30 Best College Towns and Cities in America

30 Best College Towns and Cities in America
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The quality of learning and career opportunities for students is determined not only by a school’s academic proficiency, even though it is a major factor. Its location also does matter. A good city or town atmosphere can provide learners with comfortable study environments, living spaces good for learning, fresh ideas, new friends, potential jobs, and even long-term career opportunities.

In this article, we will list down some of the best college towns and cities in America together with the reasons why they became ideal places for study and career-building. This way, you will be able to discover which regions are most helpful to achieve both their academic and professional goals. Also, for those who are working on a tight budget, the article also provides locations that are most likely to have affordable living costs.

Best College Towns and Cities in America Table of Contents

  1. Midwest
  2. Northeast
  3. Southeast
  4. Southwest
  5. West

University statistics show that the United States, as of 2018, has about 4,138 colleges and universities across 19,458 cities, towns, and other communities (World Population Review. 2020). Although most of these locations have the facilities and services to address one’s basic necessities, some places are more conducive to the needs of learners. For instance, it was discovered that students who reside in a metropolitan zone scored around 20 points higher in their Programme for International Student Assessment in mathematics than those who live in rural areas and about 49 points higher than those from remote areas (Panizzon, 2014).

Source: Panizzon, D.

Ideally, a student city should have a large community of learners, through which friendships and study groups are formed. Members of these groups help each other understand tough concepts and get through exams as well as balance out school time with fun and leisure to clear off stress. Also, the safest college towns in America allow students to make friends from the local community who can also help off-state and international students adjust to their new environment and a school’s manner of instruction.

A city should also give potential students access to quality education, so the number of higher education institutions was included. Furthermore, a locale with a high employment rate reflects the ease of finding jobs for fresh graduates while the average rent and cost of living index give one an idea if there will be financial hurdles should they choose to stay in any of the cities. The cost of living index is based on the national average of 100, which means a rating lower than that is cheaper than what is generally available in the U.S. and vice versa (BestPlaces, nd).

We focused only on towns and cities that have a population near 100,000 and above since less than 10% of America’s student body attend classes in locations with smaller populations (Florida, 2016). In addition, most of the entries on this list have a higher rate of adults with undergraduate degrees than the national average of 30.9% (Stebbins, 2019). The cities are grouped per region for easy perusal.


1. Ames, Iowa

Ames, Iowa

Located in Story County, Ames is home to Iowa’s largest university, the Iowa State University, whose student body makes up nearly half of the city’s population. It is recognized by international media organizations as one of the best places to live in the world due to its low unemployment rate as well as its areas for recreation, leisure, culture, shopping, and athletics (CNN Money, 2010). The city also has several sites of government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the country’s biggest federal animal disease center.

Based on a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics October 2020 report, Ames has the lowest unemployment among all metropolitan areas in the country (BLS, 2020). As such, graduates are almost guaranteed to find jobs given the wealth of career opportunities presented by the city. Furthermore, the large concentration of students in the area, which influences the city’s low median age, suggests that students will have no trouble finding friends, connections, and study groups in Ames. The cost of living is likewise not an issue as it is significantly lower than the national average.

Percentage of College Students: 45.2% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 23.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 98% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $673, One Bedroom – $763, Two Bedrooms – $923 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 88.4 (BestPlaces, nd)

2. Bloomington, Indiana

Bloomington, Indiana

Known as the “Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana,” Bloomington is recognized as a Tree City due to the presence of well-maintained urban forestry within the region. It is home to one of the largest universities in Indiana, Indiana University Bloomington, and the largest brewing company in the state, Upland Brewing Company. Other points of interest include the quarries in Monroe County, the bike trails and communities throughout the city, and a 1,650-acre lake, Lake Lemon.

Bloomington maintains an astronomic employment rate, suggesting a painless transition from college to the workplace, with the city providing an abundance of professional opportunities. Students are bound to find friends and connections in and out of campus given the huge percentage of students among the city’s populace, thus acclimation for off-state and international learners should be a breeze. As for living costs, the goods and services in the city are generally more affordable than those of most cities in the country.

Percentage of College Students: 44.2% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 23.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $700, One Bedroom – $740, Two Bedrooms – $950 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 87.3 (BestPlaces, nd)

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Popularly known as the home of the University of Michigan (UMich), Ann Arbor is an urban city in Washtenaw County. It spans 28.70 square miles and has a population of 119,980. The city sprawls with urban forestry as it houses more than 100,000 trees in parks and by the streets. In regard to public safety, Ann Arbor’s crime rate is below the national average. Students can enjoy the city’s film festival, art fairs, and live performances courtesy of UMich’s various performing arts groups. This also makes the city a good place to jumpstart art and design careers.

