The 25 best college towns and cities in the U.S.

From rent to employment options to the cost of a night out, see if your favorite college town makes the grade.

By Gael F. Cooper, Money Talks News

You don’t need to be an honors student to know that location greatly affects a student’s choice of college. Some want to be far enough away from home that Mom and Dad can’t just drop by on a Tuesday, but close enough to return for holidays or long weekends. Some want a college that thrums with the heartbeat of a bustling metropolis, where internships with major companies are nearby. Others want a spot where you can wander the entire downtown in an afternoon and Saturday football is the big event.

WalletHub analyzed more than 400 U.S. college locations of varying size, rating them on 30 key indicators of academic, social and economic opportunities for students. It looked at crime rates and cost of living, even examining the cost of a night of bowling and the number of food trucks per capita.

The town that nabbed their No. 1 ranking may not be the best choice for everyone, but this is a useful ranking for students and parents wrestling with this major decision.

25. Starkville, Mississippi

Starkville, Mississippi, isn’t a college-town household name, but maybe it should be. It’s home to Mississippi State University, the largest university in the state.

Rent here for a two-bedroom apartment is an affordable $800.

Starkville doesn’t score high for such big-city perks as food trucks or cafes, as you’d expect from a smaller population. But if you’re looking for a small-town Southern college experience, Starkville should be on your list.

24. Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, a midsize town, is capital of the Badger State and home to the University of Wisconsin’s main campus. Madison is just a few hours from bustling Chicago. As you might expect in a capital city, Madison offers plenty of activities and attractions to liven up students’ days, including festivals, breweries and a vibrant performing arts scene. You should expect to find a job if you stick around after graduation: Madison’s unemployment rate is just 2.3 percent.

23. Pittsburgh

Bustling Pittsburgh is home to a lengthy list of colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. A two-bedroom apartment is fairly affordable, at $896.

This western Pennsylvania city at the junction of three rivers ranked high (No. 17 out of over 400 cities) for its social environment, earning points for nightlife, cafes and shopping centers. It’s easy to get around without a car, and Pittsburgh scored well for accessibility: the percentage of workers who bike, walk or use public transportation.

22. St. Louis

St. Louis isn’t just a college town: the metropolis on the Mississippi River boasts more than 300,000 people, according to U.S. Census figures. Colleges here include Washington University, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The city ranks well for nightlife, breweries and sports clubs. And you can also get down to business: The city topped all others for entrepreneurial activity.

21. Salt Lake City

The capital city of the Beehive State, scenic Salt Lake City is also Utah’s higher-education capital. Colleges include Westminster College and the 1,500-acre University of Utah. Salt Lake City combines the amenities of a big city with the natural resources of its Western mountains location. The city also scores high for food trucks and cafes per capita. It’s also earned points for one of this survey’s more oddball scores –the average cost of a movie and bowling.

20. Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, home to the Ohio State University, is home to more than 870,000 people. And that’s not counting the surrounding metro area.

It’s no surprise that lively Columbus earns good scores for nightlife options and cafes per capita. If you like a big-city atmosphere, put OSU on your list.

19. College Station, Texas

The city of College Station, Texas, owes its name to the flagship campus of Texas A&M University (originally the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas).

Country singer Lyle Lovett attended A&M, and has reminisced how his dream of being a musician was nurtured there.

College Station can’t compete with such big cities as Seattle or Los Angeles for nightlife. But if you’re OK with a quieter life, jobs are plentiful. The city’s job-growth rate from 2014-2017 put it at No. 11 among the 400-plus cities surveyed.

18. Gainesville, Florida

Yearning for Florida heat and a solidly midsize city? Gainesville, home to the University of Florida as well as Santa Fe College, might be for you. More than half of its population is aged 18 to 35. Housing is relatively affordable, with the cost of a two-bedroom apartment at $948 a month, on average.

17. San Diego

Sunny San Diego, home to the University of California San Diego (shown above), San Diego State University and other schools, isn’t a cheap place to live. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in this popular beach city is pricey: $1,938, the highest among the top 25 cities.

But the lively region has great appeal in other ways, ranking high for its cafes, breweries and sports clubs, shopping centers, festivals and a category that WalletHub calls “attractions.”

16. Miami

If you choose to go to college in sunny Miami, don’t be surprised if your parents want to visit you over winter break.

Just a quarter of its population falls in the 18-to-35 age group, but this cosmopolitan city scores high for its nightlife, cafes, attractions, food trucks and shopping.

15. Atlanta

Historic Atlanta is the state capital and largest city in Georgia, ranking high for its shopping options, cafes and festivals.

It is home to dozens of colleges and universities, including the historically black schools Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.

The cost of an average two-bedroom apartment, at $1,106, is affordable for a big city.

And should students remain after graduation, they may have income to spend: Atlanta college grads’ earning potential averages $63,542, WalletHub finds.

On the other hand, student loan debt is relatively high, here, $29,309 per capita on average.

14. Los Angeles

Los Angeles? A college town?

The City of Angels is better known for its entertainment and music industries, sunny weather and tangled traffic.

But those seeking an urban college experience with West Coast style while attending such campuses as UCLA (shown above), the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University may find themselves singing along with Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.”

The city scores high for attractions, cafes, food trucks and other social benefits.

Still, you’d better hope to sell your screenplay or hit record soon: The average rent is $1,791 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Even going out for burgers and bowling is expensive, compared with prices in smaller, less glamorous college towns.

13. Orem, Utah

Speaking of smaller towns, hello there, Orem, home to Utah Valley University (shown), among other schools.

Scenic Orem marches to a quieter, calmer beat. Its nightlife and cafe scores are accordingly lower.

