22 College Towns That You Can Live in Forever

22 College Towns That You Can Live in Forever

Looking for a place to settle down after you graduate?

Big coastal cities like Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco have jobs galore for well-qualified grads. If you like energy and excitement, they’re also undeniably fun places to live. You don’t have to go far to take in world-class culture, try exciting new cuisines, or be a tourist in your own town for a day.

Problem is, big-city life is expensive. Really expensive. Do you know how much it costs to rent a one-bedroom apartment in New York City? If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

If your new hometown need only have reasonably affordable rent and a strong economic base, you might not have to look far at all. Dozens of smaller U.S. college towns are popular with postgrads because their economies and cultures mimic large coastal cities without eye-popping housing costs, interminable commutes, and a high likelihood of lifestyle inflation.

The Top College Towns for Nonstudents

This is our list of the top college towns for nonstudents.

Each entry calls out:

  • The biggest university in town
  • The city’s population
  • Median home value or list price
  • Median monthly rent
  • Median household income, where recent data is available
  • Unemployment rate

Wherever possible, these stats cover only the city itself. However, some of these places are part of much larger metropolitan areas, which the numbers used may reflect.

1. Madison, Wisconsin

  • Major University: University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • Population: 259,680 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $296,833 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,272 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $62,906 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.8% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Madison’s core occupies a narrow isthmus between two oblong lakes, Mendota and Monona. In Madison proper, you’re never more than a couple miles from one of the lakes, and most residents of the isthmus live within a 15 minutes’ walk of a shoreline.

Madison’s unusual geography belies a conventional, if rock-solid, economic base. The city’s two biggest employers are the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Wisconsin’s state government. It’s hard to forget who pays the bills here: Bustling State Street, Madison’s main drag, is bookended by UW-Madison’s stately campus and the high dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Madison is about 75 miles west of Milwaukee and 150 miles northwest of Chicago. Some extreme commuters make the daily drive to Milwaukee’s western suburbs, but there’s really no need – Madison’s twin economic engines support a surprisingly diverse business community.

Why You Should Live There

Economically speaking, Madison is in much better shape than Milwaukee, where deindustrialization’s long shadow still looms. Median incomes are higher and unemployment rates far lower here than in Wisconsin’s largest city.

Like the other smaller Midwestern cities on this list, Madison is also renowned for its quality of life. The city’s incredible park system owes its existence to the visionary city fathers who set aside much of the city-facing lakefront for public use. Madison has an extensive network of protected bike lanes and trails, ample bike sharing coverage, and an active culture that prizes health and fitness.

Culturally, Madison punches above its weight. The Overture Center for the Arts supports two orchestra companies, a ballet, an opera, and a theater troupe. Central Madison has two major art museums and one of the country’s best state historical societies too.

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Not a fan of driving? Madison is the only town on this list that made our roundup of the best U.S. cities to live without a car. Though it’s smaller than most of the other cities mentioned in that post, its smart growth policies, ample bike lanes, and excellent public transit make it a realistic choice for transplants who’ve embraced the car-free lifestyle.

Madison Wisconsin University

2. Ann Arbor, Michigan

  • Major University: University of Michigan
  • Population: 119,980 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $389,833 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,580 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $63,956 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.0% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Ann Arbor shares passing similarities with Madison. Like its Big Ten rival city, Ann Arbor is home to the flagship campus of its state’s top public university. It’s not too far from a much larger metropolis that’s well past its industrial prime – in this case Detroit, about an hour to the east. It’s blessed with a vibrant economy, complete with high median household incomes and low unemployment rates. It even has its own State Street – in Ann Arbor, a vibrant, artsy stretch just north of the central business district.

The big difference between Ann Arbor and Madison: Ann Arbor isn’t Michigan’s state capital. That honor falls to Lansing, an hour or so northwest. (Lansing is technically a college town as well – Michigan State University’s main campus is located in nearby East Lansing – but it didn’t make this list.)

