By CVO Staff
Posted July 2015
Everyone knows that small college towns are desirable places to live, often well after graduation. But what really makes a great college town? Is it the positive, youthful vibe, or the security of a tight-knit community? Some people appreciate pleasant climates and awesome recreational opportunities, while others prefer the community culture or the nightlife. As we researched to discover the very best small college towns in the United States, we took into account factors that most everyone considers important—cost of living, unemployment, and crime rates. Beyond that, discovering the best place to call your home should be based on your personal interests and preferences. We can say that no matter which is your “fave” on this list of small college towns, you simply can’t go wrong with any of these. Each of them is in a constant state of improvement as they seek to create the best quality of life for students and residents alike and maintain their reputation among the best college towns in the US.
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1 point for each unique feature that “wowed” us
After evaluating nearly a hundred small college towns in America, it is the opinion of our editors that these are truly the best of the best. Here, we list them in reverse order according to our ranking system. In the case where two or more towns received the same amount of points, we listed them in reverse alphabetical order by town name.
#50 – Valdosta, GA
Valdosta is often referred to as the “Azalea City” for its abundance of blooms. This only adds to the Southern charm of this small college town in the southern part of Georgia. The town preserves its rich history through the many historical sites located throughout Valdosta. Though it is proud of its traditions, the city has also embraced the future and continues to strive toward a greater quality of life for its residents. Forbes magazine has recognized Valdosta as one of the “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” Valdosta has been the backdrop for many scenes from movies and literature, including Fried Green Tomatoes and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Colleges: Valdosta State University
#49 – St. Cloud, MN
Bisected by The Mississippi River, St. Cloud is located in Central Minnesota. The city has over 80 parks encompassing more than 1400 acres of land, providing residents with an abundance of recreational activities. For instance, Beaver Islands, a collection of approximately 30 islands along a 12 mile stretch of wild, scenic river are popular with kayakers and canoeists. St. Cloud’s riverfront downtown area is an ever-growing hub of art galleries, theater companies, restaurants, and shops. Surprisingly, the cost of living in this quaint river town is well below both state and national averages, making it an affordable option for those looking for a vibrant community to call home.
Colleges: St. Cloud University, St. Cloud Technical and Community College, Rasmussen College, Globe University/Minnesota School of Business
#48 – San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo is located on the Central Coast of California about halfway between the big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The downtown area is the city’s cultural hub and features tree-lined sidewalks and a babbling creek which runs through the town. The city also has 68 unique pieces of public art including murals, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass, thanks to the Public Art program. The largest theater in the city is the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly, which regularly hosts performers from around the country and presents a variety of shows, including ballet performances, symphony concerts, dramas, and much more.
Colleges: California Polytechnic State University
#47 – New Brunswick, NJ
Known as “The Healthcare City” for its high concentration of medical institutions as well as the presence of Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and several major pharmaceutical companies, New Brunswick is recognized for its ethnic diversity. It has a strong Hungarian population as well as growing Asian and Hispanic communities. Its cultural offerings include three professional theater venues, most notably the Crossroads Theatre, which is a Tony Award recipient for Best Regional Theatre. Its music scene is also award-winning and has produced bands such as The Smithereens and Bon Jovi. In 2014, New Brunswick was ranked 4th in the list of “10 Best Places to See Indie Bands in the Garden State.”
Colleges: Rutgers University
#46 – Kalamazoo, MI
Kalamazoo, located in Southwest Michigan, has a surprisingly low cost of living for a top college town. Perhaps that is why the city has been named one of the “Ten Best Cities for Cheapskates” by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Even so, there is plenty to do and see in Kalamazoo, including museums, theater productions, music performances, and more. Of particular note is the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which houses over 3500 unique pieces of 20th century American art. In addition, The Kalamazoo Valley Museum has been accredited by the American Association of Museums and features interactive exhibits as well as a planetarium. During winter months, Kalamazoo is also a great venue for sledding and cross-country skiing.
Colleges: Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College
#45 – Conway, AR
Nicknamed “The City of Colleges,” Conway is home to three post-secondary institutions, including the University of Central Arkansas. Along with Central Baptist College and Hendrix College, the University’s various art, theater, and music offerings contribute to the town’s rich culture. Conway is also known for its natural beauty and offers many opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking, swimming, boating, and perhaps most importantly, fishing. Conway has the largest man-made Game and Fish Commission lake in the country. It has also received several awards for its livability. CNN Money has called it one of the “25 Best Places to Retire,” and Forbes listed it as the 14th “Best City for Young Professionals,” making it an obvious pick for our list of great college towns.