With an unemployment rate of only 3.5%, Ann Arbor’s strong job market ensures that graduates will receive employment from numerous potential employers coming from sectors like education, healthcare, manufacturing, and science- and technical-related fields. The cost of living is a bit higher than the national average, but the city’s large student contingent assures a worthwhile college experience. Attending a university like UMich further boosts one’s likelihood of obtaining gainful employment, given its reputation and high academic standards.

Percentage of College Students: 35% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 4 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.5 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.5% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $1,030, One Bedroom – $1,063, Two Bedrooms – $1,305 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 117.5 (BestPlaces, nd)

4. Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa

Located in Johnson County, Iowa City is one of Iowa State’s largest cities, recognized as an ideal location for doing business by popular American publications. It is also known for being the home of the University of Iowa, the state’s oldest and second-largest university, and its historic landmarks like the university’s art museum, Plum Grove, and the Old Capitol Building. The climate in this town is hot and humid but experiences periods of heavy rainfall in June, so students may need to prepare if they are used to colder temperatures. As for recreation, the city features a lot of parks and hosts a wide variety of cultural events.

As a city with a particularly busy metropolitan area, Iowa affords graduates and aspiring employees generous amounts of career opportunities, evidenced by its high employment rate. City dwellers are often employed in industries like education, retail, healthcare, and food services. Regarding the social setting, Iowa’s large percentage of college students and low median age ensure enrollees that they would find friends with similar interests, study groups, and connections during their stay in school.

Percentage of College Students: 34.4% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 25.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 97.8% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $618, One Bedroom – $688, Two Bedrooms – $910 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 94.6 (BestPlaces, nd)

5. Champaign, Illinois

Champaign, Illinois

Champaign is best known as the home of one of America’s largest higher education institutions, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), which welcomes more than 51,000 students. It also has one of the country’s largest pasta factories, run by Kraft. People from the business sector recognize the city as a hub for the tech industry and startup companies. In fact, Champaign has a research park that houses large-scale companies like State Farm, Yahoo, IBM, and Wolfram Research.

Champaign is a quintessential student city, having a large ratio of students in its locale and affordable amenities across the board. The average commute time in and around the city is 15.7 minutes, lower than the country’s city average of 26.4 minutes. Besides UIUC, there is another large higher education institution in the vicinity, Parkland College, where aspiring learners can pursue their studies. The combined population of both schools has increased the share of college students in the city, allowing learners to find friends and potential study partners easily.

Percentage of College Students: 30.5% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 95.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $793, One Bedroom – $813, Two Bedrooms – $977 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 80.8 (BestPlaces, nd)

6. Columbia, Missouri

Columbia, Missouri

Columbia is a cradle of higher education in that it serves as the home of notable schools like the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College. Meanwhile, the city’s residents are known to engage in progressive politics and public art. Prospective investors and aspiring professionals will likely find opportunities in Columbia’s key industries, which include technology, healthcare, and insurance. On the other hand, tourists and students can visit the parks and natural attractions surrounding the city and experience Columbia’s bustling cultural scene.

Columbia is the residence of over 123,000 people, of whom 26.1% are college students. The sizable student population allows new students to easily adapt to and assimilate into the community. Furthermore, the city has an unemployment rate of 2.6%, well below the U.S. average of 3.7%, signaling relative ease in finding gainful employment, which greatly benefits graduates. On the financial front, rent in Columbia is affordable, with the average rate for a studio room nearly $300 cheaper than the U.S. average. The same goes for transportation and grocery expenses.

Percentage of College Students: 26.1% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 7 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 97.4% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $590, One Bedroom – $655, Two Bedrooms – $800 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 87.9 (BestPlaces, nd)

7. Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas

Taking its name from noted abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence, Lawrence is Kansas’ sixth-largest city and is home to higher education institutions like the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. It is characterized by its thriving art and music industry, as the city has several venues that host music performances, Broadway musicals, and cultural festivals. Lawrence also has a significant number of historic sites, including South Park, the Watkins Museum of History, and the Centennial Park. This, and its college offerings, make it conducive for art history careers among others.

As a college town, Lawrence features a large student contingent in its population and a cost of living that is 4.8% lower than U.S. standard rates. With the city’s median age of 27.5 years, new students can enrich their social lives, find study partners, and expand their network. Graduates, on the other hand, can seek employment in numerous industries such as education, healthcare, food and beverages, arts and entertainment, and accommodations. Room rates are affordable and likewise the transportation costs, both of which are lower than the national averages.

