Think college towns are just for rowdy undergrads? Think again.
These energetic cities across the country are home to innovative small businesses, tons of fun activities, family-friendly annual events and thriving downtown scenes complete with arts, culture and delicious local cuisine. Plus, you’ll benefit from living and working near a college or university, where dedicated students and ingenious faculty members are conducting cutting-edge research and working to solve some of the world’s biggest problems — and that creativity and enthusiasm can be contagious.
To determine the best college towns in America for 2019, Livability and ABODO, an off-campus and young professional apartment search engine, ranked all U.S. cities with at least one college campus and a population of between 20,000 and 350,000 based on the following factors:
- 30%: The ratio of the city’s median salary (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) to its September 2019 median one-bedroom rent
- 30%: The percentage of the population that is aged 20 to 29
- 20%: The number of jobs in the education sector per 1,000 jobs in the city
- 20%: The ratio of the median salary in the city to the nation for education jobs
Curious to see if the town where you went to college made the list? Read on to learn more about what makes these college towns unique, local campus traditions and must-visit spots around town.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: University of Florida students have tons of school spirit and pride — and they should. This world-class research institution has outstanding academic programs and its competitive Gators sports teams. On top of that, with more than 35,000 undergrads enrolled here, you’re bound to find your group, your niche and your passion.
“I find myself feeling at home at every coffee shop, grocery store and downtown restaurant I go to,” says Abigail Mistretta, one of three drum majors for the Gator Marching Band. “Gainesville also provides so many professional opportunities for college students to gain real-world experience.”
Why you should put down roots here (even if you’re not a graduate): A bustling downtown scene, lots of outdoor recreation opportunities and jobs in higher education and health care make Gainesville a top choice, even if you didn’t go to school here — in fact, it’s so great that it’s one of Livability’s 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live. Plus, if you love college football, it’s hard to beat the passion and the energy of UF fans.
Coolest campus tradition: Singing “We Are the Boys” between the third and fourth quarters of home football games.
Best place to get out and about: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, home to eight trails and 300 bird species.
Best fourth meal: Wings or a burger at the Swamp Restaurant, not far from the actual Swamp (the university’s football stadium).
Place to be on a Saturday night: If you aren’t at the Swamp for a night game, then you’re catching live music in downtown Gainesville.
Beloved brewery: First Magnitude Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Third House Books.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Pascal’s Coffeehouse or Volta Coffee, Tea and Chocolate.
Local dream job: Director of the Gator Marching Band, a.k.a. the Pride of the Sunshine. (Did we mention they have a lot of school spirit here?)
What keeps alumni coming back: Homecoming weekend and Satchel’s Pizza.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: Greenville is home to East Carolina University, which services its more than 28,000 students with high-caliber programs in nursing, business, medicine and more. The school was “built by the people, for the people, and may it ever remain with the people, as a servant of the people,” according to its first president, Robert Wright, and those values continue to guide the university today. You’ll get a healthy dose of Southern charm and hospitality, as well as the chance to cheer on the school’s athletic teams. (Go, Pirates!)
“Greenville is a great place to go to college because of the great community, how nice and supportive everyone is, and the fact that Greenville is growing and getting better every year,” says Grady Dillon, an ECU senior studying communication.
Why you should put down roots here: With 90,000 residents, this vibrant hub of eastern North Carolina is just the right size. Greenville is affordable, and you’ll be able to find a job here thanks to strong health-care and manufacturing sectors. On weekends, you’ll have a hard time choosing between this community’s many museums, historic sites, entertainment venues and outdoor recreation options (including tons of waterways for fishing, kayaking and boating).
Coolest campus tradition: Barefoot on the Mall, an annual end-of-the-academic-year event featuring live music, inflatables, food trucks, activities and more.
Best place to get out and about: The greenway that winds along the Tar River through the city. It’s the perfect spot to ride a bike or take a refreshing walk.
Best fourth meal: Christy’s Euro Pub.
Place to be on a Saturday night: Dickinson Avenue arts and entertainment district, home to tons of shops, restaurants, breweries and activities, many of which are owned by ECU alums.
Beloved brewery: Pitt Street Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): David’s Used Books.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Buzz Coffee House or Blackbeard Coffee Roasters.
Local dream job: New-flavor tester at Simply Natural Creamery, which has the creamiest ice cream around.
What keeps alumni coming back: Tailgating and watching the Pirates play at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, as well as a visit to Sup Dogs, a beloved local restaurant that specializes in hot dogs.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: You may know Champaign better by its nickname “Chambana,” which is what you get when you squish the name Champaign together with that of its sister city, Urbana. No matter what you call it, this thriving city is home to the University of Illinois, the state’s flagship campus and a world-class research institution with more than 33,000 students from all 50 states and beyond. Students here are successful after they finish their studies, too, with a recent survey finding that 89% of grads were working or continuing their education within six months of graduation.
