The 150 Best College Towns in America (2021 Ranking)

Michelle Delgado
Dr. Francesca Ortegren

By 

Michelle Delgado

 & 

Dr. Francesca Ortegren

September 20th, 2021
Updated September 20th, 2021

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Best college towns, ranked | Affordability | Quality of life | Education | Methodology

Best college towns

🔎What is the best college town in America?
America's best college town is Stanford, Calif., followed by Williamsburg, Va. and Pasadena, Calif.

With many college back to campus this fall, they are navigating a second year of pandemic measures. For many, proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test are now as commonplace as shower caddies and mini fridges.[1]

Though college students face relatively low risk of serious illness and death, college towns experienced the ripple effects of their return to campus last year.[2] Now, with the Delta variant wreaking havoc across the nation, health officials warn another fall surge may be on the way.[3]

Yet even as 10% of colleges transition to fully online learning,[4] college towns still hold a nostalgic place in American culture. To rank America's 150 best college towns, we awarded points based on three criteria:

  • Affordability: Rent for a one bedroom apartment (-4x), net cost (-4x), median student loan debt (-3x)
  • Social life and culture: Walk score (4x), bike score (3x), entertainment options per 100,000 residents (2.5x), restaurants per 100,000 residents (2.5x), Power 5 (2x), student to population ratio (2x)
  • College quality: Graduation rate (2x), retention rate (2.5x), median pay after ten years (2x), spending per student (1.5x), median number of undergraduates (1.5x), admission rate (-1x)

Read on to see our full rankings of the best college towns in America — plus, individual rankings for the best and worst college towns by affordability, quality of life, and education.

America's 150 Best College Towns (2021 Ranking)

