Special Report

The 30 Best College Towns in America

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After a year of online classes, thousands of students returned to their college campuses for fall semester classes. The presence of a large student body has an enormous impact on the culture and economy of the cities where large colleges are located.

College towns tend to be some of the best places to live — they are typically affordable areas with an abundance of entertainment and dining options. They tend to have healthy economies, and a young, well-educated population. Some college towns stand out as some of the best places in the country to live, work, and receive an education.

To identify the best college towns in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed U.S. Census Bureau data about the affordability, economic conditions, health, safety, commutability, and arts, entertainment, and dining options in college towns across the country. We considered cities, towns, and villages with at least 30,000 residents and where at least 25% of the population are enrolled in college.

America’s 30 best college towns are spread across 21 different states, many of which are home to their state’s large, public flagship institution. These towns tend to be relatively affordable, safe, and economically prosperous. They also tend to have a wide array of entertainment, arts, and dining options.

The population of a college town tends to have a much higher level of education than the typical U.S. city. All but one of the 30 best college towns have a bachelor’s degree attainment rate higher than the national rate of 32.1%, and some even rank among the most educated cities in the country. This is the most educated metro area in every state.

Click here to see the best college towns
Click here to see our detailed methodology

30. DeKalb, Illinois
> Largest college in the area: Northern Illinois University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 30.2% (12,969)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 38.9%
> Unemployment rate: 9.5%
> Bars and restaurants: 162.9 per 100,000 people

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29. Normal, Illinois
> Largest college in the area: Illinois State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 32.0% (17,550)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 4
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 48.5%
> Unemployment rate: 2.9%
> Bars and restaurants: 168.6 per 100,000 people

28. San Marcos, Texas
> Largest college in the area: Texas State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 34.8% (22,004)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 33.5%
> Unemployment rate: 7.5%
> Bars and restaurants: 166.8 per 100,000 people

27. Morgantown, West Virginia
> Largest college in the area: West Virginia University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 41.2% (12,650)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 6
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 55.0%
> Unemployment rate: 9.7%
> Bars and restaurants: 225.6 per 100,000 people

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26. Blacksburg, Virginia
> Largest college in the area: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 57.9% (25,651)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 71.4%
> Unemployment rate: 5.1%
> Bars and restaurants: 184.4 per 100,000 people

25. New Brunswick, New Jersey
> Largest college in the area: Rutgers University-New Brunswick
> Pop. enrolled in college: 27.0% (15,092)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 22.6%
> Unemployment rate: 5.8%
> Bars and restaurants: 183.8 per 100,000 people

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24. East Lansing, Michigan
> Largest college in the area: Michigan State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 64.3% (31,319)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 4
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 72.0%
> Unemployment rate: 8.6%
> Bars and restaurants: 185.1 per 100,000 people

23. Columbia, Missouri
> Largest college in the area: University of Missouri-Columbia
> Pop. enrolled in college: 25.3% (30,677)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 5
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 52.2%
> Unemployment rate: 4.4%
> Bars and restaurants: 188.6 per 100,000 people

22. College Station, Texas
> Largest college in the area: Texas A&M University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 41.4% (47,065)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 58.6%
> Unemployment rate: 4.0%
> Bars and restaurants: 173.1 per 100,000 people

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21. Gainesville, Florida
> Largest college in the area: University of Florida
> Pop. enrolled in college: 34.8% (45,971)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 9
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 45.1%
> Unemployment rate: 5.2%
> Bars and restaurants: 185.4 per 100,000 people

20. Fayetteville, Arkansas
> Largest college in the area: University of Arkansas
> Pop. enrolled in college: 25.7% (21,861)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 3
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 50.2%
> Unemployment rate: 5.0%
> Bars and restaurants: 193.3 per 100,000 people

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19. Logan, Utah
> Largest college in the area: Utah State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 26.2% (13,328)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 4
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 36.9%
> Unemployment rate: 2.8%
> Bars and restaurants: 129.7 per 100,000 people

18. Urbana, Illinois
> Largest college in the area: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
> Pop. enrolled in college: 40.1% (17,140)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 60.1%
> Unemployment rate: 6.4%
> Bars and restaurants: 200.1 per 100,000 people

17. Newark, Delaware
> Largest college in the area: University of Delaware
> Pop. enrolled in college: 42.1% (14,087)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 5
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 53.2%
> Unemployment rate: 4.4%
> Bars and restaurants: 183.9 per 100,000 people