Why You Should Live There

Even for the home of a major research university, Ann Arbor’s knowledge economy is formidable. More than 12,000 people work at the university medical center alone – one of the country’s highest concentrations of medical employment in a city of Ann Arbor’s size.

The city’s vibrant high-tech economy gets a boost from the university too. Thousands of former students with advanced or terminal degrees stick around after their programs end. Thanks to them, Ann Arbor is among the best non-coastal U.S. cities for tech startups. And, if you can’t find a job that suits your specialty in Ann Arbor, head over to Detroit’s western suburbs, where the Big Three automakers and their automotive suppliers employ tens of thousands of people in design, R&D, and other high-paying functions.

Ann Arbor is a fixture on lists of the most livable cities in the United States: CNN in 2008, Forbes in 2010, and on and on. High marks on the quality of life front make Ann Arbor’s above-average housing costs bearable for transplants willing to make reasonable budgetary sacrifices. Relatively high median household incomes don’t hurt either. And the city government’s long-term master development plan should take some pressure off the city’s housing stock.

3. Tempe, Arizona

  • Major University: Arizona State University
  • Population: 195,805 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $331,288 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,419 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $54,210 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.3% (Phoenix MSA September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Tempe is one of many cities in the Valley of the Sun, as the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area is known. It’s therefore a bit misleading to say that Tempe’s population is less than 200,000. While that’s technically true, more than four million souls reside within an hour’s drive of Mill Avenue, the city’s commercial heart.

Culturally, Tempe isn’t all that different from Madison or Ann Arbor. It’s the home of a major state school with a diverse, cosmopolitan population hailing from all 50 states and dozens of countries. I’ve spent time in both Madison and Ann Arbor, and I’m a Northerner through and through, but my experience of Tempe wasn’t foreign at all – save for the 105-degree heat and dun-colored landscape.

Why You Should Live There

If you enjoy the laid-back college town lifestyle but worry about sacrificing the charms and conveniences of a major city, Tempe is a great place to live.

You don’t have to pay a premium for this compromise. The Valley of the Sun is among the United States’ most affordable major metropolitan areas – far cheaper than San Diego or Los Angeles, both less than a day’s drive to the west. Tempe is actually one of the more expensive communities in the Valley, though it’s big and diverse enough for frugal postgrads to find reasonable accommodations at well under the median monthly rent listed here.

4. Iowa City, Iowa

  • Major University: University of Iowa
  • Population: 75,130 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $233,312 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $906 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby Des Moines, Iowa)
  • Median Household Income: $47,275 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.0% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Though it’s not the biggest city in Iowa by a long shot, Iowa City is probably the most urbane. Located in a surprisingly picturesque valley (yes, Iowa has hills) southeast of Cedar Rapids, it’s the quintessential Midwestern college town, with a tidy, urbane downtown nudging up against a leafy campus dotted with stately 19th century structures and 20th-century monoliths.

Iowa City has some unexpected cultural treasures. It’s home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop – the United States’ first creative writing program, still regarded as the foremost course of its kind. Other writer-friendly resources include the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop, the university’s nonfiction writing program, the International Writing Program (a major contributor to the city’s United Nations vibe), and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. These resources earned Iowa City an early spot on UNESCO’s World City of Literature list – a remarkable honor for a town of its size.

Why You Should Live There

Iowa City’s idyllic, cultured character really can’t be overstated. If you’re an academic yourself or you simply enjoy breathing erudite air, there are few better places to be (and virtually none with such low living costs).

Though Iowa City’s economy is dominated by the University of Iowa and adjacent institutions, Cedar Rapids is close enough for a daily commute. (It’s more than 20 miles, but this being Iowa, there’s very little traffic.) Cedar Rapids’ economy is much more diverse than Iowa City’s – the largest employer is Rockwell Collins, an aerospace and defense contractor, and the area is a noted back office for major financial and insurance firms. If you can’t find a job in your specialty in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids might have what it takes to keep you in this unexpectedly cultured corner of the world.