Ranking
City
Colleges
1
Stanford, Calif.
Stanford University
2
Williamsburg, Va.
William & Mary
3
Pasadena, Calif.
California Institute of Technology
4
Princeton, N.J.
Princeton University
5
Charlottesville, Va.
University of Virginia
6
Ann Arbor, Mich.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
7
Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lesley University
8
Berkeley, Calif.
University of California-Berkeley
9
Champaign, Ill.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
10
Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida, Santa Fe College
11
West Lafayette, Ind.
Purdue University
12
Morgantown, W.Va.
West Virginia University
13
Chapel Hill, N.C.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
14
Evanston, Ill.
Northwestern University
15
Fairfax, Va.
George Mason University
16
University Park, Pa.
Pennsylvania State University
17
Oxford, Miss.
University of Mississippi
18
East Lansing, Mich.
Michigan State University
19
Davis, Calif.
University of California-Davis
20
College Station, Texas
Texas A & M University-College Station
21
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Shepherd University
22
Boulder, Colo.
University of Colorado Boulder
23
Ithaca, N.Y.
Ithaca College, Cornell University
24
Athens, Ga.
University of Georgia
25
Eugene, Ore.
University of Oregon
26
Los Angeles, Calif.
University of California-Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Occidental College, Loyola Marymount University, California State University-Los Angeles, Mount Saint Mary's University
27
Iowa City, Iowa
University of Iowa
28
Newark, Del.
University of Delaware
29
Madison, Wis.
Edgewood College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Herzing University-Madison
30
College Park, Md.
University of Maryland-College Park
31
Stillwater, Okla.
Oklahoma State University
32
Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida State University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
33
Bloomington, Ind.
Indiana University-Bloomington
34
Columbia, Mo.
University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia College, Stephens College
35
Blacksburg, Va.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
36
Rolla, Mo.
Missouri University of Science and Technology
37
Provo, Utah
Brigham Young University
38
La Jolla, Calif.
University of California-San Diego, National University
39
Minneapolis, Minn.
Dunwoody College of Technology, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Augsburg University
40
Tucson, Ariz.
University of Arizona
41
Notre Dame, Ind.
University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary's College
42
Norman, Okla.
University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus
43
New Brunswick, N.J.
Rutgers University-New Brunswick
44
Baton Rouge, La.
Louisiana State University, Southern University and A & M College
45
Clemson, S.C.
Clemson University
46
Lexington, Va.
Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute
47
Columbia, S.C.
University of South Carolina-Columbia, Benedict College, Columbia College
48
Lexington, Ky.
University of Kentucky
49
Ames, Iowa
Iowa State University
50
Golden, Colo.
Colorado School of Mines
51
Seattle, Wash.
Seattle University, University of Washington-Seattle Campus, Seattle Pacific University, City University of Seattle, Seattle Central College, North Seattle College, South Seattle College
52
Fayetteville, Ark.
University of Arkansas
53
Pittsburgh, Pa.
University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, Point Park University, La Roche University, Carlow University
54
Fredericksburg, Va.
University of Mary Washington
55
Chico, Calif.
California State University-Chico
56
West Chester, Pa.
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
57
Northridge, Calif.
California State University-Northridge
58
Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The University of Alabama
59
Fort Collins, Colo.
Colorado State University
60
Manhattan, N.Y.
Columbia University, New York University, Barnard College, CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY City College, Marymount Manhattan College, Nyack College, CUNY Hunter College, CUNY Bernard M Baruch College, Touro College, Fashion Institute of Technology, The New School, Yeshiva University, Pace University, Metropolitan College of New York, CUNY Graduate School and University Center
61
Atlanta, Ga.
Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Atlanta Metropolitan State College, Oglethorpe University, Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University, American InterContinental University-Atlanta
62
Laramie, Wyo.
University of Wyoming
63
New Haven, Conn.
Yale University, Albertus Magnus College, Southern Connecticut State University
64
La Crosse, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University
65
Lawrence, Kan.
University of Kansas
66
Auburn, Ala.
Auburn University
67
Harrisburg, Pa.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
68
Las Cruces, N.M.
New Mexico State University
69
Houghton, Mich.
Michigan Technological University
70
Cookeville, Tenn.
Tennessee Technological University
71
Flagstaff, Ariz.
Northern Arizona University
72
San Jose, Calif.
San Jose State University
73
Santa Barbara, Calif.
University of California-Santa Barbara, Albertus Magnus College
74
Menomonie, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-Stout
75
Boone, N.C.
Appalachian State University
76
Knoxville, Tenn.
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
77
Raleigh, N.C.
Meredith College, North Carolina State University at Raleigh, Shaw University
78
Storrs, Conn.
University of Connecticut
79
Greenville, S.C.
Furman University, Bob Jones University
80
Philadelphia, Pa.
University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Chestnut Hill College, Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University, Saint Joseph's University, La Salle University, Holy Family University
81
Austin, Texas
The University of Texas at Austin, Saint Edward's University, Huston-Tillotson University, Concordia University Texas
82
St Louis, Mo.
Washington University in St Louis, Saint Louis University, Fontbonne University, Missouri Baptist University, Harris-Stowe State University, University of Missouri-St Louis, Maryville University of Saint Louis, Webster University
83
Oxford, Ohio
Miami University-Oxford
84
Dillon, Mont.
The University of Montana-Western
85
Ashland, Ore.
Southern Oregon University
86
Buzzards Bay, Mass.
Massachusetts Maritime Academy
87
Eau Claire, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
88
Cleveland, Ohio
Notre Dame College, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University
89
New Paltz, N.Y.
State University of New York at New Paltz
90
Pullman, Wash.
Washington State University
91
Berrien Springs, Mich.
Andrews University
92
Kirksville, Mo.
Truman State University
93
Syracuse, N.Y.
Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
94
Chicago, Ill.
University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, Saint Augustine College, Illinois Institute of Technology, Loyola University Chicago, University of Illinois Chicago, DePaul University, Saint Xavier University, Roosevelt University, North Park University, National Louis University, Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University
95
Buffalo, N.Y.
Canisius College, Medaille College, D'Youville College, University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State
96
Columbus, Ohio
Ohio State University, Capital University, Ohio Dominican University
97
Winona, Minn.
Winona State University, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota
98
Annapolis, Md.
United States Naval Academy
99
Manhattan, Kan.
Kansas State University
100
Cedar City, Utah
Southern Utah University
101
Reno, Nev.
University of Nevada-Reno
102
Starkville, Miss.
Mississippi State University
103
University Center, Mich.
Saginaw Valley State University
104
San Marcos, Texas
Texas State University
105
Stony Brook, N.Y.
Stony Brook University
106
Sacramento, Calif.
California State University-Sacramento
107
Bellingham, Wash.
Western Washington University
108
Bethlehem, Pa.
Lehigh University, Moravian College
109
Durham, N.C.
Duke University, North Carolina Central University
110
Providence, R.I.
Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Johnson & Wales University-Providence
111
Bozeman, Mont.
Montana State University
112
Castine, Maine
Maine Maritime Academy
113
Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina University
114
Grand Junction, Colo.
Colorado Mesa University
115
Cheney, Wash.
Eastern Washington University
116
Burlington, Vt.
Champlain College, University of Vermont
117
Appleton, Wis.
Lawrence University
118
Huntington, W.Va.
Marshall University
119
Stevens Point, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
120
Denton, Texas
University of North Texas, Texas Woman's University
121
Louisville, Ky.
University of Louisville, Bellarmine University, Spalding University, Sullivan University
122
Long Beach, Calif.
California State University-Long Beach
123
Fullerton, Calif.
California State University-Fullerton, Hope International University
124
Wilmington, N.C.
Platt College-Miller-Motte-Wilmington, University of North Carolina Wilmington
125
Richardson, Texas
The University of Texas at Dallas
126
Pembroke, N.C.
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
127
Mount Pleasant, Mich.
Central Michigan University
128
Cedar Falls, Iowa
University of Northern Iowa
129
Platteville, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-Platteville
130
Lubbock, Texas
Texas Tech University, Lubbock Christian University
131
Cortland, N.Y.
SUNY Cortland
132
Newark, N.J.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rutgers University-Newark
133
Terre Haute, Ind.
Indiana State University
134
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
135
Normal, Ill.
Illinois State University
136
Phoenix, Ariz.
Arizona State University-Downtown Phoenix, University of Phoenix-Arizona, Grand Canyon University
137
Moscow, Idaho
University of Idaho
138
Hattiesburg, Miss.
University of Southern Mississippi, William Carey University
139
Ellensburg, Wash.
Central Washington University
140
Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Lipscomb University, Tennessee State University, Trevecca Nazarene University
141
Cullowhee, N.C.
Western Carolina University
142
Lewisburg, Pa.
Bucknell University
143
Ruston, La.
Louisiana Tech University
144
Salisbury, Md.
Salisbury University
145
Hammond, La.
Southeastern Louisiana University
146
River Falls, Wis.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls
147
Chattanooga, Tenn.
The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
148
Arcata, Calif.
Humboldt State University
149
Medford, Mass.
Tufts University
150
Greensboro, N.C.
Guilford College, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina A & T State University

