20 Great College Towns

Remember Your College Doesn't Exist in Isolation from Its Town

A great college experience is influenced by a number of factors, and location is key. So what defines a college town? They may vary widely in size, location, and demographics, but they all have one thing in common: they are ruled by collegiate culture. These towns are highly accessible and generally offer a variety of sights and scenery, arts and entertainment venues, and vibrant nightlife. The overall population of these areas also tends to be highly educated and creative with high earning potential. These top 20 college towns range from small towns whose population and economy are dominated by one or more colleges and universities to a handful of larger cities that, despite their size, have managed to maintain the dynamic and eclectic atmosphere of the ideal college town.

01
of 20

Ames, Iowa

Iowa State Campus in Ames
Iowa State Campus in Ames. SD Dirk / Flickr

Ames is the home of Iowa State University, a top agriculture, engineering, design, and veterinary school and the first designated land-grant university in the country. The university is an important part of Ames, and students enjoy the small town’s lively culture and nightlife, particularly in Campustown, the neighborhood surrounding Iowa State. Ames residents are also avid supporters of the Iowa State Cyclones who compete in the NCAA Division I as a member of the Big 12 Conference. Drake University is about a half hour to the south, and the University of Iowa is two hours to the east.

02
of 20

Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst, Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts. mihir1310 / Flickr

Amherst is a small town in the Connecticut River valley with fewer than 40,000 residents. It is home to three schools: two private liberal arts colleges, Amherst College and Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the largest public university in New England. Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are also nearby. With nearly as many college students as permanent residents, Amherst is known for its eclectic cultural communities and a progressive, politically active community.

03
of 20

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan. Andypiper / Flickr

The University of Michigan is deeply integrated with Ann Arbor's economy and cultural life. The university is the top employer in the town, with about 30,000 employees. University of Michigan athletics are also a major local attraction in Ann Arbor; the Wolverines are a member of the Big Ten Conference, and their Michigan Stadium is the largest American football stadium in the world.

04
of 20

Athens, Georgia

Athens, Georgia
Athens, Georgia. SanFranAnnie / Flickr

Athens takes "college town" literally - the city was founded and built around the University of Georgia, which has continued to play a central role in Athens' growth and development. In addition to UGA, downtown Athens prides itself on a thriving art and music scene; R.E.M. and the B-52s both got their start at the 40 Watt Club, one of the town's storied performance venues.

05
of 20

Auburn, Alabama

Auburn, Alabama
Auburn, Alabama. hyku / Flickr

Currently the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Alabama, Auburn is centered around Auburn University. The highly-ranked public university employs nearly a quarter of the city's total workforce. And although Auburn has no professional sports teams, the NCAA Division I Auburn Tigers are a driving force in the city's culture and economy, particularly the football team, which often attracts over 100,000 visitors to the city for home games each fall.

06
of 20

Berkeley, California

Berkeley, California
Berkeley, California. Sharon Hahn Darlin / Flickr

At the heart of Berkeley sits the oldest school in the University of California system, UC Berkeley. Despite being a larger city, Berkeley has a small-town, student-friendly atmosphere, with a variety of cafes, restaurants, and entertainment and cultural venues, and students regularly take weekend trips across the bay to San Francisco. Both the university and the city itself are well-known for political activism, particularly among the student population, tracing back to the 1960s civil rights movement.

07
of 20

Blacksburg, Virginia

Blacksburg, Virginia
Blacksburg, Virginia. Daniel Lin - Photojournalist / Flickr

The home of Virginia Tech, Blacksburg has one of the highest student-resident ratios in the United States, with nearly two students for every resident of the city. The student population enjoys Blacksburg's assortment of locally owned shops, restaurants and other attractions, as well as access to the nearby Allegheny Mountains for outdoor adventures. And Virginia Tech gives back to the city by opening its galleries, theater and recreational facilities for public use. Radford University is just a 14 mile drive from town.

08
of 20

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts. Dougtone / Flickr

Although perhaps too big to truly be considered a college "town," Boston is considered a beacon of higher education in the U.S. There are nearly 100 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston Area, including top schools such as Boston University and Emerson College, with as many as 250,000 students living in the city and surrounding suburbs. Harvard and MIT are right across the Charles River in Cambridge. And the city offers a seemingly unlimited variety of entertainment, sports, historical and cultural attractions, making it an ideal location for college students.

09
of 20

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kobetsai / Flickr

Chapel Hill is the site of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which sits among the top public universities in the country. Residents of this small Southern town are avid college basketball fans and supporters of the UNC Tar Heels, who are highly competitive in the NCAA Division I Atlantic Coast Conference. Chapel Hill is also well-known for its Southern cuisine, named "America's Foodiest Small Town" by Bon Appetit magazine.

10
of 20

Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia. Small_Realm / Flickr

The former home of three U.S. presidents and musician Dave Matthews, Charlottesville is also the location of the University of Virginia, one of the original eight "Public Ivies." Both the university and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's plantation manor located just a few miles from downtown Charlottesville, are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the city itself was recently named one of National Geographic's 10 World Wonders. The city has a strong music and art scene, and students can also visit the nearby Downtown Mall, with over 150 shops and an open-air performance pavilion.

