The 10 Best College Towns In The U.S. Year 2016

While the term “college town” may bring to mind solo cup-littered parties and riotous football games, there’s far more to these youth-filled cities than tailgating and sports. It starts with education itself. An educated workforce brings in industry and employment opportunities, which is why many college towns also made it onto our list of the 50 Best Cities for Entrepreneurs. Successful universities are always huge employers in communities, too. That’s why just to get on our 2016 list, towns had to have more than three colleges, and a high percentage of jobs in the education sector.

But a great town is about more than just numbers. It’s about heart. And history. It’s about being a breeding ground for culture, and a celebration of what makes our country great. There might not be a better expression of the American dream, in fact, than our next generation of youth working their way through college. That’s why our team of experts weighed in, as well—to give it our own personal touch.

The universities that reside in the towns on our 2016 list range from the elite and private (Harvard University in Cambridge), to the huge and public (University of Michigan in Ann Arbor). Each of them gives as much as they get from their communities. And the real winners are the residents, who get the kind of quality of life that only comes from living in one of the Top 10 College Towns in the US. Whether you’re looking for a place with career options, high wages, great housing options and plenty of things to do, or even a place to live the solo cup lifestyle, you’ll find it in each of these 10 towns.


10. Provo, UT

Courtesy of a4gpa under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of a4gpa under a CC 4.0 license.

Provo is best known for Brigham Young University, which is the largest employer in town (with 4,000 employees), and also cranks out a highly-educated workforce. Capitalizing on this, as well as the family-friendliness of the town, Provo has become a booming place for business. Chief among the growing industries is tech—so much so that the entire region has been called “Silicon Slopes.”

Too far from Salt Lake City to be called a suburb, Provo has the feel of a college town, combined with an incredible arts scene and a lovely dose of small town charm. In short, it’s pretty unique, and one of many reasons why it’s been twice named one of the 100 Best Places to Live.

The area isn’t just about future growth either—it’s also about now. Community events, like the annual Gingerbread House Festival, are perfect reflections of the heart of its residents. And since SLC is such a short drive away, locals and students both have ready access to all the professional sports and entertainment found there.


9. Denton, TX

Courtesy of Nicolas Henderson under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Nicolas Henderson under a CC 4.0 license.

As one of the 10 Best College Towns last year, and a Best Place to Live the past two years, Denton’s uniqueness and popularity have once again made it one of the 10 Best College Towns in America.

Students and other young residents might come to town because of Denton’s authenticity, quality and diverse entertainment, but they stay because of its progressive and innovative business. In fact, if you’ve read much about Denton, you’ll even see a term used to describe the experience of exploring all the amazing food, music, and art that the city has to offer: “Dentoning.” If you start Dentoning for a bit, you’ll find that this place is a hub of creativity, technology, and economic development. Affordable housing is the norm, and excellent public transit creates the perfect foundation for young adults who are just starting out in the real world.

Denton isn’t as large as some cities on our list, but this eclectic town has a music scene for every taste—partly due to the University of North Texas’s renowned College of Music. Venues of all shapes and sizes inhabit are here, giving Denton’s nightlife a distinct tune. The city’s annual Arts and Jazz Festival attracts hundreds of thousands from all over. Whether you’re looking for a low-key study spot or a bouncing rave for a night out, there is a place to go in Denton.

Another staple in a great college town is great food, and Denton has an abundance of it. From traditional Texas southern comfort food, to local diners and live music venues, the city has many options for its young, working minds.

In addition to all this great city entertainment, nature lovers you will bask in the opportunities for fishing, taking a stroll, and horseback riding. Horse farms surround Denton, as well as lakes, parks, and pools for the days when students need to get out and cool off.


8. Greensboro, NC

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Greensboro Partnership
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Greensboro Partnership

Sitting less than an hour west of North Carolina’s famous research triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill is Greensboro, a medium-sized city with big city heart. The town’s college community is co-anchored by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Together, the two schools (both of which were founded in 1891) have around 30,000 students. Add in the several thousand staff, and you’ll find that more than 10% of the community is directly connected to the universities.