Most and Least Affordable College Towns

From paying for textbooks to juggling work-study programs, affordability is a major concern for most college students.

To assess the affordability of college towns, we focused on three factors:

  • Median Student Loan Debt (-3x): Median student loan principal amount at the time of repayment (typically 6 months after full-time student status ends)
  • Net Cost (-4x): Tuition minus average scholarships, aid, and grants
  • Rent (-4x): Median monthly rent price for a one-bedroom apartment near campus

Overall, we discovered that where students live can play a major role in their day-to-day living — and how much student debt they accrue. For example, we found that:

  • Rent is cheapest is Rolla, Mo. ($450 per month) — roughly 7x less expensive than in Manhattan, N.Y. ($3,516 per month).
  • Gainesville, Fla., has the least expensive net cost ($6,302), while Lewisburg, Pa., is the priciest ($42,502).
  • Students in Cedar City, Utah, graduate with the least debt ($7,623), while those in Castine, Maine, bear the heaviest burden ($26,545).

Overall, students who live in our 30 least affordable college towns pay $845 more in rent and $12,802 more in net costs on average — and graduate with roughly $5,100 more debt.

Affordability in College Towns, by the Numbers

Criteria
Top 30
Bottom 30
🏦 Avg. student debt
$13,306
$18,406
💰 Avg. annual net cost
$12,964
$25,766
🏡 Avg. rent
$777
$1,622

30 Most Affordable College Towns

💰 What is the most affordable college town in America?
Cedar City, Utah

Cedar City, Utah


City
Rent
Net Cost
Median Student Loan Debt
1
Cedar City, Utah
$550
$14,285
$7,623
2
Las Cruces, N.M.
$695
$8,659
$10,830
3
Hammond, La.
$625
$12,171
$11,000
4
Provo, Utah
$895
$13,322
$8,750
5
Laramie, Wyo.
$663
$12,159
$12,003
6
Ruston, La.
$515
$12,084
$14,080
7
Terre Haute, Ind.
$575
$13,896
$12,500
8
Kirksville, Mo.
$550
$12,462
$13,986
9
Gainesville, Fla.
$950
$6,302
$14,831
10
Cookeville, Tenn.
$613
$15,929
$11,616
11
Huntington, W.Va.
$625
$8,370
$16,741
12
Dillon, Mont.
$831
$13,929
$12,000
13
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
$850
$11,021
$13,886
14
Morgantown, W.Va.
$634
$12,983
$14,768
15
Grand Junction, Colo.
$800
$15,569
$12,000
16
Cheney, Wash.
$815
$12,607
$14,000
17
River Falls, Wis.
$780
$13,748
$13,789
18
Stillwater, Okla.
$648
$14,648
$15,000
19
Hattiesburg, Miss.
$797
$14,923
$13,808
20
Princeton, N.J.
$1,623
$11,317
$9,100
21
Harrisburg, Pa.
$1,013
$14,848
$12,000
22
Moscow, Idaho
$525
$14,132
$16,750
23
Rolla, Mo.
$450
$14,262
$17,500
24
Pembroke, N.C.
$979
$10,228
$15,750
25
Oxford, Miss.
$770
$14,016
$15,000
26
West Lafayette, Ind.
$774
$13,986
$15,000
27
Ellensburg, Wash.
$925
$15,397
$13,000
28
Chattanooga, Tenn.
$1,177
$12,952
$12,500
29
Baton Rouge, La.
$875
$15,465
$13,418
30
Bloomington, Ind.
$800
$13,253
$15,940

