The best college towns in America


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With many colleges opting to go back to in-person 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.

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

Yet even as 10% of colleges transition to fully online learning, college towns still hold a nostalgic place in American culture. To rank America’s 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)

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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 (about 3x): The median student loan principal amount at the time of repayment (typically about 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 ( about 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.

Image Credit: jacoblund.

50. Golden, Colorado

Colleges: Colorado School of Mines

Image Credit: knowlesgallery / iStock.

49. Ames, Iowa

Colleges: Iowa State University

Image Credit: C5Media / iStock.

48. Lexington, Kentucky

Colleges: University of Kentucky

Image Credit: ehrlif /iStock.

47. Columbia, South Carolina

Colleges: University of South Carolina-Columbia, Benedict College, Columbia College

Image Credit: Kruck20 / istockphoto.

46. Lexington, Virginia

Colleges: Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute

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45. Clemson, South Carolina


Clemson University

Image Credit: Jim Brown / iStock.

44. Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Colleges: Louisiana State University, Southern University and A & M College

Image Credit: ReDunnLev / iStock.

43. New Brunswick, New Jersey

Colleges: Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Image Credit: luvemakphoto / iStock.

42. Norman, Oklahoma

Colleges: University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus

Image Credit: Wolterk / iStock.

41. Notre Dame, Indiana

Colleges: University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College

Image Credit: Aaron Yoder / iStock.

40. Tucson, Arizona

Colleges: University of Arizona

Image Credit: Wolterk / iStock.

39. Minneapolis

Colleges: Dunwoody College of Technology, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Augsburg University

Image Credit: AlexiusHoratius.

38. La Jolla, California

Colleges: University of California-San Diego, National University

Image Credit: InnaPoka / istockphoto.

37. Provo, Utah

Colleges: Brigham Young University

Image Credit: Brigham Young University, Laie, Hawaii.

36. Rolla, Missouri

Colleges: Missouri University of Science and Technology

Image Credit: Adavidb / Wiki Commons.

35. Blacksburg, Virginia

Colleges: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Image Credit: ablokhin/ iStock.

34. Columbia, Missouri

Colleges: University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia College, Stephens College

Image Credit: Columbia College, Columbia, Mo..

33. Bloomington, Indiana

Colleges: Indiana University-Bloomington

Image Credit: Wardsr .

32. Tallahassee, Florida

Colleges: Florida State University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Image Credit: RAUL RODRIGUEZ/ iStock.

31. Stillwater, Oklahoma

Colleges: Oklahoma State University

Image Credit: Wolterk / iStock.

30. College Park, Maryland

Colleges: University of Maryland-College Park

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29. Madison, Wisconsin

Colleges: Edgewood College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Herzing University-Madison

Image Credit: University Of Wisconsin-Madison.

28. Newark, Delaware

Colleges: University of Delaware

Image Credit: w:User talk:Cargoudel / Wiki Commons.

27. Iowa City, Iowa

Colleges: University of Iowa

Image Credit: C5Media / iStock.

26. Los Angeles

Colleges: University of California-Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Occidental College, Loyola Marymount University, California State University-Los Angeles, Mount Saint Mary’s University

Image Credit: Laser1987 / iStock.

25. Eugene, Oregon

Colleges: University of Oregon

Image Credit: joshuaraineyphotography / iStock.

24. Athen, Georgia

Colleges: University of Georgia

Image Credit: SeanPavonePhoto/ iStock.

23. Ithaca, New York

Colleges: Ithaca College, Cornell University

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22. Boulder, Colorado

Colleges: University of Colorado Boulder

Image Credit: twilightproductions / istockphoto.

21. Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Colleges: Shepherd University

Image Credit: Acroterion / Wiki Commons.

20. College Station, Texas

Colleges: Texas A & M University-College Station

Image Credit: Michael Barera.

19. Davis, California

Colleges: University of California-Davis

Image Credit: AlessandraRC / iStock.

18. East Lansing, Michigan

Colleges: Michigan State University

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17. Oxford, Mississippi

Colleges: University of Mississippi

Image Credit: Kirkikis / iStock.

16. University Park, Pennsylvania

Colleges: Pennsylvania State University

Image Credit: drnadig / iStock.

15. Fairfax, Virginia

Colleges: George Mason University

Image Credit: Nicolas Tan/Creative Services/George Mason University / Wiki Commons.

14. Evanston, Illinois

Colleges: Northwestern University

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13. Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Colleges: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Image Credit: Wikipedia / Pilotguy.

12. Morgantown, West Virginia

Colleges: West Virginia University

Image Credit: catnap72 / iStock.

11. West Lafayette, Indiana

Colleges: Purdue University

Image Credit: akrassel / istockphoto.

10. Gainesville, Florida

Colleges: University of Florida, Santa Fe College

Image Credit: WillMcC .

9. Champaign, Illinois

Colleges: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Image Credit: Killivalavan Solai.

8. Berkeley, California

Colleges: University of California-Berkeley

Image Credit: Kirkikis / iStock.

7. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Colleges: Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lesley University

Image Credit: Ario Barzan .

6. Ann Arbor, Michigan

Colleges: University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Image Credit: User: (WT-shared) Jha4ceb at wts wikivoyage.

5. Charlottesville, Virginia

Colleges: University of Virginia

Image Credit: Bestbudbrian .

4. Princeton, New Jersey

Colleges: Princeton University

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3. Pasadena, California

Colleges: California Institute of Technology

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2. Williamsburg, Virginia

Colleges: William & Mary

Image Credit: Jrcla2 / Public domain.

1. Stanford, California

Colleges: Stanford University


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