5. Columbus, Ohio

  • Major University: The Ohio State University
  • Population: 898,553 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $180,611 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $959 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $51,612 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 7.5% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

It’s definitely a stretch to call Columbus a “town.” Stretching across parts of three counties in central Ohio, it’s the largest city in the Buckeye State (bigger than Cleveland and Cincinnati) and the 14th largest municipality in the nation.

Like Madison, Columbus pulls double duty as a seat of state government and the nerve center of a major state university system. It’s also a regionally important center for healthcare, insurance, retail, and IT, and boasts an energetic startup sector that rivals Ann Arbor’s.

Why You Should Live There

Even by Rust Belt standards, Columbus is renowned for its affordability. Back in 2010, RelocateAmerica put Columbus on its list of the top 10 best cities in the country for transplants, and the city has remained there ever since.

The region’s economic diversity is a major plus too: Columbus is home to global or regional headquarters of more than a dozen major companies, including five on the Fortune 500 list.

And Columbus is routinely cited as one of the United States’ most pleasant bigger cities: See its inclusion on Bloomberg’s list of the 50 best cities in the country, among others.

Add to all this the fact that, as the biggest city on this list (not including Phoenix), Columbus has more of everything: more restaurants, more nightlife, more cultural institutions, more kid-friendly activities, more parks, more job opportunities. The real question is, unless you have something against Ohio, why wouldn’t you look seriously at relocating to Columbus?

6. Athens, Georgia

  • Major University: University of Georgia
  • Population: 126,913 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $211,813 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: Not available; regional rental averages (2020) range from $879 in nearby Augusta, Georgia, to $1,467 in nearby Atlanta
  • Median Household Income: $36,637 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.0% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Athens is a small, tidy city about an hour west of Atlanta on a good traffic day. Once a major cotton milling center, and later a hotbed for early aviation innovation, Athens is now a college town through and through. Though it’s dwarfed by nearby Atlanta, Athens has an impressive information technology industry that’s supported by established firms like NCR and startups like Cogent Education.

Vestiges of the Old South remain though. Among other notable landmarks, Athens is home to one of only two remaining double-barreled cannons used in the Civil War.

Why You Should Live There

Atlanta is one of the United States’ most affordable big cities, but it’s unquestionably a victim of its own success. Traffic is nightmarish, crime is prevalent, and the fast pace of life isn’t for everyone.

Athens lacks the world-class cultural amenities and boundless opportunity of Atlanta, but it has pretty much everything else. And it’s close enough to the big city that locals feel like they’re (almost) part of the action.

Athens has its share of unexpected charms. Its music scene is far better developed than most comparably sized cities: R.E.M., the B-52s, Widespread Panic, Indigo Girls, Matthew Sweet, and Drive-By Truckers all got their starts here. The State Botanical Garden of Georgia and Georgia Museum of Art are must-sees.

7. Columbia, Missouri

  • Major University: University of Missouri
  • Population: 123,195 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $208,205 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $960 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby St. Louis, Missouri)
  • Median Household Income: $49,277 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.9% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Missouri has a lot of small and midsize college towns, but Columbia is definitely the best known. Looming over downtown, the University of Missouri literally and physically dominates the landscape here. Not far away are two smaller, no less vital institutions: Columbia College and Stephens College.

Confusingly for those weighing the relative merits of Athens, Georgia, Columbia proudly touts its long-held nickname: “the Athens of Missouri.” (The namesake is Athens, Greece, in case that wasn’t clear.) That about sums up Columbia’s vibe: a classical hub of learning and liberal thought. The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology and State Historical Society of Missouri, both nationally renowned in their respective fields, underscore this point nicely.

Columbia is located near the geographical center of Missouri, roughly equidistant to St. Louis and Kansas City. Though neither city is close enough for a daily commute, they’re both realistic weekend destinations for restless Columbians.

