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The college experience is about more than simply hitting the books during the day and sleeping in a dorm at night. It's also about expanding horizons, gaining new perspectives and, of course, making memories with friends on the weekends.
That's why college towns are so important. They complement a student's education by providing the opportunity to learn, volunteer and engage with the world around them. The best college towns provide plenty of avenues to unwind after classes, and an economic climate that may provide the right launching pad for a career after graduation.
To find the best college towns, we analyzed data from 170 communities with populations of fewer than 150,000 residents. At that size, cities are big enough to offer plenty of amenities but small enough that students don't get lost in the crowd. We looked at factors that are important to college students right now — such as entertainment options and the number of young adults living in the community — as well as those things that may be important later, like the unemployment rate and median cost to rent. You can see our full methodology below.
Once the numbers were crunched and cities scored, the following emerged as the best college towns in America.
Ithaca, New York
When it comes to the best college towns, none is better than Ithaca. The community has a vibrant population of young adults who are drawn to the area for its entertainment options, outdoor beauty and, of course, quality higher education possibilities.
Cornell University, with its storied history and a member of the Ivy League, enrolls nearly 22,000 students each year. Meanwhile, Ithaca College typically has more than 6,500 students in its programs. Regardless of where they attend classes, students come together for uniquely Ithaca events including the Ithaca Festival that features an outside chili cook-off held in the dead of winter. They also enjoy the city's art scene, world-class dining and diverse culture.
Ithaca consistently ranks in the top third of all the schools in our rankings. Additionally, Students have a good reason to stay in the area after graduation. As a percentage of median incomes, rental rates in Ithaca rank sixth for affordability. The community's high-quality public school system also makes this a great place for graduates to lay down roots and raise a family.
Mankato takes the number two spot on this list, not only because of the amenities it offers to current students but also for its jobs potential after graduation. The school ranks highly of 170 communities for its low unemployment rate. It also does very well for the short commute of its workers.
Minnesota State University, Mankato is the largest institution of higher education in the city, but it's not the only choice. Students can also attend South Central College or Bethany Lutheran College. Rasmussen College, known for offering online and blended degree programs, also maintains a campus in Mankato.
Between classes, students can enjoy the city's 900 acres of parks and recreation areas, including extensive trails. That's one reason Mankato ranks 17th for its walkability score.
Home to Montana State University, Bozeman has the most educated population among the college towns surveyed. Nearly a third of those aged 25 or older have at least a bachelor's degree. That gives Bozeman the top rank for that metric.
A well-educated population isn't the only thing this Rocky Mountain city has going for it. Downtown Bozeman is a destination for shopping, dining and the arts. There, students will find farmer's markets, music and live radio theater. The Music on Main summer concert series is a perennial favorite as are the weekly Lunch on the Lawn events. When you factor in the number of dining options available, Bozeman ranks second for entertainment.
Minot, North Dakota
Minot State University offers an affordable education to students in North Dakota, and its namesake city helps enhance the experience. Located in the north-central part of the state, Minot has a dynamic nightlife, numerous outdoor recreation options and plenty of museums and galleries.
What's more, Minot embraces its Scandinavian roots with an annual Norsk Hostfest. The annual event promises students, residents and visitors an authentic Nordic adventure, complete with cultural classes, dining and shopping centered on the heritage of five countries. The city also has a Scandinavian Heritage Park for those who want to revisit the culture year round.
Once they have their degree, students may find Minot an attractive place to stay after graduation. It has a very low unemployment rate among the surveyed college towns.
Students heading to Fort Lewis College in Durango will find an eclectic community to greet them. Although known as a retirement destination, a good percentage of its population falls within the ages of 20-34. The mix of young and old give the city a unique flavor that translates into a diverse learning environment.
Durango ranks very well for the number of those aged 25 or older who have at least a bachelor's degree. Among the things to do in town are the Snowdown Festival held every January and Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in May. During the rest of the year, students can hit the great outdoors, take in cultural events or enjoy one of the city's many dining hotspots.
After graduation, many students opt to stay in Durango. Indeed, many of the business and government leaders in the area are Fort Lewis College alumni.
Missoula attracts more than 13,000 students each year to western Montana. They come to attend the University of Montana and its Missoula College. UM helps draw a diverse population the city and helps make Missoula a dynamic community in which to live and work.
The city ranks highly for the percentage of its population older than age 25 that holds at least a bachelor's degree. It takes the 12th spot for the short commute of workers and comes in ninth for its entertainment score. Missoula has a number of museums, parks and other recreation opportunities. Lolo National Forest is located nearby, and the city can boast of a vibrant downtown district as well.