Percentage of College Students: 25.6% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 4 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.5 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $668, One Bedroom – $724, Two Bedrooms – $942 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 95.2 (BestPlaces, nd)

8. Kalamazoo, Michigan

Kalamazoo, Michigan

Located in southeast Michigan, Kalamazoo is a college town that serves as the residence of higher education institutions like Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Kalamazoo College. The city has a community capitalist approach to its economy as it welcomes a wide variety of businesses and startups within its vicinity. With this, visitors are greeted with numerous restaurants, cafes, breweries, banks, and manufacturing firms. One of its most notable features is the Kalamazoo Mall, the country’s first outdoor shopping mall.

Kalamazoo has been recovering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, with much of Michigan’s population finding their way back to the professional realm. As such, the city’s unemployment rate has been lowered to 4%, which bodes well for upcoming graduates. Kalamazoo’s six higher education institutions have helped pull down the city’s median age, thus allowing incoming students to easily find their footing socially and ease their way into the predominant city lifestyles. Costs are student-friendly with the rates of rooms, housing, groceries, transportation, and healthcare lower than the U.S. average.

Percentage of College Students: 24.7% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 26.2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $528, One Bedroom – $632, Two Bedrooms – $776 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 79.2 (BestPlaces, nd)

9. Muncie, Indiana

Muncie, Indiana

Muncie City is the home of the Ball State University (BSU) while its population is often the subject of sociological studies in the country. It has a humid climate punctuated by warm mid-year months and snowy winters. In terms of economics, the city’s biggest job providers are in the fields of education, medical services, and manufacturing. On the cultural front, Muncie has an expansive museum that houses more than 11,000 art pieces, the David Owsley Museum of Art, and several large performance art centers, three of which are found in BSU.

One of the biggest advantages of staying in Muncie is its low cost of living. A person typically pays $821 annually for a studio room in the U.S. but in this city, the average cost is only $567, and the same goes for other room sizes. Similarly, expenses for groceries, health services, transportation, and utilities are cheaper than U.S. standard rates. Student communities are abundant in the city. Aside from BSU, Muncie also has Ivy Tech Community College. New learners will likely thrive under the aforementioned conditions.

Percentage of College Students: 23.4% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 28.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $567, One Bedroom – $570, Two Bedrooms – $750 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 71.9 (BestPlaces, nd)

10. Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is the second-most populous city in Wisconsin and has the highest population growth rate among all cities in the state (Hubbich, 2019). It is where notable institutions and attractions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Henry Vilas Zoo, and the Wisconsin State Capitol reside. Visitors to the city would be delighted by its geographical features, numerous commercial areas, and remarkable architecture. Summers are warm in Madison while the winter months receive snowfall.

A new student will likely enjoy Madison’s long list of attractions, from its array of tourist destinations to its commercial center, all the way to the city’s busy nightlife. It also helps that nearly 50,000 college students are in the area, thus allowing new learners to mix their studies with a healthy dose of leisure. Meeting adults during these excursions can also be a learning experience since 57.1% of them hold bachelor’s degrees. As far as payables are concerned, rent is a bit higher than in most cities but Madison’s low unemployment rate suggests that there are lots of professional opportunities for graduates.

Percentage of College Students: 20% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 15 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 31 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.1% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $859, One Bedroom – $1,029, Two Bedrooms – $1,209 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 100.6 (BestPlaces, nd)


1. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cambridge, Massachusetts

When it comes to academic pedigree, Cambridge is unmatched by any other city on the planet. It is home to two of the world’s most highly regarded universities, namely Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with the Hult International Business School and Lesley University. The city is also known for producing and giving a home to a sizable number of startups while attracting large corporations from various industries, including technology and pharmaceuticals. In addition, many non-profit organizations have taken root in the city.

Cambridge is an ideal destination for students and scholars alike, considering the high caliber of educational institutions. More than 75% of the adults in the city have obtained bachelor’s degrees while over a quarter of the city’s population is still in school. As such, creative and scholastic collaborations are in abundance for new students as well as possible career opportunities, given Cambridge’s low unemployment rate. The living expenses are high, but the average annual income of residents ($48,446) and the city’s median household income ($75,909) are much higher than the national averages. It will not take long for students to earn back what they spent on their education after graduating.