Why You Should Live There

Columbia’s impressive amenities aside, the city has an unusually favorable income-to-housing-costs ratio. The median income here is higher than in many comparably sized non-coastal college towns, but home values and monthly rents are well below the respective national medians. It’s pretty easy to keep your housing costs below the recommended 30% of income level here, and you’ll likely get more house for your money.

One important, not entirely surprising thing to note: Columbia’s economy is dominated by the University of Missouri and University of Missouri Health Care. Of the 10 biggest employers in town, more than half are health systems and insurance companies. Plan your job search accordingly.

8. Logan, Utah

  • Major University: Utah State University (main campus)
  • Population: 51,542 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $259,736 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $901 (2020 Rent Jungle estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $39,719 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.0% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

What a scene it is. Logan lies at the northern end of the Wasatch Front, a loosely agglomerated string of cities and towns dotting the fertile valley at the foot of the towering Wasatch Mountains. From virtually any point in town, you can see the stunning crest of the Bear River Mountains, capped locally by 9,700-foot Mount Logan. Despite its inland location, Logan actually sits on an ancient river delta – the steep slopes to the east gush glacier- and snow-fed streams into the flat, marshy bottomlands to the west.

Logan is about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City. This being Utah, the city’s ecumenical life is dominated by the LDS (Mormon) church. But Logan isn’t a fundamentalist enclave by any stretch – it’s an urbane Western college town in one of the prettiest settings you’ll ever see.

Why You Should Live There

Though it’s principally a center for higher education, Logan’s economy is diverse enough to support thousands of families with no real connection to Utah State University. Notable local employers include Space Dynamics Corporation, a Utah State-owned aerospace firm; ICON Health & Fitness, a fitness equipment manufacturer; and S&S Worldwide, an amusement park ride fabricator (and probably a pretty cool place to work).

Logan is also renowned for its quality of life. When you live here, the Wasatch Mountains are your playground. Regionally renowned Logan Canyon is just a short drive out of town; picturesque lakes pool behind its three dams. Tony Grove Lake, high in the mountains, is worth the additional travel time.

9. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

  • Major University: University of Illinois (main campus)
  • Population: 209,689 (2019 Census Bureau estimate for Champaign County, Illinois)
  • Median Home Value: $134,081 in Urbana; $147,314 in Champaign (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $959 (2020 Rent Jungle estimate for greater Champaign-Urbana)
  • Median Household Income: $51,692 (2019 Census Bureau estimate for Champaign County, Illinois
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.0% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Champaign and Urbana are twin cities (though Champaign is noticeably larger) planted on the open prairies of fertile east-central Illinois. Despite friendly competition between the two towns, they’re physically adjacent and share the same built environment, so most people simply use “Champaign-Urbana” to describe the whole area. The University of Illinois actually straddles the cities’ mutual border, so this is a logical choice.

About 140 miles south of Chicago and 120 miles west of Indianapolis, Champaign-Urbana is far enough from major population centers to be culturally distinct and self-sufficient. Notable points of interest include the Historic Virginia Theatre, Orpheum Children’s Science Museum, and Krannert Art Museum.

It’s worth noting that the University of Illinois isn’t the only campus that attracts young people to this corner of Illinois. Parkland College, virtually unknown outside Illinois, boasts a 20,000-strong student body.

Why You Should Live There

Champaign-Urbana is another college “town” that’s about more than just college. The core cities and surrounding communities house headquarters or key satellite offices for major companies like Dow Chemical, Caterpillar, Archer Daniels Midland, and Deere & Company.

It’s also incredibly affordable, especially on the Urbana side. There, prevailing monthly rents barely nose above $1,000, and you can find a nice house for well under $150,000.

10. Amherst, Massachusetts (Pioneer Valley)

  • Major University: University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Population: 39,924 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $365,653 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,465 (2020 Zumper estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $51,878 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 9.9% (Springfield, MA-CT MSA; September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Amherst (pronounced “Am – ERST”) is a picturesque little city in Massachusetts’ fertile Pioneer Valley. Part of a compact population cluster that’s home to a half-dozen higher education institutions, Amherst is about 20 miles north of Springfield, the regional anchor city, and 90 miles west of Boston.