Colleges: University of Central Arkansas, Central Baptist College, and Hendrix College
#44 – College Park, MD
Located in central Maryland, College Park boasts an impressively low unemployment rate by both state and national standards. It is home to the “Archives II” facility of the U.S. National Archives, a major employer in the city along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It also encompasses the Calvert Hills Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the National Archives Archeological Site, among several other sites of historic note. Three museums contribute to College Park’s cultural presence: The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park Aviation Museum, and the National Museum of Language.
Colleges: University of Maryland, College Park
#43 – Charlottesville, VA
Home to The University of Virginia, one of the “public Ivies,” Charlottesville is also famous for being the birthplace of not one, but two United States Presidents: Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. For its relatively small size, the town has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment. Four different venues and performance halls welcome first class entertainers to perform for residents and visitors. Charlottesville is also a fairly sizeable hub for indie musicians and is home to the popular Dave Matthews Band. For the outdoorsy type, there is the Shenandoah National Park, featuring scenic hiking trails and beautiful panoramas.
Colleges: University of Virginia
#42 – Burlington, VT
With less than 50,000 residents, Burlington is still considered a small town, but it is actually the second largest city in the state of Vermont. It is located on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain and is just 45 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border. Forbes magazine has named it one of the prettiest towns in America, and AARP has recognized it as a “place to watch” for older people looking for a retirement community. The popular Church Street Marketplace at the heart of the city hosts many well-attended annual festivals and was named one of the country’s “Great Public Spaces” by the American Planning Association.
Colleges: University of Vermont, Burlington College
#41 – Bozeman, MT
Located in southwestern Montana, Bozeman is a fast-growing city thanks to its easy lifestyle, beautiful scenery, fresh mountain air, and recreational offerings. The town has been named an “All-America City” by the National Civic League and was voted the best place to live in the west for skiing by Outside magazine. Bozeman’s vibrant downtown area includes a variety of casual and fine dining restaurants alongside art galleries, boutique shops, and sporting goods stores. The town is home to four museums, including the Museum of the Rockies, which houses the world’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils, as well as the Gallatin History Museum.
Colleges: Montana State University
#40 – Bowling Green, KY
Recognized as one of the “Top 25 Best Places to Retire in the United States” by Forbes magazine, Bowling Green is located in Southern Kentucky and is a manufacturing hub for many major companies, including General Motors and Fruit of the Loom, one of the top employers in the area. With 895 acres of public land for recreational use encompassing over two dozen parks, there is no shortage of outdoor fun to be had in this small college town. No matter where you are in Bowling Green, you’ll find a recreational facility nearby equipped with tennis courts, soccer fields, walking trails, and more. The vibrant downtown area has a riverfront as well as several museums and performing arts centers.
Colleges: Western Kentucky University
#39 – Binghamton, NY
Located near the Pennsylvania border, Binghamton is a town of just under 50,000 residents and is home to Binghamton University, a State University of New York. It is sometimes referred to as the “Valley of Opportunity” because of its stable economy and history as a manufacturing hub. The city is divided into seven distinct neighborhoods, and its downtown area is heavily populated by students. Downtown Binghamton is also the city’s cultural center and is home to many art galleries. The city also boasts a professional orchestra, the Binghamton Philharmonic. Other area attractions include Kopernik Observatory & Science Education Center and the Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park, one of the oldest zoos in the nation.
Colleges: Binghamton University, State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Ridley-Lowell Business & Technical Institute, Empire State College
#38 – State College, PA
Commonly referred to as “Happy Valley,” State College is known for its carefree living. In fact, it has been designated one of the least stressful places to live in the United States by Psychology Today. Even so, it has a robust economy and unemployment rates well below both the state and national averages. For this reason, Forbes magazine ranked it among the top ten small metro areas to start a career or business, and the American Institute for Economic Research ranked it the third best college town in the country. It also boasts an impressive music scene for which it received honorable mention by Rolling Stone magazine, as well as beautiful rolling hills perfect for hiking.