Percentage of College Students: 26.3% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 7 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 30.4 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 95.2% (YCharts, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $1,798, One Bedroom – $2,014, Two Bedrooms – $2,452 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 181.8 (BestPlaces, nd)


1. Gainesville, Florida

Gainesville, Florida

Located in Alachua County, Gainesville is North Central Florida’s biggest city. It is also home to the country’s fifth-biggest public university in terms of enrollment, the University of Florida. The city is characterized by its humid subtropical climate, numerous historic sites, and bustling music scene. Gainesville’s range of cultural points of interest is vast, from notable galleries and museums to theaters and art festivals. Meanwhile, the city has produced renowned musicians like The Eagles, Stephen Stills, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Having nine higher education institutions within its vicinity, Gainesville offers a lot of scholastic options to learners and likewise provides an abundance of entry points to the professional realm, with its low unemployment rate. Staying in the city is an affordable option because its room rates and other living costs are cheaper than similar offerings in most cities. Furthermore, the high ratio of students in the city makes for a healthy study-life balance for learners.

Percentage of College Students: 35.5% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 9 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 26 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 95.7% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $709, One Bedroom – $790, Two Bedrooms – $968 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 89.9 (BestPlaces, nd)

2. Greenville, North Carolina

Greenville, North Carolina

One of the more populous cities in North California, Greenville City boosts the entertainment, healthcare, and education sectors of the region. It was recognized by notable American publications for being conducive to business and as an ideal community for young people. Greenville is also known for its academic pedigree as it is home to notable higher education institutions like East Carolina University, Pitt Community College, and Vidant Medical Center. The city’s key industries include healthcare, manufacturing, and education.

Greenville’s low cost of living makes it an affordable choice for aspiring college students. For instance, rent for a one-bedroom unit is around $300 lower than the country’s average city rate. Transportation is likewise cheap compared to other parts of the country. Furthermore, Greenville has a fairly large student populace, which increases the likelihood of new students finding social and educational support from peers.

Percentage of College Students: 28.6% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 4 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 26.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $620, One Bedroom – $625, Two Bedrooms – $790 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 83.2 (BestPlaces, nd)

3. Tallahassee, Florida

Tallahassee, Florida

As the capital of the State of Florida, Tallahassee City is a commercial and agricultural hub that is home to numerous firms and trade associations, which include the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Bar. It has a number of notable colleges and universities, foremost of which are Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College. Several government offices, such as the Supreme Court of Florida and the Florida State Capitol, are likewise based in the city.

Even though Tallahassee is a large city, its student body comprises a significant chunk of the population, thanks to the nine colleges and universities in the area. This bodes well for new students since they can quickly forge bonds and form study groups. The cost of living is on the affordable side, with the rent slightly lower than the average rates in the country. Meanwhile, the transport duration is also lower than the standard times in most cities, reducing the likelihood of tardiness. Tallahassee’s low unemployment rate of 5.1% suggests that it is easy to find a job in the city.

Percentage of College Students: 28% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 9 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 26.6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $814, One Bedroom – $867, Two Bedrooms – $1,070 (BestPlaces, 2020)

Cost of Living Index: 93.8 (BestPlaces, 2020)

4. Athens-Clarke County, Georgia

Athens-Clarke County, Georgia

Athens-Clarke County is a city formed by the consolidated jurisdiction of Athens City and Clarke County. The college town is home to the University of Georgia and four other higher education institutions. Athens is considered a location of historic importance in the American music scene as the city is associated with artists like REM, Neutral Milk Hotel, and The B-52s. It also has a slew of attractions that includes several botanical gardens, Sandy Creek Park, and the “Tree That Owns Itself.”

Athens is a welcome place for tech startups, joined by established firms in the tech, music, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology industries. As such, the employment rate in the city is high, affording graduates a wide variety of career options. Remarkably, the cost of living is low as rental, transportation, health, and housing rates are far below the corresponding national averages. Meanwhile, the large concentration of students in the city allows learners to forge relationships that could benefit them socially and academically.

Percentage of College Students: 26.8% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 5 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.3% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $640, One Bedroom – $685, Two Bedrooms – $806 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 87.2 (BestPlaces, nd)

5. Fayetteville, Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas

Located in Washington County, Fayetteville takes its name from Fayetteville, Tennessee, and is the third-biggest city in Arkansas. Its most prominent higher education institution is the University of Arkansas, the largest university in the state. Supporters of the collegiate sports team Arkansas Razorbacks head to the city to watch games in the baseball, football, and basketball stadiums. Fayetteville has been recognized by American media for its livability and as a place for commerce. Its notable attractions include several historic districts, 70 parks, Fayetteville Square, and Dickson Street.

What makes Fayetteville stand out, however, is its low cost of living and strong economy. At $570 annually, the rate for a studio unit is far lower than the national average, and the gap between the two rates widens as the room size increases. A two-bedroom unit in Fayetteville is around the same price as studio units in other states at $790 while the U.S. average is $1,148. As for the economy, the city’s unemployment rate is at 2.9%, lower than the U.S. average. As such, graduates can find work in numerous industries, including food and beverage, accommodation, healthcare, education, retail, and manufacturing.

