school in 2013, it’s super walkable, and features ample employment opportunities.
22. Columbia, MO
Together, the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College make Columbia, Missouri a premiere college town in the U.S. Known for progressive politics and as an epicenter for journalism and art, there is so much to do in Columbia in the way of art, food, and music.
23. Pittsburgh, PA
A large part of Pittsburgh’s population is made up of students even though this Pennsylvanian city is a larger metropolitan area than most. Graduates from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and Carlow University (love the area’s variety of job opportunities. After all, you’ll find Apple, Google, Intel, and the federal headquarters for cyber defense, robotics, and energy research in town.
24. Corvallis, OR
When you hear “Oregon” you may think of the state’s most effervescent city, Portland, but Corvallis is a real up-and-coming place for student populations. Corvallis is Beaver Country, AKA the home of Oregon State University. The nightlife scene is undeniable here—with plenty of brewery, winery, and bar options to choose from—and there are lots to do in nature, too. After all, it is the West Coast!
25. Champaign-Urbana, IL
The University of Illinois is a renowned U.S. university and as such, its arts, entertainment, and more spill over into the two towns surrounding it. While Champaign-Urbana may not be a “college town” in the traditional sense (it’s more city than suburb), there’s so much to love here. The city itself ranks #2 in student diversity, and there’s plenty to do year-round—from pumpkin-picking in the fall to biking in the summer. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that just about everything you can do as a student living in Champaign-Urbana, you can do it sustainably. After all, Champaign-Urbana is one of the U.S.’s greenest cities.
26. Annapolis, MD
The United States Naval Academy, St. John’s College, Bowie State, and more make Annapolis, Maryland a classic college town with New England charm. Definitely, definitely, definitely eat the seafood in town and while it’s warm out, don’t miss out on the many water activities that take place on the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay.
27. Hartford, CT
When it comes to popular college towns in the Constitution State—AKA Connecticut—you’re either in the Hamden/New Haven area or you’re in Hartford. In Hartford, there’s the University of Hartford, Trinity College, and the University of Connecticut Law School. But beyond colleges, Hartford has also a rich cultural history of art, literature, and so much more.
28. Missoula, MT
Every year, the University of Montana brings thousands of students to the Montana city of Missoula. As you can guess, there’s plenty of craft beer breweries nearby as well as lots to do in the nature scene. Not to mention, Missoula has a history of making such lists with the American Institute of Economic Research naming Missoula #9 at one point.
29. Blacksburg, VA
Popular amongst students, recent graduates, and young families alike, the incorporated town of Blacksburg, Virginia is where you’ll find Radford University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—AKA Virginia Tech. The student-to-non-student-resident ratio is about two to one (in favor of students, that is!) so Blacksburg is a true-blue college town if you’ve ever seen one.
30. Tallahassee, FL
In northern Florida, you have both Florida State University and Florida A&M in Tallahassee. With two big universities in town, Tallahassee is not to be underestimated. First of all, it’s warm all year long, which is a big bonus for students looking to escape East Coast winters and second of all, Tallahassee has a bit of a reputation for being a beautiful place to live. In fact, Kiplinger’s ranked Tallahassee as the second-best Top Ten College Town for Grownups in 2007. That’s in large part to the city’s large student population but also its united sense of community when it comes to FSU football.
31. College Station, TX
Everything you need to know is in its name! College Station, Texas is undoubtedly a top college town thanks to it being the home of Texas A&M University. Its large student population helps, too. Of the town’s total 97,801 residents, 58,809 of them identify as students.
32. Amherst, MA
Does Amherst, Massachusetts even have long-term residents that don’t identify as students? Eh, not really! Of its total population of about 37,819, 30,000 of those residents are, in fact, students. That’s in large part to the three big Massachusetts schools in the area: Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. About 2-ish hours outside of Boston, Amherst is popping with cultural and historical relevance. After all, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost are just two of the town’s most famous residents.
33. Cambridge, MA
Nearby, also in the Bay State, is Cambridge, which has become known for its many higher education options. You’ve got Cambridge College, Harvard, Episcopal Divinity School, Hult International Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lesley, and Longy School of Music to choose from. No matter which Cambridge school you attend, however, all students in the area reap the same college town benefits: close proximity to art and historical museums, a 10-out-of-10 in walkability, and post-grad, endless employment opportunities.
34. Eugene, OR
As if we haven’t already made the case for Oregon as a college state, Eugene, Oregon is a booming college town worth talking about, too. Home to the University of Oregon—that’s, of course, the U of O Ducks that dominate in just about all of their athletic programs—Eugene is also incredibly green. Sustainability is one of their top priorities with an extensive public transportation system and other eco-friendly practices in place. Also, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from Eugene to Portland, if you’re really in need for a city feel.
