All fifty states lay claim to iconic colleges. But where are the best college towns?
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Big cities house colleges like they house sports teams or neighborhoods: as facets of local culture. A true college town is one that’s synonymous with its college or university. In these spots, students form a significant share of the population — at least from fall to spring.
College towns go to seed every summer and hum back to life come autumn. It’s this student-centric community that enlivens these out-of-the-way burgs. The best college towns are all about students, yet are places young people want to live even after graduation.
10 Best College Towns and Cities in America
The following college towns get straight As for charm, amenities, and outdoor recreation. Each contains a major university whose students make up a sizable percentage of the town’s total population.
The best college towns are tightly knit to their college, with lots of interaction, identification, and school spirit. While most private colleges are expensive and pull the bulk of their students from out-of-state and abroad, leading to a greater “town and gown” divide, public colleges tend to represent their state. For this reason, we focused on state schools in town settings.
We used search tools provided by the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to turn up all four-year, bachelor’s-degree-granting public institutions in towns, rather than urban, suburban, or rural environments. We vetted the results based on college reputation alongside town size, features, and liveability.
Data Note: Student population as percentage of town population is an estimate calculated by dividing each local college’s fall 2022 enrollment by the United States Census Bureau’s July 2022 population estimate for that town.
1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
- Biggest College: University of Michigan
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 51,225
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 41%
Ann Arbor, a beautiful town in what was once the countryside west of Detroit, is dominated by the University of Michigan. Michigan’s flagship university claims nearly a quarter of downtown property.
The city has it all: arts and culture, riverside recreation (the Huron sweeps through the city center on its way to Lake Erie), and the positive growth outlook of a tech hub.
2. Corvallis, Oregon
- Biggest College: Oregon State University
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 35,239
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 57%
In the heart of the Willamette Valley, Corvallis is a charming town with bike-friendly streets, a strong brewery culture, and year-round mild temperatures.
Oregon State University, smaller and more rural in character than its counterpart, the nearby University of Oregon, is nevertheless the largest college in the state by area and one of just three institutions nationwide to hold land, sun, sea and space grant memberships.
3. Bozeman, Montana
- Biggest College: Montana State University
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 16,688
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 30%
In consolation for selecting nearby Helena as the state capital, Montana’s founders chose Bozeman for its agricultural college, today’s Montana State University.
Both the city and the school have seen massive growth in recent decades, which means a bustling downtown and campus quad. Still, the wild and free Rocky Mountain atmosphere prevails, making Bozeman a paradise for outdoorsy students.
4. San Luis Obispo, California
No town on the California coast can be considered remote or economically dependent on any one school. But San Luis Obispo, a surprisingly small town halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is the Golden State’s version of a college town.
Historic, eclectic, and balmy, San Luis Obispo is home to the renowned Cal Poly, a top-ranked public college set on picturesque hills just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
5. Athens, Georgia
- Biggest College: University of Georgia
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 40,118
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 31%
Full of columns and cupolas, Athens, the “Classic City,” lives up to its name. It’s the perfect backdrop for the venerable University of Georgia, among the nation’s very first public colleges.
Today, Georgia may be best known for its huge football following. The spirit of the school pervades the city, which also boasts a massive music and nightlife scene — and the most bars per square mile in the country. You just can’t get more college.
6. Ames, Iowa
- Biggest College: Iowa State University
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 29,969
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 44%
A short jaunt north of the state capital, Ames epitomizes safe and sleepy Iowa. A big student population, however, brings an influx of diversity to this Midwestern burg.
That influence is felt in the town’s gardens and museums, but is concentrated in a neighborhood near the school known as Campustown, which is full of apartments, restaurants, and nightlife. A pioneering agricultural college, today Iowa State University is known as the birthplace of the computer and hosts a U.S. Department of Energy lab.
7. Charlottesville, Virginia
- Biggest College: University of Virginia
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 23,721
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 52%
A Jeffersonian campus and a charming, quirky Southern downtown, set in central Virginia’s mountain country. That’s Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and Jefferson’s Monticello — both UNESCO World Heritage sites.
For ubiquity, the only competition in town for the school’s orange logo is the wraparound white porch of the gentile South. The school’s rich history continues today: prestigious UVA is considered one of the “public Ivies” and ranks among the top in the nation.
8. Boulder, Colorado
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder and the flagship University of Colorado campus see 300 days of sunshine every year. Boulder not only enjoys great weather — milder than the state’s reputation might suggest — and unparalleled natural wonders, but it’s also considered one of the nicest places to live in the country.
And it’s not just the wildlife that’s spectacular: Boulder is surprisingly international in its offerings, a fact on display in its historic Buddhist temple and the renowned Tuscan architecture of the campus.
9. Boone, North Carolina
- Biggest College: Appalachian State University
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 20,436
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 103%
Boone is notable for its student-heavy population even among bona fide college towns: the transient student population at Appalachian State University outnumbers the residential population. The town makes no secret of the importance of ASU, with street signs and storefronts awash in the black and gold of the Mountaineers.
While North Carolina’s college towns include the iconic Chapel Hill and the coastal wonderland Wilmington, Boone epitomizes the genre with its close ties to Appalachian State and a lively Americana vibe.
10. Burlington, Vermont
- Biggest College: University of Vermont
- Total Student Population (Fall 2022): 12,721
- Student Population as Percentage of Town Population: 29%
The biggest city in Vermont is the smallest biggest city of all 50 states. Burlington, located about an hour from the Canadian border, sees snowy winters and hot summers, with nearby mountains and the immense Lake Champlain to help students make the most of the seasons.
And there are plenty of students: In addition to the University of Vermont, there’s the private Champlain College. With a bustling downtown and usable greenspaces, remote Burlington is a forward-thinking, youthful hub in New England.
How College Towns Contribute to the College Experience
Finding the right college setting can be a big part of choosing a college. A college town, distinct from a suburb or a city that hosts a college, is a self-contained world — much like the campus it encapsulates.
Analysis of the
collegeiest college towns in America by the Washington Post insists that
they’re provincial, they’re probably a bit isolated. True college towns are small towns, and yet
college towns represent a unique type of urban place, one geographer points out, thanks to colleges’
highly educated workforces and concentrations of young people.
But it’s the students that make a college town, directly influencing the local economy — businesses are centered around students’ consumption habits — and culture. Between community events, student discounts, and safety measures, college towns provide new adults with friendly testing grounds for adult life.
Frequently Asked Questions About College Towns
Is Ann Arbor a college town?
Ann Arbor is the quintessential college town, according to many. With outdoor recreation and sophisticated cultural scenes, a population big enough for variety and small enough to center attention on the state’s beloved University of Michigan, Ann Arbor checks the boxes for a bustling college town.
Is Boston a college town?
Boston is home to numerous high-profile colleges, notably Harvard and MIT, but the huge metro population dwarfs the combined undergraduate student body. For this reason, Boston can’t be considered a college town. Despite the big-city credentials, the hallowed campuses within Boston city limits feel like private worlds.
Is Knoxville a college town?
Knoxville is considered a college town, though with a population approaching the 200,000 mark, it’s a stretch to consider the mid-sized city a town. There are plenty of economic and cultural interests outside of the University of Tennessee in this Southern destination. Still, pride for the “Vols” gives Knoxville its character.