Percentage of College Students: 26% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 27.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 97.1% (BestPlaces, nd)

Average Rent: Studio – $570, One Bedroom – $610, Two Bedrooms – $790 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 92.9 (BestPlaces, nd)

6. Lynchburg, Virginia

Lynchburg, Virginia

Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountain’s foothills, Lynchburg is sometimes called “Hill City” or the “City of Seven Hills” given its geographic location. Postsecondary education in the city is offered by various institutions, which include the Virginia University of Lynchburg, the University of Lynchburg, and Liberty University. Recognized by publications as an ideal place for business, Lynchburg largely engages in retail, education services, healthcare, and manufacturing. Tourists often visit the city for its numerous attractions, such as the Crabtree Falls, the National D-Day Memorial, and the Smith Mountain Lake, among many others.

Furthermore, Lynchburg offers a student-friendly community with affordable costs, a low crime rate, and an educated populace. Transportation is cheap and quick, nine minutes faster than the national average of 26.4 minutes. Rent is likewise within reach financially as the standard room rates are far lower than those in most U.S. cities. Meanwhile, the employment rate is high, affording graduates a lot of career possibilities across multiple industries.

Percentage of College Students: 22.2% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 28.3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 95.2% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $588, One Bedroom – $650, Two Bedrooms – $805 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 82.9 (BestPlaces, nd)

7. Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Tuscaloosa is the fifth most populous city in Alabama and is the center for commerce, education, and industry of West Alabama. Its prominent postsecondary education institutions include the University of Alabama, Shelton State Community College, and Stillman College while key industries like government, manufacturing, retail, mining, and finance come as primary sources of employment. The city has numerous attractions that cater to a wide spectrum of interests, from arts and entertainment to culture and history.

Tuscaloosa is characterized by its strong economy as the commercial center of West Alabama. Graduates are presented with various career opportunities coming from the aforesaid industries and can open startups since the city’s population grants them sufficient foot traffic. Student expenses are lower here than in most places in the country, foremost of which are the affordable room rentals and transportation costs. New learners, on the other hand, can form friendships and student associations with the city’s large student populace.

Percentage of College Students: 21.4% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 4 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 28.6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 93.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $690, One Bedroom – $743, Two Bedrooms – $887 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 87.9 (BestPlaces, nd)


1. College Station, Texas

College Station, Texas

Located in Brazos County, College Station takes its name from its close proximity to one of the country’s biggest higher education institutions, Texas A&M University, which brings a sizable number of research projects to the city. It houses several locations of historic and cultural significance that students will appreciate, including the Museum of the American GI, the George Bush Library, and Bonfire Memorial. In addition, the city has a historic arboretum and a popular vineyard.

College Station, being the location of a particularly large university, owns a population where more than 40% are students. It will not take long for new learners to feel welcome, given the large student populace and the city’s low median age. Rent and other basic expenses are slightly lower than in other cities, foremost of which is the rent. At $721, a studio unit in College Station is nearly $100 cheaper than the national average ($821) (BestPlaces, nd), and the same goes for other room sizes. Finding work is also not a problem for graduates.

Percentage of College Students: 42.7% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 22.7 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 95.4% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $725, One Bedroom – $840, Two Bedrooms – $995 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 92.8 (BestPlaces, nd)

2. Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff, Arizona

Situated in Coconino County, Flagstaff is known for its seven historic sites, its close proximity to the Grand Canyon, and for being a distribution hub of multinational companies like Nestle and Purina. The industries of note for aspiring professionals include tourism, transportation, accommodation, government, and education. Higher education at Flagstaff is pursued in three institutions, with Northern Arizona University at the forefront. Other institutions include Flagstaff College and Coconino Community College. In regard to tourism, students can visit the South Rim, affording guests a picturesque view of the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon itself, which is around 80 miles from the city.

Flagstaff may have rising living costs, but it offers students a lot of areas and establishments targeted at youngsters, where they can increase their network and balance their studies with leisure. After all, the city’s median age is low and around 32% of the population is composed of students.

Percentage of College Students: 32% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 25.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 90.3% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $920, One Bedroom – $1,033, Two Bedrooms – $1,267 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 117 (BestPlaces, nd)

3. Tempe, Arizona

Tempe, Arizona

Located in Maricopa County, Tempe is known for being the home of the Arizona State University (ASU) and for having a thriving arts and culture sector. It features a lot of historic properties, public art, recreational and cultural events, and a music scene that produced notable artists the likes of Gin Blossoms, The Refreshments, and Meat Puppets. In regard to its economy, Tempe has an expansive State Farm branch, which is the city’s biggest employer along with ASU, and is the headquarters of the Fortune 500 company Insight Enterprises.