Colleges: Penn State University
#37 – Santa Cruz, CA
With its moderate climate and beautiful coastline, Santa Cruz is a small college town that doubles as a beach resort community. Nicknamed “Surf City,” Santa Cruz is recognized as being one of the best places to surf in the world. It is comprised of several state parks and beaches as well as dozens of parks and open spaces for drier recreation. A walk down Pacific Avenue in the heart of the city’s downtown area will reveal its unique culture. Live music, street performers and artists breathe life into the city as do events such as the Santa Cruz Film Festival, First Friday, and Santa Cruz Farmer’s market.
Colleges: University of California, Santa Cruz
#36 – San Marcos, TX
Beautiful San Marcos, nicknamed “San Marvelous,” is a small college town known for its many rivers and springs that flow through the city. Each of these is surrounded by parks and preserves that allow for outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, tubing, fishing and canoeing. One of the most popular recreational areas is located near the upper area of San Marcos River, which flows through the campus of Texas State University. Downtown San Marcos features many restaurants and entertainment venues as well, including the well-known Texas Music Theater. Business Insider named San Marcos one of the “10 Most Exciting Small Cities in America,” and Business Week has recognized it on the list of “Best Places to Raise Your Kids.”
Colleges: Texas State University
#35 – Orem, UT
Orem can be found in the north-central part of Utah approximately 45 miles south of Salt Lake City. It has been named the 5th best place to raise a family by Forbes magazine and goes by the nickname Family City USA. As a town with a focus on active living, Orem has more square feet of parks than any other city its size in the state of Utah. The town is also home to the Christeele Acres Historic District, an official U.S. Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to having a very large population of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the town also houses quite a few celebrity residents, including actress and singer Marie Osmond, bestselling author Ally Condie, and two finalists from the reality television series So You Think You Can Dance.
Colleges: Utah Valley University
#34 – Morgantown, WV
Morgantown is located on the banks of the Monongahela River in north-central West Virginia and is most notable for being home to West Virginia University. Morgantown is made up of 14 neighborhoods that are located in and around its city center. The city’s permanent population is nearly 30,000, but doubles every year when university is in session. In the early 1970’s, Morgantown was chosen as an experimental test site by the U.S. Department of Transportation for a “Personal Rapid Transit System” due to the city’s unique design, geography, and suburban sprawl. This one-of-a-kind transit now services WVU’s widespread campus free of charge to University students.
Colleges:West Virginia University
#33 – Mankato, MN
Known for its many scenic parks and trails, Mankato, Minnesota is a beautiful place to live and also has the potential to be profitable. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the city’s economic growth leads Minnesota and is nationally competitive as well. Mankato offers a host of recreational opportunities for virtually any type of outdoorsman or athlete as well as events such as national ice tours, music concerts, and theatre showings. Minnesota University is a top employer in the area as is the Mayo Clinic Health System and Verizon Wireless.
Colleges: Minnesota State University Mankato, Bethany Lutheran College Mankato, Rasmussen Business College Mankato, and South Central College, North Mankato
#32 – Kent, OH
Kent is located in Northeast Ohio just 30 miles southeast of Cleveland. It reflects a vibrant college culture, thanks to the presence of Kent State University. For example, Kent Stage in downtown Kent hosts nearly 100 concerts per year and is also a venue for theatrical performances, film festivals, and movie premiers. It attracts performers and visitors from all over the nation and some foreign countries. Kent is also home to over a dozen parks and preserves as well as the newly built Portage Hike and Bike Trail. It is an affordable and safe place to live with a cost of living index much lower than the national average as well as crime rates significantly lower than both the state and national averages.
Colleges: Kent State University
#31 – Johnson City, TN
Low unemployment rates, a reasonable cost of living, and affordable homes make Johnson City one of the most economically friendly small college towns on our list. In fact, Kiplinger has ranked the city #5 on its list of “The 10 Least-Expensive Cities for Living in the U.S.A.,” and Forbes listed it as the #14 “Best Small Place for Businesses and Careers.” Its pleasant climate and views of the Appalachian Mountains make it a popular destination for tourists as well as a lovely home for its residents. Recreational opportunities abound, including hiking, biking, and even riding the rapids. Johnson City also boasts a rich cultural environment complete with unique restaurants, theater venues, and live country music.