30 Least Affordable College Towns

💰 What is the least affordable college town in America?
Manhattan, N.Y.

Manhattan, New York


City
Rent
Net Cost
Median Student Loan Debt
1
Manhattan, N.Y.
$3,516
$28,697
$16,301
2
Lewisburg, Pa.
$625
$42,502
$22,269
3
Cleveland, Ohio
$1,075
$35,428
$21,725
4
Syracuse, N.Y.
$800
$34,482
$24,526
5
Medford, Mass.
$2,000
$30,744
$15,800
6
Annapolis, Md.
$1,777
$26,520
$19,461
7
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
$2,375
$21,595
$17,000
8
Bethlehem, Pa.
$1,345
$29,301
$20,672
9
Golden, Colo.
$1,506
$26,750
$21,000
10
Notre Dame, Ind.
$1,193
$33,025
$19,000
11
Santa Barbara, Calif.
$3,123
$15,884
$13,000
12
Buzzards Bay, Mass.
$1,600
$20,485
$22,763
13
Castine, Maine
$927
$23,239
$26,545
14
New Brunswick, N.J.
$1,875
$21,654
$18,750
15
West Chester, Pa.
$1,688
$22,495
$19,500
16
Ithaca, N.Y.
$990
$40,126
$13,500
17
Seattle, Wash.
$1,751
$24,868
$16,722
18
Los Angeles, Calif.
$2,085
$22,359
$15,514
19
Atlanta, Ga.
$1,739
$23,716
$17,500
20
Philadelphia, Pa.
$1,334
$25,986
$18,571
21
University Park, Pa.
$1,095
$27,372
$19,500
22
Chicago, Ill.
$1,577
$23,175
$18,069
23
Pittsburgh, Pa.
$1,117
$26,421
$19,654
24
Providence, R.I.
$1,498
$28,084
$15,000
25
Austin, Texas
$1,609
$19,877
$18,752
26
Fairfax, Va.
$1,806
$21,048
$16,231
27
La Jolla, Calif.
$2,229
$14,232
$15,000
28
Nashville, Tenn.
$1,485
$23,043
$15,318
29
Burlington, Vt.
$1,563
$18,982
$17,055
30
Durham, N.C.
$1,346
$20,876
$17,483

Best and Worst College Towns for Quality of Life

Outside of the classroom, a great college town offers plenty of opportunities for dining, socializing, and entertainment.

We measured college towns' quality of life by how easy it is to get around, how the student body compares to the local population, and how many sports, restaurants, and entertainment options there are:

  • Walk Score (4x): Walkability near the university
  • Bike Score (3x): Bikeability near the university
  • Entertainment per 100,000 Residents (2.5x): Number of arts, entertainment, and recreation establishments per 100,000 residents
  • Restaurants per 100,000 Residents (2.5x): Number of restaurants per 100,000 residents
  • Power 5 (2x): Yes / No whether the college is in a Power 5 athletic conference (i.e. ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC)
  • Student to Population Ratio (2x): Ratio of students to general population

Overall, the college towns in our top 30 offer more accessible transportation options. Top-rated college towns have an average walk score of 81 and an average bike score of 78 — meaning most errands can be accomplished on foot and that biking is convenient.

By contrast, our bottom-rated college towns have an average walk score of just 56 and an average bike score of 60, so students who don't have a car or access to public transportation may struggle to get around.

When it comes to activities, our top 30 college towns offer plenty to do:

  • Top-rated college towns have an average of 143 entertainment options per 100,000 residents, versus just 49 options in our bottom 30 college towns.
  • The best college towns have an average of 256 restaurants per 100,000 residents, versus just 109 in our lowest-ranking towns.
  • 20 out of our 30 best college towns have universities in a Power 5 athletic conference, compared to just three out of our bottom 30.

Finally, the best college towns have a roughly even mix of year-round residents and students (55%), compared to the relatively low ratio of students in our lowest-ranking towns (33%).