Having 16 higher education institutions, Tempe’s student contingent makes up nearly a quarter of the city’s total population. This means new students are highly likely to forge bonds with numerous like-minded individuals inside and outside school. Meanwhile, 43.6% of the adults in Tempe hold bachelor’s degrees (Stebbins, 2019), making it an educated city. The costs are slightly higher than in other parts of the country and the same goes for the unemployment rate, but it is projected to have a job growth rate of 49.9% over the next decade, which bodes well for future graduates.

Percentage of College Students: 23.7% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 16 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 28.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 93.2% (YCharts, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $890, One Bedroom – $1,038, Two Bedrooms – $1,285 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 108.1 (BestPlaces, nd)

4. Denton, Texas

Denton, Texas

Denton is known for its active music scene, large student population, and warm climate. It is the site of two prominent music festivals and a popular local fair, collectively attracting more than 300,000 guests each year. Postsecondary education in the city is administered by the University of North Texas, Texas Women’s University, and the Denton branch of North Texas Central College. Meanwhile, its predominant industries are educational services, health services, retail, and manufacturing. Besides the fair and festivals, tourists often visit Denton Square, the city’s bustling cultural hub.

Denton’s overall cost of living may be higher than the national average, but the transportation costs and the expenses for dining, entertainment, and basic commodities are actually lower. For a student, the central advantages of living in this city are its sizable student body and educated population. Not only are incoming learners able to boost their social and academic partnerships, but they can also find possible mentors or professional connections outside school. Although the employment rate is not as high as some of the other entries on this list, the city has more than enough opportunities in various industries to accommodate graduates.

Percentage of College Students: 21.9% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 29.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.7% (YCharts, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $860, One Bedroom – $1,020, Two Bedrooms – $1,238 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 97.1 (BestPlaces, nd)

5. Norman, Oklahoma

Norman, Oklahoma

Norman is Oklahoma’s third most populous city and is home to the University of Oklahoma (OU), the largest higher education institution in the state, and the National Weather Center. As such, the presence of the university has greatly increased the city’s student populace while the weather center paved the way for numerous private meteorological firms. Other research centers that study energy and geology are also found in the city. Since the OU has a popular sports team, fans attend games in the city’s array of sports stadiums. Meanwhile, art buffs get their fill of paintings and installations in Norman’s galleries.

Norman’s combination of low living costs, low unemployment rate, and the possibility to study at a prestigious university makes it an attractive option for potential students. Living spaces are cheaper than in most states while the annual job growth rate is at 2.6%, which benefits future graduates. There are a lot of industries that graduates can enter, including the academe, retail, healthcare, and food and beverages. The median age may be a bit high, but 42.1% of adults hold bachelor’s degrees, thus mentors and career opportunities are likely abundant.

Percentage of College Students: 21.8% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 3 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 30.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $634, One Bedroom – $686, Two Bedrooms – $864 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 89.4 (BestPlaces, nd)


1. Davis, California

Davis, California

Davis has the biggest population among all Yolo County cities and is the residence of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), which is the third-largest university in the University of California system in terms of enrollment. It hosts several festivals that attract tourists and students alike, such as the Whole Earth Festival, Celebrate Davis, and UC Davis’ Picnic Day. Art and culture aficionados can also join the Davis Transmedia Art Walk, a free tour to over 20 murals and 15 art galleries, and visit the Mondavi Center to watch notable performances.

Davis may only have one higher education institution but given UC Davis’ size, the university has pulled down the median age in the city and increased the ratio of students. The school is also Davis’ largest employer, influencing the city’s high employment rate. With this, graduates can find employment opportunities in the academe, food services, science-related fields, and retail. However, the costs are high across the board in Davis, thus planning the budget before entering any college or university is advised.

Percentage of College Students: 35.7% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 25.8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.8% (BestPlaces, nd)

Average Rent: Studio – $1,120, One Bedroom – $1,190, Two Bedrooms – $1,570 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 161 (BestPlaces, nd)

2. Provo, Utah

Provo, Utah

Provo is the third-biggest city in Utah and the biggest city in Utah County. It is known for being the location of Brigham Young University and for holding one of the country’s grandest Independence Day celebrations, America’s Freedom Festival at Provo. The city has a strong economy, powered by its bustling dining and retail industries. Students will enjoy Provo’s more than 100 restaurants, two shopping malls, and commercial centers. Other places of interest include the Covey Center for Arts, the Lakeside Storage Museum, and the Bridal Veil Falls.