That dominant collegiate presence has given Greensboro a surprisingly diverse artistic vibe. There are several large music festivals here throughout the year. The Greensboro Ballet and the Greensboro Symphony also regularly put on world-class performances, and the six galleries of UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum host one of the most well-respected collections of modern art in the Southeast. There’s also the Art Quest gallery at the Green Hill Center, where about 18,000 kids and their families get hands on with their artsy side.

For the outdoorsy students or residents, Greensboro also has a wonderland of greenspace. From botanical gardens to attractions like Hagan Stone Park, the area’s natural beauty is easy to find. And if you’re looking to combine your outdoor and active life, the city also has one of the best collections of greenways in North Carolina.

It’s not just the scenery that’s green either, as the Proximity Hotel, AKA the “greenest hotel in America,” calls the city home. That’s one of the reasons Greensboro was named one of the Top 10 Best Green Cities.


7. Fairfax, VA

PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas Tan/Creative Services/George Mason University
PHOTO CREDIT: Nicolas Tan/Creative Services/George Mason University

Compared to some of the college towns on this list, Fairfax is small, with only around 24,000 residents. But Fairfax is just outside the Washington D.C. beltway, so it’s also very much a part of our capital’s metro area. Because of that proximity, any college grad will have an almost unlimited number of employment options. Government jobs are the obvious choice, but over the years D.C. has developed into a hub of entrepreneurship, and Fairfax is no exception. From finance to biotech to manufacturing, if an industry exists, it probably has a presence in the D.C. area.

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While George Mason is the best known area college, the Northern Virginia Community College is the second-largest multi-campus community college in the US. And while its Annandale campus is technically outside the city limits, it still has a big presence both in cultural opportunities for residents and students, and in the type of graduate it’s adding to the Fairfax workforce.

For college students in the D.C. metro area, there are more leisure activities than would ever be necessary. From music, art and culture in the city, to professional sports (MLS’ D.C. United, MLB’s Nationals, NHL’s Capitals, and NBA’s Wizards) D.C. is chock full of reasons to get off campus or out of the house. And with 2,144 restaurants in the city, including several James Beard Award winners, you’ll be well-fed when you do.


6. Tallahassee, FL

Courtesy of Steven Martin under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Steven Martin under a CC 4.0 license.

Florida’s capital city is home to the state’s largest and flagship university, Florida State University (FSU). The university’s sprawling, 1,300-acre site, is located within the urban center of Tallahassee, which sits near its northern border at the crook of the panhandle. Along with the usual contributions that universities make to its surrounding areas, FSU also operates one of the country’s largest university museum complexes in the nation, including the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and the State Art Museum of Florida.

Job opportunities for area graduates are wide ranging, with government and law serving as some of the biggest employers; nearly 30 state government agency headquarters are within the city limits. The area is also boosted by a huge scientific community, which is directly related to FSU’s position as a sea and space grant institution, widely known for its research capabilities. Making use of the area’s highly educated workforce is also the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, one of the world’s leaders in research on high-magnetic fields.

While Tallahassee isn’t known as a beach town, nowhere in Florida is far from the shore, and the capital is no exception. Students can (and do) drive less than an hour to reach a dozen different beaches ranging from the secluded to the tourist-slammed. When they do, they’ll pass the huge Apalachicola National Forest, which also gives students a huge range of outdoor activity options like hiking, camping or trail riding.

One standout reason for Tallahassee’s inclusion on our list is its diversity. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University is one of the largest historically black colleges in the nation, which is a big reason why the city made both was named the Best City for African Americans in 2016.


5. Ann Arbor, MI

Courtesy of Nekonomist under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Nekonomist under a CC 4.0 license.

Ann Arbor, with its abundance of entertainment, education, and business opportunities, consistently appears as a Livability top city. In fact, livability named it one of the 100 Best Places to Live for the past three years. We’ve also named it one of the best college towns three times already, in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Even veterans will find it a great fit for them, as it was named one of the 10 Best Cities for Maximizing GI Bill Benefits in 2016.