Quality of Life in College Towns, by the Numbers

Criteria
Top 30
Bottom 30
👟 Avg. walk score
81
56
🚲 Avg. bike score
78
60
🍿 Avg. no. of entertainment options*
143
49
🍽️ Avg. no. of restaurants*
256
109
🏈 Power 5 conference member
20 out of 30
3 out of 30
🧑 Student to population ratio
55%
33%
*Per 100,000 residents

30 College Towns With Best Quality of Life

Which college town has the best quality of life?
Williamsburg, Va.

Williamsburg, Virginia


City
Student to Population Ratio
Walk Score
Bike Score
Entertainment Options per 100k Residents
Restaurants per 100k Residents
Power 5

1

Williamsburg, Va.
41%
62
75
413
865
-

2

Fairfax, Va.
111%
66
62
303
666
-

3

Charlottesville, Va.
36%
91
76
194
390
Yes

4

Shepherdstown, W.Va.
137%
61
29
260
728
-

5

Morgantown, W.Va.
66%
88
61
195
301
Yes

6

University Park, Pa.
178%
89
86
57
116
Yes

7

Manhattan, N.Y.
4%
99
85
297
251
-

8

West Chester, Pa.
72%
74
53
344
389
-

9

Boulder, Co.
28%
87
90
168
154
Yes

10

Oxford, Miss.
416%
32
58
57
116
Yes

11

Fredericksburg, Va.
14%
76
52
214
604
-

12

Ann Arbor, Mich.
26%
93
91
87
157
Yes

13

Berkeley, Calif.
26%
94
83
95
156
Yes

14

East Lansing, Mich.
82%
86
89
44
120
Yes

15

Minneapolis, Minn.
8%
75
86
145
196
Yes

16

Evanston, Ill.
12%
93
93
74
116
Yes

17

Champaign, Ill.
37%
80
97
59
136
Yes

18

Eugene, Ore.
11%
89
96
65
121
Yes

19

Newark, Del.
56%
79
74
136
352
-

20

Pittsburgh, Pa.
12%
76
69
124
245
Yes

21

Iowa City, Iowa
30%
88
90
44
114
Yes

22

Seattle, Wash.
5%
82
76
98
201
Yes

23

New Brunswick, N.J.
64%
97
71
23
119
Yes

24

West Lafayette, Ind.
67%
79
92
31
91
Yes

25

Pasadena, Calif.
1%
83
93
233
157
-

26

Golden, Colo.
25%
76
69
206
324
-

27

Princeton, N.J.
17%
83
87
181
194
-

28

Lexington, Ky.
7%
87
88
52
87
Yes

29

Columbia, Mo.
18%
89
77
62
103
Yes

30

Stanford, Calif.
43%
69
99
18
116
Yes

30 College Towns With Worst Quality of Life

Which college town has the worst quality of life?
Long Beach, Calif.

Long Beach, California


City
Student to Population Ratio
Walk Score
Bike Score
Entertainment Options per 100k Residents
Restaurants per 100k Residents
Power 5
1
Long Beach, Calif.
7%
32
71
37
77
-
2
Fullerton, Calif.
25%
45
56
29
92
-
3
Ruston, La.
37%
49
42
55
128
-
4
Kirksville, Mo.
25%
33
72
40
108
-
5
Stony Brook, N.Y.
143%
27
38
72
145
-
6
Medford, Mass.
10%
75
51
28
66
-
7
Richardson, Texas
17%
36
79
54
132
-
8
Provo, Utah
27%
55
71
56
37
-
9
Cedar City, Utah
21%
54
65
64
91
-
10
Cedar Falls, Iowa
22%
53
63
57
122
-
11
Sacramento, Calif.
6%
43
86
40
130
-
12
Greensboro, N.C.
9%
70
59
46
97
-
13
Salisbury, Md.
23%
64
52
48
151
-
14
Durham, N.C.
4%
50.5
43.5
43
88
Yes
15
Denton, Texas
22%
66
73
21
75
-
16
Pullman, Wash.
75%
42
37
26
84
Yes
17
Normal, Ill.
33%
68
69
28
59
-
18
Moscow, Idaho
28%
64
63
54
96
-
19
Storrs, Conn.
121%
48
47
57
116
-
20
Las Cruces, N.M.
11%
64
78
30
86
-
21
Bethlehem, Pa.
7%
83
40
54
151
-
22
Cullowhee, N.C.
161%
40
49
47
116
-
23
River Falls, Wis.
33%
70
58
67
80
-
24
Hammond, La.
52%
41
50
84
267
-
25
Lubbock, Texas
12%
47
59
35
72
Yes
26
Cortland, N.Y.
34%
64
42
130
141
-
27
Newark, N.J.
6%
91
62
9
67
-
28
Buffalo, N.Y.
11%
51
63
90
205
-
29
New Haven, Conn.
11%
66
76
35
112
-
30
Philadelphia, Pa.
4%
77
72
31
78
-

Best and Worst College Towns by School Quality

It's important for college towns to provide the right ambience — but at the end of the day, students are drawn to college towns where they'll get a great education.