Even by college town standards, Amherst’s politically active populace is the stuff of legend. In keeping with New England tradition, the town’s government is closer to the people than the typical mayor- or city manager-led municipality’s. A 254-member “Town Meeting,” whose representatives collectively speak for voters from the town’s 10 districts, makes for an unruly but decidedly democratic system. If you have a political bone in your body, or any ambition whatsoever for higher office, Amherst is a good place to get your start.

Why You Should Live There

Don’t worry: non-activists are welcome in Amherst. If you’re on an academic track, look for opportunity at any of the area’s famed Five Colleges: UMass-Amherst, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College.

Otherwise, Amherst has plenty going for it: It is or has recently been home to General Dynamics, a major aerospace and defense contractor; Smith & Wesson, a gunmaker; multiple health systems; and MassMutual, a life insurance firm. When you have some free time, the surrounding region is an outdoor playground: The Berkshire Mountains, an hour or so to the west, are renowned for hiking and skiing; Vermont’s Green Mountains, which begin an hour or so to the north and stretch almost to the Canadian border, are among the country’s best long-distance hiking destinations.

Just don’t call it “Am – HERST” – they’ll run you out of town.

Pro Tip: Amherst has the smallest median home value to median rent ratio of any college town on this list. In other words, it’s a quintessential buyer’s market. If you’re agonizing about whether to rent or buy your next house in Amherst, and you can commit to spending at least a few years in town, buying is almost certainly a better deal financially.

11. Fort Collins, Colorado

  • Major University: Colorado State University (main campus)
  • Population: 170,243 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $435,747 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,522 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $62,132 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.2% (Fort Collins-Loveland MSA; September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Fort Collins is the northernmost town on Colorado’s Front Range, the state’s most populous region. Locals know it as a significantly cheaper, much more laid-back version of Boulder, Colorado’s best-known college town (and, lately, a burgeoning tech hub where locals are increasingly priced out of a high-flying real estate market). Don’t worry: Mountain views abound here, even if exotic cars are in (relatively) short supply.

Why You Should Live There

Fort Collins delivers the quintessential Colorado experience without the price tag. And it’s populous enough not to be overwhelmed by Colorado State’s 37,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff.

Unlike remote mountain towns like Aspen and Steamboat Springs, Fort Collins is close enough to Denver and Boulder to serve as a bedroom community for both cities (though the daily commute into Denver is a grind), and to the high Rockies to allow for an escape on short notice. Though not as spectacular as the mountains themselves, the foothills just west of town harbor endless hiking and mountain biking opportunities. It’s no exaggeration to say that Fort Collins is one of the United States’ most underrated outdoor vacation destinations – an impressive achievement for a bona fide city.

You can’t spend every day on the trail, of course. Locals who aren’t employed at Colorado State or in Fort Collins’ lively health-care sector find work with a local employer cohort that reads like a who’s who of U.S. multinationals: Anheuser-Busch, Hewlett Packard, Wells Fargo, Kaiser Permanente. Nearby Greeley, another college town about 20 miles to the east, is the hub for Colorado’s robust (though cyclical) energy industry. Field workers earn enviable salaries commensurate with the risk.

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Unsurprisingly, Fort Collins made our roundup of the best vacation towns to live in year-round. If you’re not set on moving to a proper college town, check out the full list.

12. Ithaca, New York

Setting the Scene

Ithaca is one of the smallest cities on this list. That’s a little misleading: The city of Ithaca, hugging the shore of Cayuga Lake, is quite compact. Surrounding communities, including the town of Ithaca (New York State has a confusing, multitiered municipal structure), account for the bulk of the region’s population.

Said region is definitely worth a visit, even if you decide not to settle here. The Ithaca area is one of the principal population centers of the Finger Lakes, a gorgeous section of central New York State. The lakes, so named for their distinctive shapes, anchor deep valleys punctuated by long, majestic ridgelines topped with dense forests and pastoral farmland.