Colleges: East Tennessee State University, Milligan College, Northeast State Community College, Tusculum College, ITT Technical Institute
#30 – Grand Forks, ND
Grand Forks lies at the fork of Red River and Red Lake River, hence its name. The town boasts an extremely low unemployment rate, thanks to its diverse economy and major area employers, including Grand Forks Air Base, an arm of the United States Air Force. Recreational opportunities abound in the Grand Forks Park District, especially along the Greater Grand Forks Greenway, which features a large path system for walking or biking as well as wildflower gardens and ski trails. Notable cultural venues in the area include North Dakota Museum of Art, The Empire Arts Center and Chester Fritz Auditorium.
Colleges: The University of North Dakota
#29 – DeKalb, IL
Located in north central Illinois, DeKalb is proud to be home to Northern Illinois University, the third largest campus in the state. In addition to the many student-oriented restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues you’ll find in DeKalb, there is also a substantial Park District consisting of 44 different parks and recreation facilities across 700 sprawling acres. This includes two golf courses, a pool and community center, the Nehring Center for Culture and Tourism, and the Ellwood House Museum and Park among others. DeKalb is an exceptionally safe and affordable place to live, with crime and unemployment rates well below national averages.
Colleges: Northern Illinois University
#28 – Bowling Green, OH
Bowling Green is a small farm town with just less than 30,000 residents. Its miles of scenic trails and parks such as the Simpson Garden Park and the Bowling Green Community Center provide plenty of opportunity for outdoor recreation. The town is known for its unique festivals such as the Black Swamp Arts Festival, which has been ranked in the top 100 shows by Sunshine Artists magazine, as well as the National Tractor Pulling Championships. Bowling Green is also one of the few cities in Ohio to have a nationally accredited Police Division and boasts crime rates that are significantly lower than state and national averages.
Colleges: Bowling Green State University
#27 – Amherst, MA
Amherst is located in the Pioneer Valley, or “Happy Valley” to locals, in Western Massachusetts and is home to two prominent liberal arts colleges and an agricultural research university. As a reflection of its higher educational offerings, the local population shares a mostly liberal point of view with government, culture, and stewardship of their land. While there are many opportunities for employment in this community, nearly half of Amherst’s residents are college students, and the institutions they attend provide most of its jobs. The cost of living is above the national average, but this town enjoys a relatively high medium income and a very low crime rate.
Colleges: Amherst College, Hampshire College, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
#26 – Ames, IA
Located in central Iowa, Ames is just 30 miles north of the state capital, Des Moines. The combination of low crime rates and an affordable cost of living is a winning one for the city’s residents. In fact, CNN has ranked Ames as #9 on its list of “Best Places to Live.” Ames’ residents have a deep appreciation for the arts, and the city is proud to have been the home of nationally recognized artists Gerald M. and Velma Wallace Raynes. Today, the arts scene is centered around The Octagon Center for the Arts, which includes galleries, studios, and classes, as well as The Space for Ames, which is an open art gallery and music venue.
Colleges: Iowa State University of Science and Technology
#25 – Waltham, MA
The extremely low crime and unemployment rate in Waltham coupled with its cultural offerings make it an attractive choice for young professionals. The city’s energetic nightlife can be found downtown, particularly on Moody Street, also known as “Restaurant Row” for its wide variety of restaurants. Other cultural offerings include the Waltham Arts Council, which hosts “Concerts on Waltham Common” each summer as well as The Waltham Mills Artists Association, composed of 76 artists who display their art in various media. Waltham is home to the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra as well as Waltham Symphony Orchestra, which perform several concerts each year.
Colleges: Brandeis University, Bentley University
#24 -Urbana, IL
Located in east central Illinois, Urbana is a small town with a population of just over 40,000. Together with the city of Champaign, Urbana is a micro-urban community with a diverse group of residents, a Big 10 University, and a rich cultural presence. For example, among the many art galleries and entertainment venues that pepper the streets of Urbana are the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Station Theater, Cinema Gallery, and International Galleries. Outdoor recreational opportunities are plentiful in Urbana’s beautiful 600 acre Park District. The town has been recognized as a Tree City USA since 1976 and is home to over 100,000 trees.
Colleges: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
#23 – Terre Haute, IN
Named for the French phrase meaning “Highland,” beautiful Terre Haute is a Tree City USA with over 1,000 acres of land dedicated to parks and recreation. Here, you will find disc golf courses, playgrounds, pools, a butterfly garden and even an arboretum, among many other recreational facilities. In addition, the National Road Heritage Trail is the perfect venue for walking, running, biking, or rollerblading. The city’s downtown area has been revitalized and now offers an arts corridor featuring the Swope Art Museum as well as two art galleries. Part of this revitalization also included the renovation of the historic Indiana Theater, which is now used for concerts, film screenings, and other performances.