We considered six factors to evaluate the average school quality in each college town:

  • Retention Rate (2.5x): The proportion of full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates who were enrolled at the institution in the fall one year after enrollment
  • Median Pay After Ten Years (2x): Students' median salary after ten years
  • Graduation Rate (2x): Percent of students who graduate within 150% of the estimated time to complete the program
  • Median Number of Undergrads (1.5x): Enrollment of undergraduate certificate/degree-seeking students
  • Spending per Student (1.5x): University spending on instruction per full-time degree-seeking student
  • Admission Rate (-1x): Proportion of applicants accepted for admission

In college towns that are home to multiple colleges and universities, we found an average across all schools.

Overall, large schools that invest in their students support better college towns. We found that:

  • On average, our top 30 college towns have larger student bodies — averaging 25,642 students, compared to the average 8,639 students in our worst-ranked college towns.
  • Students who live in our top 30 college towns are less likely to drop out or transfer (94.2% average retention rate in the best college towns versus 73.6% in the worst) and more likely to graduate on time (87.6% average graduation rate in the best college towns versus 51.3% in the worst).

On average, universities in our top 30 college towns invest $23,119 more in each student annually — and ten years later, graduates' median annual salaries are $28,257 higher.

However, it's also important to acknowledge that college towns in our bottom 30 are more accessible to more students, with an average admission rate of 80.9%, roughly double the average 42.1% admission rate in our top 30 college towns.

Education in College Towns, by the Numbers

Criteria
Top 30
Bottom 30
✍️ Avg. number of students
25,642
8,639
🎓 Avg. graduation rate
87.6%
51.3%
📈 Avg. retention rate
94.2%
73.6%
✅ Avg. admission rate
42.1%
80.9%
💵 Avg. salary after ten years
$68,324
$40,067
💰 Annual spending per student
$31,416
$8,297

30 Best College Towns by School Quality

🎓Which college town has the best-quality school?
Stanford, Calif.

Stanford, California


City
Median No. Students
Graduation Rate
Retention Rate
Median Pay After 10 Yrs.
Admission Rate
Spending per Student
1
Stanford, Calif.
6,994
94.3%
98.8%
$94,000
43.4%
$113,338
2
Pasadena, Calif.
938
93.6%
98.3%
$85,900
64.2%
$105,185
3
Cambridge, Mass.
12,063
96.3%
98.3%
$97,200
56.7%
$63,514
4
Los Angeles, Calif.
80,826
78.6%
90.7%
$60,525
28.8%
$33,346
5
Princeton, N.J.
5,308
97.9%
97.7%
$74,700
57.8%
$60,048
6
Ithaca, N.Y.
14,976
94.5%
97.5%
$77,200
10.9%
$29,893
7
Notre Dame, Ind.
8,689
95.9%
97.8%
$78,400
15.8%
$32,634
8
Ann Arbor, Mich.
31,046
93.3%
96.9%
$63,400
22.9%
$25,972
9
Berkeley, Calif.
31,345
92.6%
96.9%
$64,700
16.3%
$19,585
10
Medford, Mass.
5,828
94.3%
96.1%
$75,800
15.0%
$25,888
11
Bethlehem, Pa.
5,164
89.8%
93.5%
$81,900
32.1%
$24,995
12
Cleveland, Ohio
5,269
84.4%
93.3%
$74,600
27.4%
$31,082
13
Evanston, Ill.
8,530
93.8%
98.2%
$69,000
90.5%
$41,227
14
Charlottesville, Va.
16,723
94.7%
97.3%
$61,200
23.9%
$20,721
15
Chapel Hill, N.C.
19,014
90.6%
96.4%
$55,600
22.6%
$27,786
16
La Jolla, Calif.
30,789
87.4%
93.4%
$59,900
31.5%
$20,821
17
Manhattan, N.Y.
61,729
70.1%
86.9%
$56,286
49.7%
$27,566
18
Gainesville, Fla.
34,523
88.3%
96.6%
$56,000
36.6%
$16,395
19
Davis, Calif.
30,962
86.7%
92.4%
$58,200
38.9%
$23,607
20
Philadelphia, Pa.
68,151
73.5%
84.5%
$65,114
71.8%
$20,405
21
College Station, Texas
53,119
81.7%
93.2%
$58,000
57.8%
$15,424
22
College Park, Md.
29,905
87.0%
95.0%
$62,900
44.2%
$14,992
23
Lewisburg, Pa.
3,608
90.0%
92.4%
$70,800
34.2%
$23,205
24
Golden, Colo.
5,103
82.9%
91.9%
$84,900
53.1%
$17,269
25
Lexington, Va.
3,541
86.9%
90.3%
$70,900
39.1%
$26,465
26
University Park, Pa.
74,630
70.9%
87.8%
$50,100
75.9%
$22,330
27
Madison, Wis.
31,185
87.6%
95.3%
$56,200
54.4%
$16,766
28
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
20,453
82.0%
94.1%
$66,900
28.4%
$10,471
29
Champaign, Ill.
33,080
85.1%
92.9%
$61,500
59.0%
$14,527
30
New Brunswick, N.J.
35,760
83.8%
92.8%
$57,900
61.2%
$17,030