Downtown, high-rise apartment complexes serve as a housing highlight for the student communities of a dozen colleges in the area. There’s ample affordable housing to accommodate University of Michigan’s huge student body of more than 43,000, as well as the students of other smaller institutions in the area. The city is painlessly navigable, with transit systems in place for a trip down the block or to Detroit with ease.

Transit is also reason Ann Arbor has a great climate for business. They’ve benefited from state and federal funding and incentives, and the tech industry buzzing as a result of it. MCity, a driverless cars testing facility, is one of the most recent interesting additions. Companies like MCity are choosing Ann Arbor because the University of Michigan fosters the startup community, which also benefits from the university hospital, a hub of healthcare research and innovation. The University itself employs more 30,000 people, but between startups, healthcare and tech companies, grads have plenty of post-college employment options.

Ann Arbor isn’t all business, though. It’s also home to a slew of annual festivals and events including book fairs, music festivals, film, food, dancing, and art. Residents and students alike can catch the Michigan A Cappella Festival, Shakespeare in the Arb, or the Rolling Sculpture Car Show. A myriad of art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and performance venues create endless opportunities for year-round entertainment. And Ann Arbor boasts the incredible statistic of having more restaurants and independent bookstores per capita than any other city in the nation. Local museums filled with rich history are available to those who love to dive into the past. But if you really want the true Ann Arbor experience, you have to take in a game at Michigan Stadium to watch the Wolverines compete in the Big 10 Conference.

Whatever interests you, you’ll find it in Ann Arbor, a town full of life and growth, and definitely one of America’s quintessential college towns.


4. Cambridge, MA

Courtesy of Ted Eytan under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Ted Eytan under a CC 4.0 license.

Including Cambridge in a list of best college towns feels a little like cheating, because the city is inextricable from Boston. But this city, which appears on this list for a second year in a row, and has been named one of the 100 Best Places to Live three years in a row, sports two of the most prestigious higher learning institutions in the world: Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The list of Harvard and MIT accolades is nearly endless. From world-changing scientific research to the development of some of the world’s most important technologies, these two universities have contributed countless advancements to human civilization. And they’ve done it out in a suburb of one of America’s most historic towns, gifting Cambridge with an identity as a world center for thought and science.

Located on the northwest side of Boston proper, Cambridge is bordered on the south by the Charles River, where any time of any day you’re likely to see university crew teams rowing down the picturesque urban waterway. You’re certain to see them on the next-to-last weekend of October, when the river hosts the Head of the Charles Regatta, the largest 2-day regatta in the world, attracting around 11,000 athletes (many of them from colleges from across the globe) and around 300,000 spectators each year.

Extremely walkable, Cambridge gives its students urban living, endless options for big city dining and entertainment, and all the comforts of living in the sprawling Boston metropolitan area that 80% of Massachusetts’ residents call home. For students who live off campus, the cost of living can be an issue. But with Boston’s easy-to-navigate subway and above-ground rail system, it’s easy to get outside the city limits where housing is plentiful and affordable. It’s no wonder that around 30% of Cambridge residents don’t own cars, making it one of the country’s least car-reliant cities.

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For graduates of the area’s universities, job possibilities are plentiful. Harvard and MIT are the largest employers in town, with the biotech industry snatching up their best and brightest graduates. But with Boston just across the river, jobs are available in nearly every industry imaginable. And with New York City just a short train ride away and international flights out of Boston Logan International Airport, Cambridge residents and the students that call it home, truly have access to the world.


3. Columbia, SC

Courtesy of Jeff Turner under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Jeff Turner under a CC 4.0 license.

Columbia, SC might not benefit from a behemoth university like the University of Michigan, but that’s one of the things that makes it great, and why this is its second year on our 10 Best College Towns list.

As the capital of the state, government jobs abound, along with generally high salaries and the benefits that come with them. Healthcare is also a prominent industry, boasting the two largest employers in the area, Palmetto Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina.

Along with the University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship university, the area is also host to a large number of private institutions, including Baptist, Lutheran, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Methodist colleges. In fact, out of the seven non-technical colleges and universities in the area, six are private.