Colleges: Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Ivy Tech Community College
#22 – Newark, DE
Newark is a small town with a population of less than 30,000 residents. Even so, it is home to over 12,000 acres of public parkland which presents opportunities for various outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and horseback racing to name a few. The town is also a hub for national and international figure skating, and many state, national, and world champions have trained at the University of Delaware’s Figure Skating Club, including U.S. figure skating champion Johnny Weir. Despite its somewhat higher cost of living, Newark also boasts unemployment and crime rates well below state and national averages.
Colleges: University of Delaware
#21 – Mount Pleasant, MI
With just below 30,000 residents, Mount Pleasant is among the smaller of the top college towns on our list. Located in central Michigan, the city is just over 60 miles north of the state capitol of Lansing. Its bustling downtown area is home to nearly 150 different businesses, including boutique shops, bistros, and art galleries. The beautiful Chippewa River borders the downtown area as do two of the city’s most stunning parks, Island Park and Nelson Park. These parks feature a local trail system as well as hiking and biking paths. Mount Pleasant is also home to the unique Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort.
Colleges: Central Michigan University, Mid Michigan Community College
#20 – Logan, UT
Located in what many refer to as Utah’s Greenland or the Rocky Mountain Caribbean, Logan is located at the base of the 10,000 foot high Bear River Range, making it a beautiful, sought-after destination for many outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, and skiing. Utah State University was founded in 1888 by Logan residents and is the pride of this small-town community. Its crime rate is nearly half of both state and national averages, making it one of the safest places to live in the United States. Logan’s rich culture is impressive as well. Despite its small size, it is home to an opera company, many dance studios, and several acclaimed artists.
Colleges: Utah State University
#19 – Ithaca, NY
Ithaca is a picturesque town with a pleasant located at the head of Cayuga Lake. In addition to its renown as the home of prestigious Cornell University, Ithaca was also the launching pad for the famous band, The Spin Doctors. Today, the town maintains an impressive music scene, largely owing to the School of Music at Ithaca College, which attracts talented musicians from around the country. The city is also home to several professional theaters as well as a civic orchestra. The American Institute for Economic Research recently ranked Ithaca as the #1 Best College Town in America.
Colleges: Cornell University, Ithaca College
#18 – Iowa City, Iowa
Located in east central Iowa, Iowa City has all of the attractions and amenities you’d expect from an urban metropolis, but with a small-town feel. The heart of the city, Pedestrian Plaza, offers something for everyone. Students can be found eating at an outdoor cafe or playing on the plaza’s life-size chess board while families take advantage of the children’s play area, and retirees enjoy fine cuisine from some of the town’s world class restaurants. The city is also home to several theatres, including Riverside Theatre’s open-air Shakespearean stage. In addition, Iowa City maintains 41 beautiful parks, which provide plenty of opportunity for sports and recreation.
Colleges: University of Iowa
#17 – Evanston, IL
Affectionately referred to as “E-town” by locals, Evanston is located in northern Illinois, just 12 miles from downtown Chicago. Its beautiful Lake Michigan beaches as well as ice skating and sledding venues ensure there are plenty of recreational opportunities for residents and visitors year round. Evanston is also home to one of the biggest arts communities in the state of Michigan, thanks to its many museums, art galleries, and theaters. The city is widely known for its environmental practices, including its award-winning Climate Action Plan and offshore wind farm. The Evanston Environmental Association hosts an annual Green Living Festival to celebrate and encourage sustainability.
Colleges: Northwestern University
#16 – Claremont, CA
The town of Claremont, California is located just 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and is known for its quaint, tree-lined streets and historic buildings. It has been referred to as “The City of Trees and PhDs” because of its vast tree population and the number of residents with doctoral degrees. With a population of approximately 35,000, Claremont is a small, quiet town with not only a student presence, but a collection of retirement communities as well. CNN Money has recognized Claremont as the fifth best place to live in the country, and it has consistently been a winner of the National Arbor Day Association’s Tree City USA award.
Colleges: Claremont McKenna College, Claremont Graduate University, Harvey Mudd College, Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, Pitzer College, Pomona College, Scripps College, and Claremont School of Theology.