Students looking for an out- of- the- ordinary college experience may want to head to Juneau. The capital of Alaska is a small town that feels big. There is a thriving food, theater, music and arts scene as well as no shortage of natural features such as glaciers, islands and streams. The city is located within the Tongass National Forest, what some call the ultimate outdoor playground.
The University Alaska Southeast is located in Juneau and many of its academic programs make use of the school’s prime location near the ocean, glaciers and forests. A robust internship program helps students prepare to enter the workforce after graduation.
Juneau ranks in the top ten among surveyed schools for the number of those aged 25 or older who have a bachelor’s degree. It also ranks sixth for its entertainment options.
Brookings, South Dakota
Brookings is a young, well-educated city that has plenty to offer, both in terms of employment and entertainment. A third of the city's population is between 20-34 years of age, ranking it seventh for that metric. Brookings also ranks second for the percentage of those age 25 or older who have at least a bachelor's degree.
Home to South Dakota State University, Brookings has an ideal location for students who will soon be looking for employment. Its location along the I-29 corridor puts it in proximity to many different industries. The city also offers lakes, biking paths and parks for outdoor recreation. Each summer, the Brookings Summer Arts Festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors.
Other notable aspects of Brookings include its unemployment rate - the third lowest among surveyed communities - and the short commute times for many workers in the city.
Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Stevens Point is a small city in Wisconsin that provides students with plenty to do when they aren't studying. The city's downtown hosts an impressive number of shops, restaurants and art galleries. There is a Wine Walk in the summer, Fall Festival in the autumn and Holiday Parade in the winter.
Stevens Point is also close to many larger, energetic towns. Less than 250 miles away, is located cities like Chicago, Minneapolis and Madison. Additionally, the city has amazing views and is located right on the Wisconsin River.
The University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point is the main institution of higher learning in the city. However, Mid-State Technical College also has a campus here.
For these rankings, Stevens Points came in eighth for both walkability and entertainment.
The City of Ames and Iowa State University go hand-in-hand. The school is the major institution of higher learning in the area and brings an enrollment of more than 36,000 students to the community. As a result, the school and the city work collaboratively to create a friendly and supportive environment for students and residents alike.
Iowa State has one of the largest campus public art collections in the nation which nicely complements the robust arts and culture scene in Ames. There is also a jointly owned ice arena as well as opportunities for outdoor recreation both on-campus and off. Shopping and dining are available both on Main Street and in Campustown.
Ames is young, ranking highly for the percentage of its population that falls between the ages of 20-34. It also is highly competitive for the percentage of those aged 25 or older who have at least a bachelor's degree. After graduation, Ames remains an appealing place to live. It ranks in the top ten out of 170 communities when it comes to the availability of affordable rental housing.
Flagstaff is not your typical Arizona city and that may be why it is a top choice for tourists, residents and students alike. The four-season city is known for its comfortably warm weather in the summer and a dedicated ski season in the winter. Extending 50 miles, the Flagstaff Urban Trails System offers scenic views around every corner for bikers, hikers and walkers.
Northern Arizona University is the largest higher education institution in the city, but Coconino Community College also calls Flagstaff home. When not in class, students from both schools enjoy the city's microbreweries and restaurants, native culture and numerous festivals. Zip lines run through Flagstaff's pine forest - the largest contiguous one in the world - and the Pine Cone Drop rings in the New Year.
The city made this list of best college towns, in part, because of it entertainment options and low rents. Flagstaff ranks tenth for entertainment and in the top five for the median cost of renting, as a percentage of median incomes.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Morgantown is one of the best college towns for both two-year and four-year degree programs. West Virginia University is based here and provides undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 28,000 students on its Morgantown campus. Meanwhile, West Virginia Junior College and Monongalia County Technical Education Center offer associate degrees and technical training.
Higher-ed students travel to Morgantown from across the country to start or to complete their education. They come for the quality programs offered by area schools as well as the charm of the city. Among other things, Morgantown is known for its historic downtown and its walkability, for which it ranks ninth in this survey.
Students in Lawrence can choose from several specialty schools, including Haskell Indian Nations University, Pinnacle Career Center and WellSpring School of Allied Health. However, the vast majority come to the city for the University of Kansas, or KU as it is commonly called.
KU enrolls more than 28,000 students, and its main campus in Lawrence is conveniently situated between Topeka and Kansas City. However, students don't need to head to the big city for a good time. Instead, Lawrence offers everything from eclectic shops, farm-to-table dining and, of course, Jayhawk athletics.
In this survey of best college towns, Lawrence ranks in the top five for the percentage of young adults living in the city as well as for the percentage of those age 25 or older who have a bachelor's degree. It ranks highly for affordable rents and 14th for entertainment.