35. Lexington, KY
Most of the population in Lexington, Kentucky is students, thanks to Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky being right there. But not only are most of the residents students, you’ll also love the booming economy in the Horse Capital of the World. There’s a lot of economic growth going on in Lexington, and so employment opportunities post-grad aren’t hard to come by.
36. Morgantown, WV
West Virginia University may be located in Morgantown, West Virginia, but it’s only a stone’s throw away from big metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. WVU has three campuses in total throughout town, all of which are connected by the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit, making transportation for students a total breeze.
37. Binghamton, NY
In Upstate New York, Binghamton University keeps the town of Binghamton going with its large musical and culture scene as well as ample job opportunities. About 30 percent of the Binghamton population is a student and there are lots going on in town from seasonal festivals and art galleries.
38. Lincoln, NE
Lincoln—AKA Silicon Prairie—is where you’ll find the University of Nebraska, Union College, and Nebraska Wesleyan University. But with those three universities, you’ll find so much more here, too: like job opportunities, notoriously happy and healthy residents, and a thriving economy.
39. Oberlin, OH
Famous in its own right but made particularly famous by celebrity students like Lena Dunham and Ed Helms, the quintessential college town of Oberlin, Ohio (and of course, the liberal arts college Oberlin College by extension), is known for its progressive AF politics. It’s also the second-oldest continuously operating coeducational institute of higher learning… in the world.
40. Syracuse, NY
Come on, ‘Cuse! Syracuse is by no means a small town, but despite its million+ residents, it really does have a lot of appeal as a college town. Nearby colleges and universities include Syracuse U, the State University of New York, Le Moyne, and more.
41. Providence, RI
While some may ignore Providence, Rhode Island in favor of, say, tourist destination Newport, RI, Providence houses several local colleges: Brown, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales. It’s mostly walkable (or bikable) and features a variety of food and nightlife options.
42. Lafayette, IN
The stunning Greek life at Purdue University is certainly what makes Lafayette, Indiana one of the top college towns in the U.S. In the way of employment options (besides Purdue U itself), there’s Caterpillar, Subaru, and Wabash National that are known for hiring Lafayette’s student (or post-grad) population.
43. Bloomington, IL
Not to be confused with the other Bloomington on this list, the one in ID is where Wesleyan University and Illinois State University are located. Both are pulsating with sports events, nightlife, and other exciting stuff to do, the other big benefit of living in Bloomington is its low living cost.
44. Lawrence, KS
Students from both University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University enjoy the livability and low cost of living that Lawrence, Kansas has to offer. But there’s also a vibrant music scene to consider, as well as big employers who are always hiring: Hallmark Cards, Vangent, and more.
45. San Luis Obispo, CA
You may recognize San Luis Obispo, California from one of its most famous TV portrayals: Big Little Lies on HBO. But though it may have been portrayed as a bit of a yuppy-friendly city nestled between San Fran and Los Angeles, it very much has that college-town feel.
46. Oxford, MS
Not to be confused with Oxford, Ohio, Oxford, Mississippi is home to the University of Mississippi—AKA Ole Miss of college football fame. It looks, feels, and smells like a college town with a decorated music scene, a tech-forward IT presence, and of course, Southern comfort food.
47. Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA
If you’ve never heard of Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa, you’re not alone. But that hasn’t stopped the people of Waterloo-Cedar Falls from trying. In fact, this Iowaian town is one of the quickest-growing techy towns in the nation and it’s even home to a large gay community, too. The pride of Waterloo-Cedar Falls is definitely its annual gay pride parade, the Cedar Valley Pridefest.
48. Logan, UT
Here you’ll find Utah State University, which is abundant in spectacular natural views and other various cultural offerings. Besides the views and the culture, Logan, Utah is incredibly unique and also boasts several important post-grad employment opportunities.
49. Manhattan, KS
Nearly half of Manhattan’s population—that’s Manhattan, Kansas—are students, so it makes total sense that the community is designed to serve the young Kansas State University student. While it may not have as many employment opportunities as the New York-Manhattan, there are plenty of places to snag jobs post-grad—The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bureau, and more.
50. Fargo, ND
There’s no denying Fargo, North Dakota is known for its infamous media portrayals, but it’s also known to make a headline or two for being a top college town. After all, 16 percent of North Dakota’s entire population is students. It may be a small city, sure, but Fargo lives up to the quintessential “college town” vibe with job opportunities in the agricultural economy, entertainment options, and more.
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