30 Worst College Towns by School Quality

🎓Which college town has the worst-quality school?
Terre Haute, Ind.

Terre Haute, Indiana


City
Median No. Students
Grad. Rate
Retention Rate
Median Pay After 10 Yrs.
Admission Rate
Spending per Student
1
Terre Haute, Ind.
9,603
41.3%
65.2%
$39,000
89.6%
$7,911
2
Harrisburg, Pa.
682
30.8%
71.0%
$43,200
79.0%
$5,973
3
Hammond, La.
11,061
39.4%
68.2%
$37,200
90.2%
$6,078
4
Pembroke, N.C.
6,270
41.1%
71.6%
$34,400
84.9%
$6,815
5
Hattiesburg, Miss.
11,521
49.0%
67.8%
$36,400
96.9%
$6,947
6
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
2,631
48.6%
70.6%
$39,700
96.3%
$7,686
7
Grand Junction, Colo.
8,260
33.7%
74.3%
$36,800
78.2%
$8,096
8
Ashland, Ore.
3,787
45.8%
69.9%
$39,000
78.2%
$8,360
9
Huntington, W.Va.
7,750
48.6%
72.6%
$35,600
86.9%
$9,501
10
Arcata, Calif.
6,559
49.0%
75.1%
$36,600
92.2%
$8,911
11
Dillon, Mont.
1,256
48.6%
75.7%
$30,400
56.5%
$7,365
12
Chattanooga, Tenn.
10,185
48.5%
71.3%
$38,100
82.1%
$8,677
13
Cheney, Wash.
9,829
53.5%
70.2%
$43,100
95.7%
$7,980
14
University Center, Mich.
7,209
44.1%
74.1%
$39,300
73.1%
$7,664
15
Cedar City, Utah
7,534
50.1%
73.6%
$39,800
78.4%
$6,696
16
River Falls, Wis.
5,399
57.8%
73.8%
$40,900
78.9%
$7,125
17
Stevens Point, Wis.
7,349
60.2%
75.0%
$40,200
84.5%
$6,725
18
Menomonie, Wis.
7,179
60.0%
72.0%
$45,100
90.5%
$8,307
19
Ellensburg, Wash.
10,946
57.6%
70.8%
$46,500
84.9%
$9,540
20
Cookeville, Tenn.
8,743
54.4%
77.0%
$40,500
79.0%
$8,942
21
Las Cruces, N.M.
11,153
48.2%
74.8%
$34,600
54.6%
$13,205
22
Platteville, Wis.
7,222
55.9%
78.8%
$47,300
84.8%
$5,192
23
Bozeman, Mont.
14,402
56.8%
76.5%
$43,200
81.9%
$8,032
24
Moscow, Idaho
7,227
56.1%
77.3%
$41,900
77.8%
$13,461
25
Cullowhee, N.C.
10,292
62.5%
78.2%
$37,700
68.7%
$7,446
26
Winona, Minn.
6,800
59.2%
76.5%
$44,700
67.9%
$8,324
27
Mount Pleasant, Mich.
14,409
61.1%
74.1%
$41,900
69.5%
$8,990
28
Ruston, La.
8,141
59.8%
79.6%
$41,500
64.1%
$5,823
29
Flagstaff, Ariz.
26,135
56.6%
77.6%
$40,100
84.9%
$6,904
30
Laramie, Wyo.
9,646
59.8%
75.9%
$47,300
96.0%
$16,241

Methodology

We used data from the Department of Education to create our list of college towns. To qualify, a college town had to have a four-year, degree-granting institution where the majority of students are considered full-time and the majority of degrees awarded are Bachelor-level or higher.