Forget your preconceived notions of Kansas being flat and dry. Manhattan is located in the Flint Hills and the 19-mile Tuttle Creek Lake is nearby. It's also surprising in other ways. Among all 170 cities surveyed this small town in the middle of the heartland ties for having the youngest population. Nearly 38 percent of Manhattan residents fall in the 20-34 year old age range. The city also ranks in the top ten for the number of residents older than age 25 who have a bachelor's degree.
Kansas State University is the main institution of higher learning in Manhattan. Known as K State, the school brings 24,000 students to the community each year. Manhattan Christian College and Manhattan Area Technical College are the other post-secondary education choices in the city.
Students converge on Aggieville, a 100-year-old shopping district, for coffee during the day and the bar scene at night. It's a central gathering point for not only current students but alumni when they return to town. Manhattan also has great zip lines, outdoor entertainment and the Cowboy Stampede, a three-day concert by the lake.
Tucked into the southwest corner of Vermont, Bennington offers an exceptional college experience for those who want a small-town atmosphere. The downtown is walkable, and there is a vibrant arts and culture scene. There are green spaces for hiking, biking, swimming and skiing. The Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests are nearby as well.
Like its community namesake, Bennington College is small and unique. The school has a strong focus on the arts but also requires all students to complete an internship to ensure they have real-world work experience prior to graduation.
Bennington ranks 12th for entertainment and very highly for the percentage of adults older than age 25 who have a bachelor's degree. The city also ranks in the top 10 percent for its median rent as compared to the median income in the area. That means it offers an affordable option for those who want to live in New England but are hoping to avoid sky-high rents.
Home to Oklahoma State University and Northern Oklahoma College, Stillwater scores high for the affordable living it offers to its large population of young adults. With more than a third of its overall population falling between the ages of 20-34, the city ranks fourth for its youthfulness. Stillwater also ranks well for the median rent charged in the city as compared to its residents' median income.
From wine bars to honky-tonk clubs, Stillwater has a diverse night scene. Music also plays a significant role in Stillwater, and the Red Dirt genre got its start here. The annual Calf Fry Festival, featuring three days of music, is a particular hit with college students.
Stillwater isn't only a great place to go to school. Thanks to a low crime rate and an affordable cost of living, college students may decide to make the city their permanent home.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is the major player in the higher education scene of this city. However, La Crosse also hosts campuses for Viterbo University and Western Technical College as well as an office of Kaplan University which is known for its online degree programs.
Located on the Mississippi River, La Crosse has seemingly endless outdoor recreation options. Students also crowd into the downtown for its music, arts and restaurants. La Crosse's many festivals include one of the largest Oktoberfest events in the country. However, ask any resident about the town's best feature and you're likely to hear it's the hospitable people who call the community home.
For this survey, La Crosse had solid scores across all metrics. It ranked particularly high for both its entertainment options and low unemployment rate.
Located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Houghton welcomes 7,000 students from 60 countries who arrive each year to attend Michigan Tech University. Residents may also attend Finlandia University located in Hancock just across the Portage Canal from Houghton. Gogebic Community College has a satellite campus in the city as well.
Regardless of which school they attend, students have no shortage of activities to enjoy in Houghton. Almost all the area waterfront is open to the public, and an impressive bike trail system runs through the city. There are microbreweries, live music venues and festivals scheduled throughout the year.
When it comes to jobs, The MTEC SmartZone is an organization working to bring high-tech employment to the area. Houghton ranks fifth among 170 communities for the short commute of its workers and 11th for its entertainment score.
Pullman is home to both Washington State University and Spokane Falls Community College, making it a good choice for both two-year and four-year degree seekers. As a PAC12 school, WSU sports are a popular entertainment option in the city. Plus, there are restaurants, arts and a trail system that runs through scenic community. A-list comedians and musicians are known to make Pullman one of their stops.
Students will find they are in good company in the city. Pullman ties with Manhattan, Kansas, for having the largest percentage of its population within the 20-34 year old demographic. The city also nabs the top spot for affordable rents. As a percentage of median incomes in the area, its median rental rate is among the lowest of the 170 surveyed cities.
After graduation, students may just decide to stay in Pullman. It's a safe town that offers plenty of job opportunities through its local businesses.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, Rapid City is a town that pulls in visitors from across the country. Many are there to see nearby Mount Rushmore or visit the Badlands, but others are drawn by the city's revitalized downtown and outdoor recreation areas. Thanks to those, as well as a thriving arts and food scene, Rapid City is one of the best college towns in the country.