Provo’s bullish economy lends to its low unemployment rate and future job growth rate of 48.5%, 15% higher than the national average. As such, graduates are almost assured to find jobs across multiple industries. With its eight higher education institutions, the city has a median age of 23.7 and a large concentration of college students, both of which can boost a student’s life in and out of campus. The cost of living may be a little higher than the standard rates, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Percentage of College Students: 32.9% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 8 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 23.7 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $640, One Bedroom – $737, Two Bedrooms – $847 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 105.7 (BestPlaces, nd)

3. Berkeley, California

Berkeley, California

East of San Francisco Bay is Berkeley City, known for being the home of one of the world’s top universities, the University of California-Berkeley, and one of the biggest institutions in the world for religious studies, the Graduate Theological Union. Berkeley is a liberal city and has a dynamic arts and culture scene. It has a generally warm climate, but temperatures go down to around 5 degrees Celsius at the end of the year. As for its business sector, the city’s job market is on the rise.

Home to almost 35,000 students, Berkeley is a melting pot of learners coming from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. This diversity benefits new students as they join groups and organizations that represent their particular interests, backgrounds, and/or beliefs. The city is home to a dozen higher education institutions, affording learners a lot of options. Meanwhile, the cost of living is on the pricy side, but staying in the city pays off for students in the long run, given its high employment rate.

Percentage of College Students: 29% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 12 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 31 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 96.8% (BestPlaces, nd)

Average Rent: Studio – $1,647, One Bedroom – $1,991, Two Bedrooms – $2,488 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 235.2 (BestPlaces, 2020)

4. Boulder, Colorado

Boulder, Colorado

Located near the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is known for its art, education, and health sectors as well as its high quality of life. It houses a prestigious university—the University of Colorado Boulder—while its average resident income of $37,406 is much higher than the national average. The city has a temperate climate with warm summers and snowy winters. It has a busy arts and culture scene, as it hosts its own philharmonic orchestra and a multitude of dance companies, on top of a music festival held in the city.

Boulder offers a college town atmosphere that welcomes learners of different lifestyles and interests. Due to the presence of six institutions of higher education, the city’s student body amounts to over 30,000, thus collaborative ventures between students of various campuses are possible. Rent is costly and so are basic necessities, but students can leverage the numerous career opportunities the city presents, evidenced by its high employment rate, to earn back the money they spent on their education.

Percentage of College Students: 28.6% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 28.6 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.8% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $1,287, One Bedroom – $1,412, Two Bedrooms – $1,725 (BestPlaces, 2020)

Cost of Living Index: 167.4 (BestPlaces, 2020)

5. Chico, California

Chico, California

Chico is Butte County’s most populous city and bears the nickname “City of Roses,” which suggests its dedication to urban and community forestry. It is also northern Sacramento Valley’s economic and education center, as it houses prominent sites like Bidwell Park and California State University, Chico. The city is typically associated with shopping by those in nearby regions given its range of malls and retailers. As such, the city has a booming retail industry as well as food services, hospitality, healthcare, and education.

While its cost of living and unemployment rate can be improved, Chico provides a big student community to new learners from which friendships, study groups, and student associations can be formed. The high rate of adults who have bachelor’s degrees (36.9%) also reinforces out-of-campus learning experiences and becomes a great source of professional opportunities. In addition, Chico has a projected future job growth rate of 36.6%, much to the benefit of future graduates.

Percentage of College Students: 20.8% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 29.9 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 92.6% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $830, One Bedroom – $917, Two Bedrooms – $1,173 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 117.4 (BestPlaces, nd)

6. Fort Collins, Colorado

Fort Collins, Colorado

Fort Collins is Colorado’s fourth most populous city and is the residence of postsecondary institutions like Colorado State University (CSU) and a campus of Front Range Community College. Much of the city’s art and culture scene is targeted at CSU students, with the university mandating school year residences for a significant chunk of its student body. As such, lots of festivals are hosted throughout the city. Cycling is also ingrained in the city’s culture as bicycles are a popular means of transport.

Given that the city’s art and culture scene is centered on students, Fort Collins is a worthwhile destination for new learners. The numerous events and the large concentration of university students in the area make for fun learning experiences. Moreover, a lot of the adults in Fort Collins can offer help in academics and provide career insights and opportunities since 53.6% of the adult population have graduated from college. The cost of living is on the pricey side, but the unemployment rate is low so graduates will not take long before they enter their first jobs.