“Everywhere you go throughout the country and the world people recognize [the] Illini. We have a world-class academic institution and an environment where it is easy to fit in and meet new people,” says Connor Josellis, a senior studying journalism and the student-body president.
Why you should put down roots here: Even if you’re not a U. of I. alum, the passion for college sports here is contagious. On top of that, Champaign is home to several Fortune 500 companies and has a flourishing startup scene. If you like to spend time outdoors, you should know that Champaign has dozens of parks, five forest preserves, and several farms and wineries you can visit. All these factors and more helped Champaign earn a spot on Livability’s list of 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live.
Coolest campus tradition: Illinois is the Land of Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln served as a state legislator in Springfield, Ill.), so it makes complete sense that some students rub the nose on Honest Abe’s bust for luck before taking exams.
Best place to get out and about: The 700 acres of parks, trails and green spaces in Champaign.
Best fourth meal: Mac-and-cheese bites, wings and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch milkshake from Wingin Out.
Place to be on a Saturday night: The Red Lion, a popular bar with medieval décor.
Beloved brewery: The Bling Pig Brewery, a downtown spot with an awesome patio.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Jane Addams Book Shop.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Cafe Kopi.
Local dream job: Archivist at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, which has an amazing collection of materials and exhibits about John Philip Sousa — the famed march composer’s papers were bequeathed to the U. of I., whose marching band he’d called the world’s best — and other important musical moments and historical figures.
What keeps alumni coming back: Hands down, the Fighting Illini. Alumni can’t help but wear blue and orange and join in on chants of “I-L-L … I-N-I” on game day.
College Station, Texas
Why it’s a great place to go to college: Texas A&M students and alumni are loud and proud — Aggieland on a Saturday is truly extraordinary. But this school is so much more than its football team. The 69,000 students here stay busy by conducting research in labs (the school generated more than $922 million in research dollars last year) and participating in more than 1,100 student organizations.
Why you should put down roots here after graduation: Barbecue. Football. Mild weather. What else do you need? OK, OK, we should also add that College Station is a vibrant place to live (which is one reason it made Livability’s list of 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live), with a strong economy, lots of museums and cultural centers and a growing list of wineries, breweries and distilleries.
Coolest campus tradition: The Elephant Walk, which started in 1926, when Aggie seniors take a symbolic nighttime stroll through campus before the last home football game.
Best place to get out and about: Lick Creek Park, a tranquil and hidden gem where you can walk, run or meditate and listen to the birds.
Best fourth meal: Anything on the menu at Whataburger.
Place to be on a Saturday night: O’Bannon’s Taphouse.
Beloved brewery: New Republic Brewing.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Half Price Books.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Sweet Eugene’s House of Java.
Local dream job: Commandant of the Corps of Cadets, a student military organization with different units, including the famous Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band.
What keeps alumni coming back: We think senior communication major Jacob Svetz summed it up nicely: “Alumni keep coming back to Aggieland because of something we call ‘the spirit.’ Many people have tried to explain it, but haven’t been successful. So many people have put their heart and soul into their various clubs and organizations and they’re proud to come back and see current students carry on their traditions.”
Why it’s a great place to go to college: Lawrence is well-known for the University of Kansas, a top-tier research institution with more than 400 degree programs and certificates and a respected athletics program. But did you know that it’s also home to Haskell Indian Nations University, which serves American Indian and Alaska Native people from across the country? When you’re not hitting the books or cheering on the basketball power Jayhawks at KU, you can explore Lawrence’s many live-music venues and its vibrant arts scene.
“There’s never a lack of things to do, whether it be during the school year or the summer, and the community is so welcoming and breathes KU,” says Zach Thomason, a junior studying business analytics and accounting.
Why you should put down roots here: Lawrence consistently ranks as a top place to live in the country. Why? It has a thriving economy, tons of educational opportunities and a popular, walkable downtown area centered on Massachusetts Street. Lawrence is also home to more than 50 trails and parks, so you’ll have plenty of chances to get outside and explore on your days off.
Coolest campus tradition: “Reading” the University Daily Kansan (the campus newspaper) when the opposing team is announced at basketball games at Allen Fieldhouse. The papers are then torn up and used as “confetti” to shower Jayhawks players after they score the team’s first basket. (Bet you thought we were going to say “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk,” didn’t you?)
Best place to get out and about: Marvin Grove and Potter Lake, a serene spot with tree-lined paths.
Best fourth meal: A burger and truffle fries at the Burger Stand at the Casbah.
Place to be on a Saturday night: At one of the many live music venues in Lawrence, like the Granada or the Bottleneck.
Beloved brewery: Free State Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): The Raven Book Store.
Favorite coffee and study spot: McClain’s Market.
Local dream job: The guys and gals inside the Big Jay and Baby Jay mascot costumes.