11
of 20

College Station, Texas

Texas A&M in College Station
Texas A&M in College Station. StuSeeger / Flickr

True to its name, College Station is a welcoming environment for college students, with a higher population of students than permanent residents. Home of Texas A&M University, College Station is a walkable, idyllic city with a variety of food, entertainment and cultural offerings. It also has one of the highest bar-to-resident ratios in the world, with more than 20 bars, pubs and taverns.

12
of 20

Columbia, Missouri

Columbia, Missouri
Columbia, Missouri. ChrisYunker / Flickr

Columbia is known by the nickname of "College Town, U.S.A" with good reason. Not only is it the site of two colleges and universities, but it's also one of the most highly educated municipalities in the country, with more than half of its residents holding bachelor's degrees and over a quarter with graduate degrees. Stephens College and the University of Missouri are both located in Columbia, influencing the local economy and culture. Columbia has a strong music scene, famous for its jazz and blues festivals as well as for its burgeoning progressive rock scene.

13
of 20

Corvallis, Oregon

Corvallis, Oregon
Corvallis, Oregon. pikselai / Flickr

Home to Oregon State University, Corvallis is an idyllic college town located just 50 miles from the coast and surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides. Oregon State students make up nearly half the population of the town, which has received national recognition for its safety and environmental friendliness as well as its strong business community; in 2008, Forbes magazine included Corvallis as one of the top 100 places in the country to launch a business.

14
of 20

Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City, Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa. Kables / Flickr

A small Midwestern community located on the Iowa River, Iowa City is the site of the University of Iowa, which is renowned for its creative writing program, the development of the Master of Fine Arts degree, and for its teaching hospital, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The city has a wealth of culture related to its literary heritage and the arts, such as the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, a sidewalk featuring quotations and attributions from 49 authors and playwrights with ties to Iowa. Iowa City residents are also passionate fans of the UI Hawkeyes, a NCAA Division I Big Ten Conference team.

15
of 20

Ithaca, New York

Ithaca, New York
Ithaca, New York. WalkingGeek / Flickr

Ithaca is dominated by collegiate life, with Cornell University, an Ivy League school, and Ithaca College sitting on opposite hills overlooking the town on the coast of Cayuga Lake. The downtown area features a variety of locally owned entertainment venues, shops, and restaurants, including the famous Moosewood Restaurant, which was named one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the 20th century by Bon Appetit magazine for its innovative vegetarian cuisine.

16
of 20

Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence, Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas. Lauren Wellicome / Flickr

The Heartland college town of Lawrence is true 'Jayhawks country,' home of the University of Kansas and, most importantly, the KU Jayhawks basketball team. Lawrence residents are avid supporters, causing ESPN Magazine to rate the university's Phog Allen Fieldhouse the loudest college basketball arena in the country. Lawrence even has 30 Jayhawks statues commissioned and placed around the city. And if you aren't a basketball fan, there's still plenty to do in Lawrence, with an active nightlife and lively entertainment and cultural community.

17
of 20

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas
Manhattan, Kansas. are you my rik? / Flickr

Another small Kansas town with a big college presence, Manhattan, affectionately known by its residents as "The Little Apple," is where you'll find Kansas State University. Kansas State students drive the local economy and its nightlife, frequenting Aggieville, a section of Manhattan's downtown area featuring a number of bars, restaurants and shops that are popular among students and town residents alike. This vibrant culture put Manhattan on CNN Money's ranking of top ten places to retire young.

18
of 20

Morgantown, West Virginia

Morgantown, West Virginia
Morgantown, West Virginia. jmd41280 / Flickr

The small community of Morgantown is best known for West Virginia University and for its unique Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit System, a series of electrically-powered mini buses that connect the university's three campuses. In addition to its ease of transportation, Morgantown offers access to a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking on the nearby Dorsey Knob mountain summit, exploring Cooperstown Rock State Forest, and white-water rafting on the Cheat River.

19
of 20

Oxford, Mississippi

Oxford, Mississippi
Oxford, Mississippi. Ken Lund / Flickr

The University of Mississippi, or 'Ole Miss,' is located in the quaint little town of Oxford along the Mississippi Delta. Oxford features an array of historical sites as well as a strong music scene, especially in the blues; the university boasts one of the largest archives of blues records and memorabilia in the world. Like many other southern college towns, football is king in Oxford, and the 'Ole Miss' Rebels, members of the NCAA Division I Southeastern Conference, don't disappoint.

20
of 20

State College, Pennsylvania

College Station, Pennsylvania
College Station, Pennsylvania. IK's World Trip / Flickr

State College, often referred to as "Happy Valley" for the small college community's location between Nittany and Penn Valleys and its friendly atmosphere, was developed around the Penn State campus. The university continues to be central to State College to this day, supporting local art, music, and cultural attractions such as the annual Central Pennsylvania Festival for the Arts. The Penn State Nittany Lions football team is also quite popular among State College locals, and the football season attracts thousands of visitors to the town each fall.