With a full calendar of local events, lively atmospheres, and usually a lower cost of living, college towns make for great places to live. Of course, college towns also tend to be small and the types of places where everyone knows everyone. This can present a challenge in politics, especially for the residents who may hold opinions different from those around them. That’s why we’ve researched to find the 30 most affordable politically liberal college towns. These are the liberal cities with low living costs in 2020 and beyond.
To create our list, we looked at the most politically liberal college towns. With few exceptions, these are liberal small towns in which at least half of the voting population is registered Democrat. To figure out which college towns are most affordable, we looked at costs for housing, food, healthcare, transportation, utilities, and entertainment and compared those costs to the national average.
Ranking the Top Liberal College Towns
30. Berkeley, California
University of California, Berkeley
Located just across the bridge from San Francisco, Berkeley has been synonymous with Progressive politics for decades. Indeed, 78.1% of Alameda County residents vote Democrat, making this college town the ideal place for young, college-aged liberals. Berkeley’s cost of living is much more reasonable than San Francisco or New York. However, students living off-campus should be prepared for living costs averaging slightly higher than the norm. Costs for utilities, transportation, entertainment, healthcare, and food all range between 0-19% higher than the American average. A one-bedroom apartment’s average cost is roughly $1,900 per month. Fortunately, Berkeley is full of college students/potential roommates.
29. Santa Barbara, California
University of California, Santa Barbara
One of the best liberal cities to live in, Santa Barbara’s cost of living is a whopping 123.4% higher than the national average. But this stunning California coastal town is worth every extra penny! Nicknamed the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is known for its stellar ocean views, laid-back vibe, and consistently ideal weather. The biggest difference in the cost of living is housing. Santa Barbara’s median home price hovers just under $1.2 million. A student living off campus at UC Santa Barbara should expect to shell out about $2,100 for a one-bedroom apartment each month. Comparatively, costs for food, healthcare, utilities, transportation, and entertainment all average below or on par with the national average.
28. Santa Cruz, California
University of California, Santa Cruz
Part college town and part beach town, Santa Cruz has long attracted hippies and other Progressive folks. This is evidenced by the fact that more than 75% of Santa Cruz’s population votes blue. Students at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California have access to large sandy beaches, great surfing spots, and of course, the town’s famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. A student living in Santa Cruz can expect to pay lower than the national average for costs associated with healthcare and utilities and only slightly more than the norm for food, entertainment, and transportation. As is the case with most California towns on our list of the most affordable liberal college towns, the biggest difference in cost is housing. Santa Cruz’s median home price is about $909,500, while a one-bedroom apartment can be had for about $2,070 per month.
27. Bronxville, New York
Sarah Lawrence College; Concordia College
Located in the Southeast corner of New York state, at the mouth of the Hudson River, is the small town of Bronxville, one of the most liberal small towns in America. It’s known for its vibrant local arts scene, the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, and its liberal politics. Indeed, 62% of Bronxville’s approximately 6,400 residents vote Democrat. Though Bronxville’s cost of living remains lower than that of nearby New York City, it still averages about 88% higher than the rest of the country. A one-bedroom apartment in Bronxville will set one back $1,658 a month. Those looking to stay in town longer term should expect a median home cost of about $783,700.
26. Cambridge, Massachusetts
Harvard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Cambridge College
Home to both Harvard and MIT, plus some smaller colleges and universities, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the quintessential college town. Still, such a large student population hasn’t kept its cost of living from reaching 82% above the national average. The biggest difference in cost is housing, which averages a whopping 249% higher than the U.S. average and 76.4% higher than the Massachusetts average. This means students looking to live outside of a dorm room will likely spend about $2,014 per month on a one-bedroom apartment. In slightly better news, costs for healthcare and transportation average less than the national average, while costs for food, utilities, and entertainment average between 15-24% higher.
25. Oakland, California
Mills College; California College of the Arts; Holy Names University
Located near fellow liberal college town Berkeley, Oakland is home to myriad colleges, including Mills College, Holy Names University, and California College of the Arts. Oakland’s large and diverse population ensures local college students enjoy a unique college experience. The monthly cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland averages just over $1,700. This is about $400 less than the average for the greater San Francisco Bay Area. That’s great news for budget-minded students determined to live near the Bay. In terms of politics, Oakland remains one of the most Progressive areas in an already liberal area. Approximately 79% of Oakland’s residents vote Democrat.