Rapid City is home to a number of colleges and universities: South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, National American University, Western Dakota Technical Institute and John Witherspoon College. Black Hills State University also maintains a campus in Rapid City.
The city's low unemployment rate is one factor propelling Rapid City up in the rankings. It came in sixth for that metric and is why many students choose to remain in the area after they earn their degree. SD Mines, for instance, has a placement rate of 96 percent, and many graduates work in South Dakota for companies such as 3M, Daktronics and RESPEC.
Idaho Falls, Idaho
Idaho Falls garnered solid rankings in the areas of walkability and employment, landing in the top twenty for both those metrics. This city is a great place to be outdoors with over 30 parks available to residents.
Idaho Falls also ranked in the top third of the survey for its commute times, affordable housing and the percentage of residents age 25 or older who have a bachelor's degree.
The University of Idaho maintains a campus in Idaho Falls, and the city is home to Eastern Idaho Technical College, a two-year school. Stevens Henager College also offers degree programs in Idaho Falls.
As the largest city in eastern Idaho, Idaho Falls offers a range of cultural and outdoor activities for students to enjoy. It is also home to the War Bonnet Roundup, the state's oldest rodeo.
Keene, New Hampshire
New England provides a beautiful setting in which to study, and Keene is no exception. Located in southwest New Hampshire, the city is both progressive and charming. Keene State College is part of the state's public university system while the private Antioch University New England also holds classes in the city.
Students will find Keene to be a highly walkable community, and the city ranks 10th for that metric. There are numerous bike paths, and the center square in its historic downtown has been renowned as one of the nation's top public spaces. As a testament to its progressive nature, a herd of goats serve as lawnmowers at the closed municipal landfill.
When not studying, students can dine or shop in one of the city's eclectic businesses, visit the farmer's market or take in some live music.
Fairbanks is another city where students should feel right at home. Nearly 30 percent of the population falls between the ages of 20-34, ranking it 14th on the survey for that age group. However, a large group of peers isn't the only reason students might gravitate toward Fairbanks. It is also one of the best college towns when it comes to affordable room and board. It has solid rankings for its median rent as a percentage of median earnings.
Besides its college feel, people from all over the world travel to Fairbanks to view the famous aurora borealis. Additionally, Fairbanks residents enjoy dog mushing, relaxing in natural hot springs and viewing natural beauty and wildlife.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is the college in town, and is the northernmost land, sea and space grant university in the country. Also, UAF has two lakes and many hiking trails for students to experience the outdoors in addition to classroom study. Students enrolled can select from 180 degree and certificate programs and benefit from an affordable in-state tuition rate.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Home to Colorado Mountain College, Glenwood Springs has the distinction of earning the number one rank for entertainment among the 170 cities surveyed. That means students in this town should have no shortage of options when they are ready for a night out. Plus, there are hot springs to enjoy, caves to explore and four seasons of outdoor recreation.
Glenwood Springs ranks in the top 10 for the percentage of its population older than age 25 that has at least a bachelor's degree. The city may also be a good place to settle after graduation given its affordable housing and great employment rank. It comes in the top five percent for the median cost of rent as a percentage of median earnings, and top 10 percent for employment.
Cheyenne rounds out this list of best college towns. The largest city in Wyoming is synonymous with rugged beauty, cowboy culture and the spirit of the Old West. It is home to the world's largest outdoor rodeo, and its annual Frontier Days is the highlight of the year for many visitors and residents.
Laramie County Community College offers two-year degree programs in the city. Other institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, maintain a campus in the community but offer online degree programs as well. Among its other notable aspects, Cheyenne ranks third for its commute times. Ninety percent of its commuters spend less than 30 minutes getting to work each day.
Cheyenne also boasts a vibrant art community hosting over 45 arts and cultural organizations. This city also has just about everything a college student would want from museums and movie theaters, to over 150 restaurants and bars.
We ranked 170 U.S. metropolitan areas that have populations under 150,000 and are home to at least one 4-year college or university, based on 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics. Colleges whose courses were offered exclusively online were excluded from the list. Each city was ranked on a 20-point scale on the following seven factors:
- The population aged 18-34, American Community Survey, 2015
- The population with a bachelor’s degree, American Community Survey, 2015
- Median annual rent per median annual earnings, American Community Survey, 2015
- City unemployment rate, American Community Survey, 2015
- Percent of commuters whose average travel time is less than 30 minutes, American Community Survey, 2017
- Walkability, based on WalkScore.com data supplied by Redfin, 2015
- The number of bars and restaurants per 10,000 residents, County Business Patterns, 2015
We limited the results to two cities per state, taking the two highest-ranked cities and skipping any additional ones in to create our final list of the top 25.