Adding to the area’s youthful feel is Fort Jackson, the largest U.S. Army Basic Combat Training installation, which employs thousands of military and civilian personnel. The installation also trains about half of all Army entrants each year; and with tens of thousands of families visiting Basic Training graduations almost every week, area restaurants and hotels (and the residents who enjoy them year round) benefit in a big way.

Columbia all offers a huge range of things to do. From outdoor activities like hunting, fishing or camping, to a surprisingly active art and music scene, residents and students have plenty of culture at their fingertips. The Columbia Museum of Art has one of the largest collections in the state, with 20,000 square feet of gallery space. And the town has no shortage of activities for history buffs, either. The South Carolina State Museum boasts an enormous collection of over 45,000 pieces.


2. Irvine, CA

Courtesy of UCI under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of UCI under a CC 4.0 license.

Education has been a boon for years to one of California’s (and the country’s) most educated cities. In 2000, Irvine landed at 7th on the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of metro areas with the highest percentage of people who are at least 25 years old and hold a doctorate degree; and it hasn’t stopped cranking out highly-educated graduates since. That’s no surprise when you consider Irvine’s enormous tech sector. It hosts the headquarters of such digital and consumer electronics companies as Blizzard Entertainment, eMachines, Western Digital, and Broadcom.

Irvine is also home to more than a dozen institutions of higher education. UC Irvine made our Top 10 Best Places to Maximize GI Bill Benefits, and the city itself was named one of our 100 Best Places to Live for the past 3 years (no small feat).

Irvine is known as one of the most affluent and safe cities in the U.S., and it’s not just the techies. The film industry also booms in Irvine because of its phenomenal scenery and proximity to beautiful beaches, trails, and parks. Major motion pictures like Iron Man, Zero Dark Thirty, and Transformers were filmed there.

This city boasts less of a suburbia vibe and more of a mini-downtown-chic energy because of the large amount of art, leisure, and dining experiences available to residents. It’s easy to catch a wave at a nearby beach, experience nightlife at a local club, or find unique dining options. In the spring, residents can catch the UC Irvine Anteaters Division I baseball. Or for the non-sporty, there’s the Irvine Improv Comedy Club. Construction is also currently underway to bring Orange County Great Park, a recreational hub for walking, golfing, and other activities, to the city in 2017. All these entertainment options in this mini-wonderland of opportunity make it the perfect place for students.

Making it even easier for them to enjoy are the transportation options the city has to offer. Bicycle lanes offer a safe way to travel green, while buses and trains allow students to explore even farther from campus. Each of the town’s many “villages” was designed with a certain vibe in mind, so students can immerse themselves in culture as they start to understand the personality that accompanies each area of town. All the fun is accessible to the young people who inhabit the space, making this city a great college town and completely worthy of its #2 spot on our list.


1. Tempe, AZ

Courtesy of Karol Franks under a CC 4.0 license.
Courtesy of Karol Franks under a CC 4.0 license.

Twice named a 100 Best Place to Live, as well as one of the 10 Best Downtowns 2016, Tempe sits just east of Phoenix (the largest metropolitan area in the state) and south of Scottsdale. Tempe’s proximity to those large population and culture centers means residents (and students) have access to a wide range of employment, entertainment, dining and shopping options.

While no professional sports teams currently call Tempe home, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim hold their Spring Training in the city. The area also has a large and successful mixed martial arts community, a wide range of adult sport leagues (including a major rugby following), and enough outdoor activities that residents are never short on excuses to venture out into the desert heat.

But the star for years of both Tempe’s cultural and business growth has been Arizona State University, which every year is one of the largest public universities by enrollment in the entire country. Its 82,000+ students in 2014 would’ve made it Arizona’s 12th largest city just on its own, and it typically employs well over 10,000 people. It also gives Tempe residents cultural and entertainment opportunities, like visiting its art and theater productions, or attending sporting events. But the university also deposits qualified, educated workers into the workforce after every semester, which has allowed the area to make big strides in a huge range of industries, including financial and aerospace—sectors that rely on infrastructure and a workforce that can supply the kind of employees that can make their businesses successful.


This feature originally appeared in Livability.


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