#15 – Carbondale, IL
Home of the main campus of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale is located less than a hundred miles southeast of St. Louis on the northern edge of Shawnee National Forest. The 13 other parks in Carbondale include the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Little Grand Canyon, and the Trail of Tears State Park, which provide recreational opportunities such as hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The university presence also adds a rich cultural element to the town, presenting many avenues for artistic, musical, and theatrical expression. Carbondale is also an affordable place to live, with a cost of living index that is 11% lower than the state average and 12.2% lower than the national average.
Colleges: Southern Illinois University
#14 – Bloomington, IN
Located in Southern Indiana, Bloomington is often referred to as the “Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana.” It was named Bloomington upon its establishment because the founders were taken aback by what they called a “haven of blooms.” Today, the town is known as a Tree City USA and has been for more than three decades. Bloomington boasts a low unemployment rate, thanks to several major employers in the area encompassing diverse fields such as life sciences, manufacturing, and technology. In fact, the city has been awarded the following titles: one of Inc. Magazine’s “America’s Best Cities for Doing Business,” Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Hottest Small Towns for Entrepreneurs,” and Forbes Magazine’s “Best Places for Business Careers.”
Colleges: Indiana University Bloomington, Ivy Tech Community College
#13 – Blacksburg, VA
Blacksburg, Virginia has been consistently recognized as an idyllic place to live. Southern Living has named it the “Best College Town in the South,” and Businessweek recognized it as the “Best Place in the U.S. to Raise Kids.” Its natural beauty can be attributed to its location between the scenic Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. Blacksburg is a town rooted in its history and is home to several places listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has also been called “A Creative Village,” offering many cultural events and artistic venues, such as the historic Lyric Theatre and the Moss Arts Center for the Arts.
Colleges: Virginia Tech
#12 – Auburn, AL
Unofficially nicknamed “The Loveliest Village on The Plains,” Auburn is one of the fastest growing cities in Alabama. Its college-town feel and friendly Southern hospitality has earned it local and national recognition. U.S. News has named it one of the top ten places to live in the United States, and Niche.com has ranked it the number one best town in Alabama. Auburn’s rich culture is visible through the many museums, theatre companies, and dance schools scattered across town. For outdoor enthusiasts, there are sixteen parks, including the lovely 700-acre Chewacia State Park in the Appalachian foothills as well as the Donald E. Davis Arboretum.
Colleges: Auburn University
#11 – West Lafayette, Indiana
West Lafayette is located across the Wabash River from its sister city Lafayette and is home to well-known Purdue University. In addition to being one of the most populous cities in the state, it is also recognized as the most diverse city in the Midwest. Residents of West Lafayette hail from 120 different countries. Each year, the town hosts a Global Fest to celebrate what they refer to as this “unique and exciting strength.” It is also an exceptionally safe place to live, with an average crime rate that is 41% lower than the state average and 39% lower than the national average. Its unemployment rate is impressively low as well, due in large part to the presence of Purdue.
Colleges: Purdue University
#10 – Stillwater, OK
Stillwater is the county seat of Payne County in north-central Oklahoma. Though this town and the surrounding area is known as “Cowboy Country,” Stillwater offers much more than bull riding. Educational and employment opportunities range from aerospace and electronics to agriculture and biotech. Oklahoma State University’s student body makes up 30 percent of the local population of roughly 47,000, and there are an additional 2,000 attending a satellite campus of Northern Oklahoma College, also located in Stillwater. Designed on wide open spaces, the city has a grid layout, making its many amenities easy to find. This college town is easy on the wallet, has plentiful employment opportunities, and a very low crime rate.
Colleges: Oklahoma State University, Northern Oklahoma College
#9 – Oxford, MS
With a population of only 20,000, Oxford, Mississippi is one of the smallest towns on our list, but there are several big reasons why it’s a great place to live. With low crime and unemployment rates by both state and national standards and one of the top school systems in the nation, Oxford is a safe place to live, work, study, and raise a family. It has been recognized by USA Today as one of the top six college towns in America. English majors and lovers of literature may also recognize Oxford as the hometown of author William Faulkner.
Colleges: University of Mississippi
#8 – Eau Claire, WI
Located in west central Wisconsin, Eau Claire is named for the clear waters of the Eau Claire River. It is positioned at the head of the Chippewa River State Trail, which is a popular recreational spot for hikers and bikers. Eau Claire’s downtown life is equally active. Live music can be heard playing from several different venues on any given night, and the city is home to one of the best university jazz programs in the United States. Its college jazz ensemble has been awarded the sought after “DownBeat Magazine Award” six times. Although secondary to the music scene, Eau Claire also has a theatre community, which includes the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre. A reasonable cost of living and crime rates below the national average give this thriving small town a top space on our list.