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16. West Lafayette, Indiana
> Largest college in the area: Purdue University-Main Campus
> Pop. enrolled in college: 59.6% (28,946)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 71.5%
> Unemployment rate: 3.8%
> Bars and restaurants: 180.6 per 100,000 people

15. Ithaca, New York
> Largest college in the area: Cornell University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 56.7% (17,333)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 66.9%
> Unemployment rate: 4.8%
> Bars and restaurants: 218.2 per 100,000 people

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14. Provo, Utah
> Largest college in the area: Utah Valley University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 34.8% (40,549)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 10
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 43.1%
> Unemployment rate: 4.6%
> Bars and restaurants: 127.0 per 100,000 people

13. Flagstaff, Arizona
> Largest college in the area: Northern Arizona University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 31.8% (23,048)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 5
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 47.1%
> Unemployment rate: 7.6%
> Bars and restaurants: 240.0 per 100,000 people

12. Harrisonburg, Virginia
> Largest college in the area: James Madison University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 31.7% (16,888)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 36.3%
> Unemployment rate: 4.9%
> Bars and restaurants: 341.6 per 100,000 people

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11. San Luis Obispo, California
> Largest college in the area: California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
> Pop. enrolled in college: 32.2% (15,242)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 4
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 50.0%
> Unemployment rate: 3.7%
> Bars and restaurants: 248.4 per 100,000 people

10. State College, Pennsylvania
> Largest college in the area: The Pennsylvania State University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 65.2% (27,544)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 1
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 70.6%
> Unemployment rate: 5.7%
> Bars and restaurants: 163.6 per 100,000 people

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9. Chapel Hill, North Carolina
> Largest college in the area: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
> Pop. enrolled in college: 35.4% (21,618)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 3
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 76.9%
> Unemployment rate: 3.4%
> Bars and restaurants: 183.0 per 100,000 people

8. Iowa City, Iowa
> Largest college in the area: University of Iowa
> Pop. enrolled in college: 33.7% (25,269)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 3
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 59.1%
> Unemployment rate: 4.7%
> Bars and restaurants: 225.5 per 100,000 people

7. Burlington, Vermont
> Largest college in the area: University of Vermont
> Pop. enrolled in college: 31.0% (13,207)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 53.3%
> Unemployment rate: 4.3%
> Bars and restaurants: 213.3 per 100,000 people

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6. Davis, California
> Largest college in the area: University of California-Davis
> Pop. enrolled in college: 37.2% (25,520)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 1
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 73.8%
> Unemployment rate: 5.8%
> Bars and restaurants: 167.0 per 100,000 people

5. Ann Arbor, Michigan
> Largest college in the area: University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
> Pop. enrolled in college: 35.2% (42,538)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 4
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 76.0%
> Unemployment rate: 3.9%
> Bars and restaurants: 179.3 per 100,000 people

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4. Santa Cruz, California
> Largest college in the area: University of California-Santa Cruz
> Pop. enrolled in college: 31.2% (20,160)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 2
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 53.8%
> Unemployment rate: 7.7%
> Bars and restaurants: 202.9 per 100,000 people

3. Boulder, Colorado
> Largest college in the area: University of Colorado Boulder
> Pop. enrolled in college: 29.1% (30,941)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 6
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 76.0%
> Unemployment rate: 4.6%
> Bars and restaurants: 237.8 per 100,000 people

2. Berkeley, California
> Largest college in the area: University of California-Berkeley
> Pop. enrolled in college: 29.0% (35,210)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 12
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 73.8%
> Unemployment rate: 5.3%
> Bars and restaurants: 220.9 per 100,000 people

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1. Cambridge, Massachusetts
> Largest college in the area: Harvard University
> Pop. enrolled in college: 25.1% (29,279)
> Colleges and universities in the area: 5
> Adults with a bachelor’s degree: 79.0%
> Unemployment rate: 4.0%
> Bars and restaurants: 205.1 per 100,000 people

Methodology

To identify the best college towns in America, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed U.S. Census Bureau data about the affordability, economic conditions, health, safety, commutability, and arts, entertainment, and dining options in college towns across the country. We considered cities, towns, and villages with at least 30,000 residents and 25% college enrollment. 

The number of degree-granting colleges and universities (including graduate degrees) in each city or surrounding county in 2020 comes from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Data on enrollment by college also comes from the NCES and is for 2020. The percentages of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree in each city are five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. 

The number of restaurants per 100,000 county residents came from the U.S Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and are for 2019.

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