Data for the ranking metrics were sourced from Zumper (rent costs), ApartmentList (rent costs), Walk Score (walkability and bikeability), the U.S. Census (population estimates, number of establishments), and the U.S. Department of Education (all other data points).

The data were categorized into three metrics: affordability, quality of the college(s), and quality of life in the college town.

Affordability measured living expenses and college affordability, with negatively weighted metrics to reflect less affordable towns.

  • Median Student Loan Debt (-3x): The median student loan principal amount at the time of repayment (typically ~6 months after full-time student status ends). Missing data were replaced by the median value for schools fitting the same Carnegie Undergraduate Profile Designation.
  • Rent (-4x): The median monthly cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment near campus. If rent data were not available near the college, we used the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the town. In very rare cases where those data were not available, rent was considered the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the state. The rent cost was averaged across all colleges in the town.
  • Net Cost (-4): The net cost of attendance was calculated as the average tuition and fees minus scholarships, aids, and grants across the student body, averaged across each college in the town. Missing data were replaced by the median value for schools fitting the same Carnegie Undergraduate Profile Designation.

Education quality considered the total number of students, exclusivity, retention and graduation rates, graduates' salaries, and resources allotted to instruction at the college.

  • Retention Rate (2.5x): The proportion of full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates still enrolled in the fall one year after starting at the institution, averaged across all colleges in the town. Missing data were replaced by the median value for schools fitting the same Carnegie Undergraduate Profile Designation.
  • Graduation Rate (2x): Percent of students who graduate within 150% of the estimated time to complete their program (e.g., 6 years for a typical 4-year degree program), averaged across all colleges in the town. Missing data were replaced by the median value for schools fitting the same Carnegie Undergraduate Profile Designation.
  • Median Pay (2x): Median earnings of students who are working and not enrolled at the college ten years after first enrollment, averaged across all colleges in the town. Missing data were replaced by the median value across all colleges.
  • Number of Undergraduate Students (1.5x): Enrollment of undergraduate certificate/degree-seeking students, totaled across all colleges in the town.
  • Instructional Expenditures per Student (1.5x): University spending on instruction per full-time, degree-seeking student, averaged across all colleges in the town.
  • Admission Rate (-1x): Proportion of applicants accepted for admission, averaged across all colleges in the town. Missing data were replaced by the median value for schools fitting the same Carnegie Undergraduate Profile Designation.

We also considered social and quality of life factors in college towns and surrounding areas.

  • Walk score (4x): Walkability near the college, averaged across all colleges.
  • Bike score (3x): Bikeability near the college, averaged across all colleges.
  • Entertainment establishments (2.5x): Number of arts, entertainment, and recreation establishments per 100,000 residents. Missing data were replaced by the median number of establishments across all towns.
  • Restaurants (2.5x): Number of restaurants per 100,000 residents. Missing data were replaced by the median number of establishments across all towns.
  • Power 5 Designation (2x): Binary (yes / no) designating whether at least one college in the town is in one of the Power 5 Conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC).
  • Student-to-Population Ratio (2x): Ratio of students enrolled in all colleges in the town to the general population.

Each of the above metrics was calculated across all colleges for a single town (by averaging or summing across the colleges). The data were then standardized using z-scores and multiplied by their respective weight. The weighted score for each metric was summed to create a weighted score for each of the categories (affordability, quality of college, and quality of life) and each of those was summed to create a total score for the overall ranking.

ARTICLE SOURCES
[1]

Boston Globe. "Slowly going back to normality: College students return to campus in Boston." Accessed September 16, 2021. Updated September 1, 2021.

[2]

New York Times. "Young People Have Less Covid-19 Risk, but in College Towns, Deaths Rose Fast." Accessed September 16, 2021. Updated March 2, 2021.

[3]

Time. "The 6 Factors That Will Determine the Severity of the COVID-19 Surge in the U.S. This Fall." Accessed September 16, 2021. Updated July 26, 2021.

[4]

Berkeley Economic Review. "COVID-19 and College Towns." Accessed September 16, 2021. Updated November 18, 2020.

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FAQs

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Overall, Stanford, Calif., is the best college town in America — as well as the best for school quality. Williamsburg, Va., has the best quality of life, while Cedar City, Utah, is the most affordable college town. Read our full rankings.

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Overall, Greensboro, N.C., ranked last among America's top 150 college towns. Additionally, Manhattan, N.Y., is the least affordable college town; Terre Haute, Ind., ranks last for school quality, and Long Beach, Calif., came last for quality of life. Read our full rankings.

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