Colleges: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College
#7 – East Lansing, MI
Just east of the state capital, East Lansing is best known for being the home of Michigan State University and has a very large student population. It is located close to several major cities, including Detroit, Chicago, and Toronto, as well as the beautiful beaches of Lake Michigan. Although the cost of living in East Lansing is slightly above the state average, it is still below the national average, and the crime rate is two times lower than that of the Michigan average. The city is comprised of 25 different neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly comprised of students.
Colleges: Michigan State University
#6 – Davis, CA
The city of Davis is located in the Central Valley of northern California in Yolo County, just over ten miles from the big city of Sacramento. Davis has been recognized as one of “America’s Best Biking Cities” and is home to the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. Its progressive community is also known for its environmental programs and its energy conservation measures. A rich cultural hub, Davis houses over two dozen art galleries as well as a revived performing arts center. Its dedication to art can be seen through the over $200,000 worth of public art showcased throughout the city. Although its cost of living is significantly higher than most other cities on our list, those who can afford to live here will enjoy the liveliness of a big city, but in a much safer, much friendlier environment.
Colleges: University of California, Davis
#5 – Corvallis, OR
At the heart of Willamette Valley in central Western Oregon is the charming town of Corvallis, a must-consider on your list of college towns. The award-winning city has been recognized as one of the best college towns in the US as well as one of the ten best places to live in the United States. Its residents are community-minded and work hard to maintain its natural beauty. The town was also ranked #1 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Green Power Communities. Its vibrant cultural scene offers many things to do and beautiful things to look at close to home, but if you want to venture out, Corvallis is just 90 short minutes away from Portland, as well as world class skiing venues and the Oregon coast.
Colleges: Oregon State University
#4 – Chapel Hill, NC
Often called a “town within a park” because of its picturesque setting, Chapel Hill is home to the first public university to be established in the United States, the University of North Carolina. Like many of the best college towns, it has a vibrant cultural and entertainment scene, but Chapel Hill is also recognized for its world-class cuisine and dining. Bon Appetit magazine recognized it as one of “America’s Foodiest Small Towns.” It is also home to several nationally acclaimed restaurants, including A Southern Season, Mama’s Dip, and Crook’s Corner. Getting around town to explore such venues is easy, thanks to the city’s public transit system, which is the largest fare-free transit system in the nation.
Colleges: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
#3 – Normal, IL
Normal’s low crime and unemployment rates, coupled with a very reasonable cost of living, make it one of the most attractive small college towns on our list. Its thriving economy can be attributed to the major employers in the area, including Illinois State University, State Farm Insurance, and Mitsubishi Motors. Normal recently received the Bronze Level Bicycle Friendly Community Award from the League of American Bicyclists. It is also home to 24 parks, which offer various recreational opportunities, such as pools, skate parks, and other facilities. The 24-mile Bloomington-Normal Constitution Trail is a town favorite for walkers, joggers, cyclists, and skaters.
Colleges: Illinois State University, Heartland Community College
#2 – Manhattan, Kansas
Nicknamed “The Little Apple,” Manhattan, Kansas has an urban feel with small town charm. With an affordable cost of living and low crime and unemployment rates, there’s much to love about this top college town. In fact, CNN and Money magazines have both named Manhattan as one of the ten best places to retire young, and Forbes ranked it #1 in its list of “Best Small Communities for a Business and Career.” There’s no shortage of things to do in Manhattan, either. In addition to Aggieville, the town’s cultural center, the city is home to Sunset Zoo and Colbert Hills Golf Course, one of the best courses in the state according to Golf Digest.
Colleges: Kansas State University
#1 – Laramie, WY
Located on the Laramie River and between Snowy Range and Laramie Range, the number one small college town on our list is a hotspot for outdoor enthusiasts who find it ideal for recreational activities such as skiing, snowmobiling, mountain biking, and trout fishing. Laramie has 14 city parks as well as a community recreation center. It is also a great place for sightseeing; the Highway 130 corridor which crosses Snowy Range has been designated a National Scenic Byway. In addition to beautiful scenery, Laramie has impressively low crime and unemployment rates.
Colleges: University of Wyoming, Wyoming Technical Institute