Percentage of College Students: 20.6% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 5 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 29.2 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 94.9% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $956, One Bedroom – $1,098, Two Bedrooms – $1,342 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 118.3 (BestPlaces, nd)

7. Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham is Whatcom County’s most populous city and is home to nine higher education institutions, which include Western Washington University, Trinity Western University’s Bellingham campus, Bellingham Technical College, and Whatcom Community College. The city is a known tourist hotspot as it provides convenient access to the North Cascades and the San Juan Islands and has a slew of local attractions. As for its economy, the largest employers come from the medical, education, retail, accommodation, and food and beverage sectors. It has a future job growth rate of 41.7%, higher than the national average of 33.5%.

Bellingham, with its remarkable culture and topographical features, is an ideal destination for leisure and off-campus learning. For incoming students, it also helps that the city has a large concentration of college students with whom they can share gainful experiences. In addition, 43% of Bellingham adults finished college, making them potential sources of academic aid and career opportunities. The cost of living is generally expensive, but it is manageable since the room rates are lower than the national averages.

Percentage of College Students: 20.6% (Stebbins, 2019)

Number of Higher Education Institutions: 9 (Stebbins, 2019)

Median Age: 31.1 (Stebbins, 2019)

Employment Rate: 93.7% (BLS, 2020)

Average Rent: Studio – $777, One Bedroom – $843, Two Bedrooms – $1,100 (BestPlaces, nd)

Cost of Living Index: 121.7 (BestPlaces, nd)

Picking the Most Ideal College City

The place in which one elects to study has a profound effect on students as it influences the experiences that would go on to define one’s college life and, to some extent, career (Ashton College, nd). In fact, 88% of incoming college students find that the location of an institution is one of the most important factors in picking a university, just after the available programs, availability of financial aid, and how much the tuition costs (Fishman, 2015).

After all, students learn from experiences, and not just the books they read in school. There are many ways to study and not all of them take place on campus.

Each region in the country has its own set of ideal student cities, but should we consolidate them into a unified list, the one that comes out on top based on the concentration of students and employment rate would be Ames, Iowa (Stebbins, 2019; BLS, 2020). Having a large student concentration in the city benefits new students as socialization galvanizes action from learners, be it for getting acclimated with new surroundings, developing ideal study habits, or enriching their experiences as students and young adults. Meanwhile, a high employment rate benefits graduates since the city’s job market potentially offers the most career opportunities across a variety of industries. It also helps that 62.7% of adults in Ames have obtained bachelor’s degrees (Stebbins, 2019).

Of course, this does not mean that Ames is the best option on all counts. If we shift to cost of living as the primary determinant rather than the percentage of college students, the list would be vastly different, with Muncie, followed by Kalamazoo, being the top city given their low cost of living index and cheap room rates (BestPlaces, nd). At the end of the day, budgets can also dictate where one should study. Another factor is access to quality institutions, in which case Cambridge would be the most ideal since it is home to both Harvard and MIT.

All that said, determining one’s priorities and limits (financial, distance, etc.) as a student should come first before selecting a college city, or a higher education institution for that matter. In doing so, a learner’s journey toward a degree will be a rewarding one with no unnecessary pressure outside academics.



  1. Ashton College. (n.d.). Benefits of studying in cities. AshtonCollege.ca.
  2. BestPlaces. (n.d.). Cost of living. BestPlaces.net.
  3. BLS (2020, December 16). The Employment Situation — December 2020. Washington, DC: US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  4. CNN Money (2010, August). Best places to live. CNN Money.com.
  5. Florida, R. (2016, September 8). The reality of America’s college towns. Bloomberg.
  6. Hubbich, C. (2019, May 23). Census: Madison, suburbs top list of fastest-growing cities in Wisconsin. Madison.com.
  7. Fishman, R. (2015). College decisions survey. New America.
  8. Panizzon, D. (2014, October). Impact of geographical location on student achievement: Unpacking the complexity of diversity. Rethinking diversity in mathematics education: Towards inclusive practices, 41-61. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-05978-5_3
  9. Stebbins, S. (2019, September 22). College towns: Some of the best in the US include Athens, GA., and Ames, Iowa. USA Today.
  10. World Population Review. (n.d.). How many cities are in the US. WorldPopulationReview.com.
  11. YCharts. (2020, October). Denton, TX unemployment rate. YCharts.com.
  12. YCharts. (2020, October). Cambridge, MA unemployment rate. YCharts.com.
  13. YCharts. (2020, October). Norman, OK unemployment rate. YCharts.com.
  14. YCharts. (2020, October). Tempe, AZ unemployment rate. YCharts.com.

Newsletter & Conference Alerts

Research.com uses the information to contact you about our relevant content. For more information, check out our privacy policy.