24. Claremont, California
Claremont McKenna College; Pomona College; Harvey Mudd College; Pitzer College; Scripps College
Nestled in California’s picturesque San Gabriel foothills, Claremont is home to the prestigious consortium of Claremont colleges. Seventy percent of Claremont residents vote Democrat, and the town is known for its eccentric college-town vibe, a full calendar of local events, and pretty views of snow-capped mountains. With a cost of living that averages about 70% higher than the national average, Claremont remains slightly more affordable than other towns in the greater Los Angeles area. Costs for healthcare average below the national norm, while housing remains the largest cost difference. A one-bedroom apartment in Claremont costs an average of $1,560 per month.
23. Boulder, Colorado
University of Colorado, Boulder
Outdoor-loving college students are sure to love living in Boulder. The politics are solidly liberal, alternative social lifestyles are embraced, and there is plenty of hiking and skiing to be had in the nearby Rocky Mountains. In fact, with its bike lanes, vibrant arts scene, and collection of locally owned businesses, Boulder feels like the quintessential college town. Even its higher cost of living — approximately 67% higher than the national average — doesn’t dull Boulder’s shine. A local one-bedroom apartment can be rented for about $1,400 per month. Average costs for food, utilities, transportation, healthcare, and entertainment all trend below or right on par with the national norm.
22. Medford, Massachusetts
Located about 10 minutes from Boston, Medford, Massachusetts, is home to Tufts University. In this Progressive-minded college town, about 62% of people vote Democrat. It enjoys a cost of living slightly higher than the rest of The Bay State but far lower than nearby Cambridge (also on our list of the most affordable liberal college towns). A one-bedroom apartment in Medford can be rented for about $1,720 per month. Overall costs for utilities, transportation, entertainment, food, and healthcare range from 17% below the national average (healthcare) to 25% above (entertainment).
21. Portland, Oregon
Portland State University; University of Portland; Lewis & Clark College; Reed College
“Keep Portland Weird.” With a catchphrase like that printed on every t-shirt, bumper sticker, and postcard in town, you know Portland is a fun place. It’s also affordable — at least when compared to other Progressive West Coast college towns. One-bedroom apartments located in town average about $1,225 per month. That’s about $90 more than the greater Portland area and about $300 more than the Oregon average. But costs for food, utilities, and healthcare all average below or on par with the national average. Such affordability should leave plenty of pocket money to enjoy the local arts scene, the shops and restaurants of the picturesque downtown, and the nearby natural surroundings.
20. College Park, Maryland
University of Maryland, College Park
A whopping 90% of College Park residents vote Democrat, so Progressive students looking for a solidly liberal college town should take a good look at College Park. Located in the greater Washington, D.C. area, College Park is a beautiful historic town with a vibrant local arts scene, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, and stunning views of the Potomac River. And while its cost of living averages about 23% higher than the national average, College Park is a significantly less expensive place to live than nearby Washington, Arlington, or Alexandria. For example, a one-bedroom apartment in College Park averages $1,375 per month, while that same apartment would cost nearly $100 more in any of the aforementioned neighboring towns.
19. Evanston, Illinois
Home to the prestigious Northwestern University, Evanston is located within sight of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a population of approximately 76,000 people (74% of whom vote Democrat), Evanston has a solid college population living amongst a wealthier older population. Such economic diversity makes for an interesting town. For the college student living in Evanston, the cost of living is slightly higher than that of Chicago. A one-bedroom apartment, for example, typically rents for about $1,360 per month. Transportation is the next highest cost-of-living category in Evanston. It’s about 28.5% higher than the national norm.
18. Ann Arbor, Michigan
University of Michigan
Home to Michigan’s Big Blue, Ann Arbor is the quintessential college town. Surrounding the sprawling University of Michigan campus are typical college town amenities: book shops, coffee houses, boutiques, bars and restaurants, and just about anything else a Michigan student might need. Of course, to live in such a welcoming and charming college town costs a bit more than in some other places. The cost of living here is 17.5% higher than the national average. While most cost-of-living categories are right on par with the norm, housing is about 64% higher than the American average (and 98% higher than the Michigan average!). To put that into perspective, a one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor rents for around $1,063 per month.
17. Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College Massachusetts
Located at the head of Narragansett Bay near the Rhode Island border, Norton, Massachusetts, is a charming college town of about 19,000 full-time residents. As the home of Wheaton College, Norton is known for its educated population, its welcoming and walkable downtown area, and its local arts scene. Just about 60% of Norton residents vote Democrat. Norton is also affordable, with a cost of living averaging just 14% higher than the national norm. As with the vast majority of college towns on our list, the biggest cost difference is housing, which averages 50.2% higher than the rest of the country. But wait! That isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, considering the Massachusetts average is a whopping 76.4% higher than the national average. A one-bedroom apartment in Norton can be rented for about $890 per month — almost $350 less than the average for Massachusetts as a whole.
16. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
Nicknamed “The Ville” for its picturesque Tudor-style downtown, Swarthmore is a small town with a laid-back ambiance. Much of the town is made up of upscale neighborhoods, though a small downtown provides local Swarthmore College students with the basics: a food market, a pizza parlor, and of course, a Target. Some favorite local pastimes include hiking Crum Woods, a woody natural reserve situated next to the campus, driving into nearby Philadelphia, or participating in the local left-leaning political scene. Swarthmore’s charming quaintness is part of the reason that the cost of living is 13% higher than the national average.
15. Annandale on Hudson, New York
A one-bedroom apartment in Annandale on Hudson, New York, averages about $1,586 per month — about $300 higher than the New York average. Annandale on Hudson is known for its local arts and culture scenes, though the town is also close enough to New York City to ensure having a night or weekend out is totally possible. Regarding the local political scene, approximately 53% of Annandale on Hudson residents vote Democrat.
14. Amherst, Massachusetts
University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
With a population of just under 40,000 people, charming Amherst, Massachusetts is one of The Bay State’s more affordable college towns. In fact, Sperling’s Best Places lists the cost of living as one of the pros to living in Amherst, along with the many local museums and the easy access to nearby mountains. Living costs for this politically liberal town average about 12% higher than the national average but 17% lower than the Massachusetts average. Costs for healthcare, food, utilities, transportation, and entertainment also average less than the rest of the state.
13. Burlington, Vermont
University of Vermont; Champlain College; Burlington College; Trinity College
With a population of about 42,000 people, Burlington is Vermont’s largest city. Home to the University of Vermont, plus a handful of smaller colleges, Burlington enjoys a youthful vibe. The city is located along the shores of Lake Champlain, so outdoor recreation and water sports are popular pastimes here. Seventy percent of Burlington’s population vote Democrat. In terms of cost of living, Burlington averages about 12% higher than the national average and 17% higher than the rest of Vermont. Students living off-campus should expect to pay about $1,067 for a one-bedroom apartment.
12. Northampton, Massachusetts
Massachusetts is hardly the most affordable state in the Union, but thankfully, Northampton is a town with a cost of living much more appealing to the college crowd. Students at nearby Smith College can expect to spend about 8% more on necessities than the rest of the country but about 20% less than other students in Massachusetts. The biggest difference in cost is housing. Students in Northampton can rent a one-bedroom place for approximately $925 per month, about $300 less than The Bay State’s average. Those interested in the local political scene will be happy to know that Democrats make up 70% of the local population.
11. Olympia, Washington
The Evergreen State College
Olympia may be the capital of Washington, but with a population of only 50,000 people, it enjoys a small college-town feel. Students at The Evergreen State College are sure to enjoy Olympia’s beautiful natural setting and close proximity to outdoor recreational spots like Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and the Pacific coast. Perhaps best of all is the fact that students on a budget can enjoy all that Olympia has to offer because the city enjoys a cost of living lower than the Washington average. Some cost of living categories, such as utilities, average less than the national norm, while others are right on par.
10. Asheville, North Carolina
University of North Carolina, Asheville
Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville has been called the “eastern equivalent of the many mountain resort towns that dot the American West, particularly in the Rocky Mountains.” Indeed, this picturesque little town has enjoyed a renaissance of late and has attracted a young crowd of artist and musician types. Fortunately, living in Asheville has remained affordable. Cost of living averages only about 6% higher than the national average. The biggest cost difference is housing, which is 24% higher than the rest of the country.
9. Poughkeepsie, New York
Historically, Poughkeepsie hasn’t had the best reputation as a college town. Fortunately, things for Poughkeepsie’s college crowd have vastly improved thanks to the community’s growing relationship with Vassar College, a series of downtown renovation projects, and a historic preservation movement to transform some of the town’s oldest buildings. And Poughkeepsie is remarkably affordable! Housing here is right on par with the national average, while costs for food, healthcare, utilities, transportation, and entertainment hover just above.