But you can rent a two-bedroom apartment for $862, on average, and enjoy the low unemployment rate and the area’s high rate of job growth.

12. Storrs, Connecticut

Storrs, Connecticut, isn’t as well-known as many places on this list, but since it’s home to the University of Connecticut, this town does college with a capital C.

In Storrs, 96.41 percent of the population is single, and 90.76 percent are in the 18-to-35 age bracket.

Despite all those young people, Storrs doesn’t earn great marks for cafes and nightlife, however. And while the town has many part-time jobs, the median part-time income here is just $3,502.

11. Seattle

The state of Washington’s Emerald City is home to the University of Washington (shown above), Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University, among other schools.

Seattle offers the benefits of a big city (internships at Microsoft or Amazon, for example) with the natural beauty and mountains that win the Pacific Northwest high praise.

As you may know, Seattle isn’t cheap. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,899.

But if you can save your pennies, there are plenty of ways to spend them, as Seattle ranks high for food trucks, festivals, cafes and breweries and other indicators of a fun student life.

10. Las Vegas

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is just outside the Vegas city limits, as is the College of Southern Nevada. And the University of Phoenix has a campus here.

You’ll never get bored if Vegas is your college town. The shopping, nightlife, cafes and festivals rank high, of course.

A two-bedroom apartment rents for $979 a month, on average.

Still, Vegas will always feel less like a college town than many others. One reason: Students don’t dominate the city as they do in many other college towns; fewer than a quarter of residents here are ages 18 to 35.

9. Scottsdale, Arizona

The economic climate of Scottsdale, Arizona, home to Scottsdale Community College (whose mascot, incidentally, is Artie, the artichoke) and Arizona’s branch of the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, is as bright as the city’s sunshine.

Among the city’s attractions: low unemployment and a high job-growth rate. Housing costs are midrange: A two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,073, on average.

Salaries are high, too, with a median income of $24,119 for part-time workers and an earning potential for college grads of $70,775. The city ranks high in this survey for the number of its shopping centers, sports clubs and festivals.

8. West Lafayette, Indiana

West Lafayette, Indiana, is home to Purdue University and its approximately 31,000 undergraduate college students.

The city ranks high for students per capita, for residents ages 18 to 35 and for its share (78 percent) of single residents.

The crime rate here is low. Job growth is high, but salaries aren’t especially impressive, with median part-time income just $5,757, and the earning potential for college grads averaging $45,327.

7. Tampa, Florida

Sunny Tampa is one of four Florida cities (including Miami, Orlando and Gainesville) in this survey’s top 25 college towns.

Tampa is home to the main campus of the University of South Florida (shown above), the private University of Tampa and other schools.

Tampa scores fairly high for its activities and social life, including festivals, cafes, food trucks and shopping.

Rent costs are moderate, at $1,133 for an average two-bedroom apartment. The median income for part-time workers is $12,963.

6. Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Stevens Point, close to the center of the Badger State, is home to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (shown above). A campus of Mid-State Technical College is nearby.

As you might expect for a small Wisconsin town, Stevens Point doesn’t boast the numbers of cafes, breweries and attractions as larger cities. But it makes up for that in other ways.

It has, for example, the lowest average rent for a two-bedroom apartment: $716.

Local salaries are low: The average earning potential for college graduates is $46,296, and for part-time workers, it’s $10,246.

5. Rexburg, Idaho

Rexburg, Idaho, is another college town that might not sound familiar, but it is home to a campus of Brigham Young University. One of the town’s landmarks is the Rexburg Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (pictured above), adjacent to the university campus.

Rexburg’s affordability helped it soar into the top five towns in this study. Average for a two-bedroom apartment is just $728. Student loan debt is low, averaging $12,258 per person.

Don’t come to Rexburg to party, though. The city scores low in such areas as nightlife options, cafes and attractions.

4. Provo, Utah

Bravo for Provo! The Utah city that’s home to Brigham Young University and the BYU Cougars ranks fourth, overall, among the nation’s best college towns.

The natural environment here certainly helps. Provo is bordered by Utah Lake and the mountains of the Wasatch Range.

It also rings up points for the thrifty student life: Provo’s average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $862, and the average student-loan debt per person is fairly low, too, at $13,856.

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Coming in third overall is Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city, home to more than 46,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students at the University of Michigan, is an ideal modern American college town.

Ann Arbor has a decent number of attractions, with breweries, cafes and shopping centers. Part-time workers earn an average of $18,140, higher than in many college towns.

With its beautiful, historic campus and enormous Big House, aka Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor strives to have it all.

2. Orlando, Florida

You may think of Orlando for its theme parks. But this sunny central Florida city gets high marks for higher education, too.

The enormous University of Central Florida boasts more than 68,000 students, making it one of the biggest universities in the nation.

Orlando outranks other towns in the WalletHub study for its social life, including lots of cafes, nightlife, food trucks, breweries, shopping centers and sports clubs.

1. Austin, Texas

Austin, state capital and home of the University of Texas (shown above), among numerous other colleges, took first place in WalletHub’s study of great college towns.

Sunny weather, tasty barbecue and the lively nightlife of bar-filled Sixth Street may have helped. The monthly rent in Austin averages $1,315 — not cheap. But the city ranks high for great social amenities — the nightlife, breweries, cafes and shopping that this survey looks at. Potential earnings for college graduates average $58,137, and part-time workers earn $15,443, on average. Unemployment is just under 3 percent, and the rate of job growth is good, too, at about 3 percent.


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Career Magazine: The 25 best college towns and cities in the U.S.
The 25 best college towns and cities in the U.S.
From rent to employment options to the cost of a night out, see if your favorite college town makes the grade.
Career Magazine
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