What keeps alumni coming back: No question: KU basketball. It’s a way of life. (And they’ll probably stop at the Wagon Wheel Cafe — a.k.a. “the Wheel” — too.)
Why it’s a great place to go to college: Oregon State University professors and alumni have made some impressive discoveries — they’re responsible for the computer mouse, the modern dentist chair and the artificial heart valve, to name a few. Imagine being part of that culture of innovation as an undergrad. Plus, if you’re passionate about conservation, OSU has top-notch programs relating to the environment, in forestry, oceanography, marine biology, agriculture and natural resources.
Why you should put down roots here: This progressive city, located along the Willamette River, is just an hour’s drive from the Pacific Ocean, though you may not make it that far once you start exploring the more than 60 miles of mixed-use trails, natural areas and other adventure spots here. If you’re into tech, you’ll find a job at one of the more than 25 software companies located in Corvallis, including Hewlett Packard’s
massive 2.3 million–square–foot research campus. There are also tons of local wineries, distilleries, breweries and restaurants incorporating ultrafresh ingredients here.
Coolest campus tradition: DAMJAM, an annual music festival celebrating the end of the academic year that draws thousands of students and big-name musical acts like Akon, Macklemore and OK Go.
Best place to get out and about: Bald Hill Natural Area, which is a close-to-town treasure for a peaceful walk, jog or bike ride.
Best fourth meal: A burrito or some rolled tacos from Riva’s Taco Shop.
Place to be on a Saturday night: Squirrel’s Tavern.
Beloved brewery: Block 15 Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): The Corvallis Book Bin.
Favorite coffee shop study spot: Imagine Coffee.
Local dream job: Director of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, a supercool collaborative research center
What keeps alumni coming back: Where else are they going to wear all that orange gear in their closets? Oh, and having gotten to spend four years in one of the loveliest and most charming places in the country, they’re eager to return for the beautiful scenery.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: People have to stick together in Alaska, and that same sense of community and teamwork carries through to students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, home of the Nanooks. It’s small for a state university’s flagship campus, with a little more than 8,300 students, so you’ll really get to know your classmates and your professors (the student-faculty ratio is an impressive 11 to 1). When you’re not studying, you can explore the Alaskan wilderness, which is literally right outside your door; check out the local contemporary-art scene; or participate in dozens of annual community events.
“You really get that college-town feel in Fairbanks. Everything is spread out enough to feel a little bigger than it is, but also small enough to feel like you’re part of the community,” says UAF student Lillian Marrero. ”People care about your education. Most local businesses are huge supporters of the university itself. You really feel like you’re a part of something and supported by the people of Fairbanks.”
Why you should put down roots here: Fairbanks is home to 32,000 people, but it has many of the perks of a bigger city — and then some. Plus, if you love the idea of immersing yourself in nature, Fairbanks has so much to offer. The city’s top-notch infrastructure, amenities and housing options also helped it land a spot on Livability’s list of 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live.
Coolest campus tradition: The “40 Below Club.” When the temperature drops to 40 below (or colder), you’ll see a line of cars pulled over next to a sign at the entrance of campus that shows the time and temperature. Students pose for pictures in front of the sign in bathing suits or underwear.
Best place to get out and about: North Campus, which spans 1,100 acres and is home to more than 25 miles of trails for walking, jogging, biking and cross-country skiing. It’s also a popular spot to forage for berries or wild mushrooms. You’re likely to see a moose or two here, too.
Best fourth meal: Oasis Restaurant and Lounge.
Place to be on a Saturday night: In the winter, looking up at the sky to see the incredible colors of the aurora borealis.
Beloved brewery: HooDoo Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Forget-Me-Not Books
Favorite coffee and study spot: Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., though in reality the people of Fairbanks would rather get their coffee to go — there are at least five drive-through coffee huts within a mile of campus.
Local dream job: Researcher at the International Arctic Research Center, where scientists seek to understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic.
What keeps alumni coming back: The gorgeous (and, at times, brutal) landscape, as well as the annual Governor’s Cup hockey series that pits the Nanooks against their in-state rival, the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: The land-grant institution Iowa State University is warm and welcoming to students from all walks of life. With 100 majors and 800-plus student organizations to choose from, you’re bound to find something that interests you. Plus, Cyclones athletics are a big deal here, and most students are fully invested in their school’s sports teams. The campus is also regularly mentioned as one of the most beautiful in the nation.
“For me, Ames is a home away from home,” says Maddie Huinker, an ISU junior majoring in communication studies and environmental studies. “The city centers around Iowa State, which you feel through the welcoming community and strong alumni presence. I feel wanted and supported here by faculty and Ames residents, and truly enjoy the scenery, the school and the people.”