8. Providence, Rhode Island
Brown University; Johnson & Wales University; Providence College
Nearly 67% of Providence voters vote Democrat, making this charming Rhode Island town a solidly liberal one. Aspiring Progressives should also be happy to know that Providence’s cost of living makes it the 8th most affordable town on our list. Averaging only about 5% higher than the national norm, Providence’s most expensive cost-of-living categories are entertainment (26% higher), utilities (16% higher), and transportation (11% higher). Housing, on the other hand, averages 9% lower than the national average!
7. Northfield, Minnesota
Carleton College; St. Olaf College
Located near the Twin Cities, Northfield, Minnesota, is home to Carleton College and St. Olaf College. Northfield itself is a charming Midwestern town characterized by its welcoming, pedestrian-friendly downtown area and lively picturesque neighborhoods. Students at the nearby colleges will have plenty to see and do in Northfield and the surrounding areas, especially since the local cost of living is right on par with the national average. A one-bedroom rental in Northfield can be had for an average of $780 per month, about $150 less than the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
6. Worcester, Massachusetts
Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Worcester State University; College of the Holy Cross; Clark University; Assumption College
As the second largest city in Massachusetts, Worcester is home to many colleges and universities and their student populations. There is plenty to do in a place like Worcester. Enjoy the many small museums, take in the local performing arts scene, hike the nearby mountains, and more. As with any city, the cost of living varies with each section of town but generally averages about 2% higher than the rest of the country. At 8% above average, utilities are the biggest cost difference, followed closely by housing. Healthcare, on the other hand, is 14% below the national norm.
5. Middletown, Connecticut
Connecticut is not an inexpensive state, and Middletown is an attractive suburb of the capital, Hartford. But with its cost of living averaging only 1.5% above the national norm, Middletown, Connecticut, is a surprisingly affordable college town. Thanks to Middletown’s stable economy, college students at Wesleyan University can live off campus and pay 11.2% lower than the national average. That means a one-bedroom apartment can be rented for about $980 per month, leaving some pocket money to enjoy the diverse local arts scene and everything else that Middletown offers.
4. Ithaca, New York
Cornell University; Ithaca College
Located in one of the most naturally stunning areas of New York, Ithaca is well known for its college-town atmosphere. Both Ithaca College and Ivy-league Cornell attract some of the best and brightest, and both are known for their active political scene. Students living in Ithaca often comment on how the town feels more sophisticated than the stereotypical college town. Popular pastimes include less partying and more hiking and wine tasting around the local area. Surprisingly, living here isn’t as expensive as one might initially think. Ithaca’s overall cost of living is about 1% lower than the national average. Housing, for example, averages about 5% higher than the norm, but a one-bedroom apartment can be rented for just over $965.
3. South Hadley, Massachusetts
Mount Holyoke College
Home to about 18,000 full-time residents (70% of whom describe themselves as Democrats), South Hadley, Massachusetts plays host to the students of Mount Holyoke College. Located about two hours inland from Boston, South Hadley is a charming town known for its museums and arts culture, the nearby mountain range, and an affordable cost of living. South Hadley’s cost of living averages about 1.5% lower than the national average and about 28.7% lower than the Massachusetts state average. Also interesting is the fact that South Hadley is the first college town on our list in which housing is not the greatest difference in cost of living. College students living here can expect to pay approximately $830 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.
2. Swannanoa, North Carolina
Warren Wilson College
Located a stone’s throw from Asheville (also on our list), Swannanoa enjoys the same stunning natural scenery and lively local arts scene as its bigger neighbor. But it’s even more affordable! Swannanoa boasts an overall cost of living that is only 3.1% higher than the national average. The biggest cost difference here is healthcare, which is 15.2% higher. Every other category averages equal to or lower than the norm. This includes housing, which actually averages 3.5% lower than the rest of the country, making a one-bedroom rental obtainable for $720 per month.
1. Oberlin, Ohio
And finally! The most affordable liberal college town is Oberlin, Ohio. Home to Oberlin College since 1833, Oberlin is an energetic and politically active place well known for its Progressive student population. Although food costs in Oberlin are only 2.2% lower than the national norm, students have a wide variety of affordable options from which to choose. Healthcare, utilities, transportation, and entertainment costs all hover slightly above the national average. Still, Oberlin students hoping to live off campus will be happy to know that housing costs are a whopping 42% less than the rest of the country! Overall, Oberlin enjoys a cost of living that is nearly 23% lower than the national average.