Why you should put down roots here: If you value your health (and who doesn’t?), you’ll love that Ames is regularly cited as one of the healthiest places in the country. There are also plenty of jobs to be found here, including in Ames’s growing tech sector. Plus, have you ever been to Iowa? The people here are just plain nice. Is it any wonder Ames made it onto Livability’s list of 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live?
Oh, and Ames was also recognized as one of America’s Best Cities With Little to No Traffic. Dreams do come true.
Coolest campus tradition: Yell Like Hell, a quirky homecoming tradition dating back to 1963 in which teams of students compete by creating original skits that involve lots of yelling, body paint and arm waving.
Best place to get out and about: Ada Hayden Heritage Park.
Best fourth meal: Smotherella sticks from Jeff’s Pizza Shop.
Place to be on a Saturday night: London Underground, a dive bar with free popcorn, a jukebox and an awesome beer list.
Beloved brewery: Alluvial Brewing.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Books-A-Million.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Arcadia Cafe.
Local dream job: Any job at Reiman Gardens, a peaceful 17-acre spot with gorgeous indoor and outdoor gardens, a butterfly wing and a conservancy. (It’s also the home of Elwood, the world’s largest concrete gnome!)
What keeps alumni coming back: A strong sense of community, deep friendships, and a lifelong love of the cardinal and gold.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: Manhattan is home to Kansas State University, which has strong academics and sports teams and a friendly Midwestern vibe. Founded in 1863, K-State enrolls more than 22,000 students in more than 250 majors and 165 graduate programs. K-State is also moving the needle when it comes to hands-on research and real-world impact: In addition to generating $218.3 million in research dollars in 2018, the school is also home to a new $1.25 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense facility, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security biocontainment laboratory where researchers will study diseases.
“The atmosphere here is so inviting, and we all treat each other like family. I know that no matter where I go on campus, there is always someone willing to help me out whether they know me or not,” says Grace Siebert, a K-State junior studying kinesiology and business management.
Why you should put down roots here: With roughly 55,000 residents, Manhattan is big enough, but not too big (its nickname is “The Little Apple”). This affordable city — which made Livability’s 2019 list of Top 100 Best Places to Live — has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities and lots of jobs at Fort Riley Military Base as well as at the university.
Coolest campus tradition: The Wabash Cannonball, a fun song and dance tradition at sporting events that started in 1968 after a fire destroyed nearly all of the marching band’s sheet music (except the music for “Wabash Cannonball”).
Best place to get out and about: The hiking trails at Konza Prairie, a native tallgrass prairie that serves as a field research station for the university.
Best fourth meal: The food truck for Varsity Donuts, which serves up a mac-and-cheese grilled cheese sandwich.
Place to be on a Saturday night: Aggieville, an entertainment and shopping district with plenty of bars.
Beloved brewery: Tallgrass Tap House or Little Apple Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): The Dusty Bookshelf, which suffered a devastating fire in 2017 but has rebounded with community support.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Arrow Coffee Co.
Local dream job: Coordinator of the K-State Insect Zoo, an intimate and informative spot where visitors can learn about creepy crawlies.
What keeps alumni coming back: One of K-State’s core values is family, and the feeling extends beyond graduation for Wildcats.
Why it’s a great place to go to college: It’s Cornell. ’Nuf said. Ithaca, though, is home to not one but two renowned schools: the Ivy League’s Cornell University and Ithaca College. It’s a relatively small town, with some 30,000 residents, so you won’t feel overwhelmed when you first arrive on campus. When you’re not studying, there’s plenty to keep you busy, ranging from cascading waterfall hikes to a happening downtown area.
Why you should put down roots here: Love to be in nature? Then you’ll love Ithaca, which also made the Livability list of Top 100 Best Places to Live for 2019. Plus, you’ll get to take advantage of on-campus events and lectures by some of the world’s brightest intellectual lights. There’s also a ton of live music and fun annual events (like a summer concert series and a winter lights festival) to keep you busy on the weekends.
Coolest campus tradition: Slope Day, an annual event to celebrate the last day of classes for the year with live music, food, alcohol and more. (Last spring, Steve Aoki was the headliner, so it’s legit.)
Best place to get out and about: Any of the 150 waterfalls in the Ithaca region (Taughannock Falls is the tallest at 215 feet).
Best fourth meal: Tacos or a quesadilla from Dos Amigos.
Place to be on a Saturday night: The Haunt, a music venue with karaoke and tasty eats.
Beloved brewery: Liquid State Brewing Co.
Best bookstore (for nontextbooks): Buffalo Street Books.
Favorite coffee and study spot: Ithaca Coffee Co.
Local dream job: Instructor for Cornell Tree Climbing Institute, which is exactly what is sounds like: a place to learn to climb trees like a pro.
What keeps alumni coming back: An intense pride in and loyalty to their alma mater (and the chance to eat at Collegetown Bagels, a.k.a. CTB).