Ithaca itself is another classic college town. Its pedestrian-friendly downtown blends the bohemian and the practical, with a distinctive international flair thanks to Cornell University’s famously diverse student population. If you can bear the cold, snowy winters, and you’re okay with small-town living, you’ll find a happy home in Ithaca.

Why You Should Live There

Ithaca is a beautiful town with a measured pace of life and a strong, though not particularly diverse, economy. Cornell University is a magnet for academics and researchers from all over the world. As one of the gateways to the Finger Lakes region, Ithaca is also fertile ground for tourism businesses and tourist-adjacent enterprises, such as winemaking (thanks to the region’s favorable microclimate). If you’re thinking about starting a tourist-friendly business, there are worse places for you.

It’s worth pointing out that Ithaca has been called out as “one of the least affordable U.S. cities” by local media and demographic experts. That’s largely due to relatively high housing costs and low median household incomes in the city itself.

The reason Ithaca made it onto this list anyway is that the city of Ithaca comprises a relatively small geographic and demographic slice of the greater Ithaca area. People with higher incomes tend to settle outside its bounds, where housing costs happen to be more reasonable. If you’re planning to move here, don’t limit your home (or job) search to Ithaca city.

Ithaca is another college town where the gap between median home values and prevailing rents is probably smaller than it should be. If you’re planning to settle here for a while, it’s a great place to buy.

13. Bloomington, Indiana

  • Major University: Indiana University Bloomington
  • Population: 85,755 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $232,313 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,126 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $34,435 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.5% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Bloomington is an idyllic town in southwestern Indiana, about an hour from Indianapolis by car. It lies at the northern fringe of a scenic stretch of densely forested hills, steep valleys, and burbling creeks charting torturous courses through soft limestone bedrock – a decidedly unexpected environment in a state better known for flat farmland punctuated by fading manufacturing centers riven with the detritus of 20th-century heavy industry.

In addition to its natural beauty, Bloomington is noted for its rich, distinctly American cultural scene. It’s a hotbed of the ascendant folk punk movement, a hub for traditional folk music, and a vibrant theater community that holds its own against bigger Midwestern cities.

Why You Should Live There

Like Iowa City, Bloomington is a smallish Midwestern town with a laid-back pace of life and a highly cultured populace with a clear left-of-center political bias. If that almost seals the deal for you, Bloomington’s fantastically low housing costs should do the rest.

If you’re not an academic or political activist, don’t sweat. Though Indiana University is by far the town’s largest employer, Bloomington’s economy has been remarkably resilient in the face of the Rust Belt’s decades-long decline. Pharmaceuticals, aerospace and defense, and healthcare are all strong suits. One local employer, medical device manufacturer Cook Group, employs more than 3,000 locals at its global headquarters here.

14. Fargo, North Dakota

Setting the Scene

Most outsiders know two things about Fargo: It’s bone-chillingly cold and the locals talk funny.

They’re not wrong. Fargo is 230 miles northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the country’s coldest major metro area, and its winters are correspondingly severe. Fargo won The Weather Channel’s “America’s Toughest Weather City” competition in 2011 – a dubious honor to be sure.

The Fargo accent isn’t quite as extreme as depicted in the Coen Brothers’ classic film of the same name, but it’s definitely present (and very noticeable to first-time visitors).

Fargo is also tabletop-flat. Along with the rest of the flood-prone Red River Valley, which stretches north in an elongated V from the Minnesota-South Dakota border into Canada, Fargo’s recent geological history involves a lot of sitting at the bottom of glacial lakes and seas. Marine sediment accumulated evenly, stripping the landscape of any recognizable features. Drive a few miles out to the nearly treeless countryside and you can see the curvature of the earth – look for the giant grain silos just barely poking their heads above the ubiquitous canola and beet fields, 20 or 30 miles distant.

Why You Should Live There

If you like rugged terrain or prefer to live somewhere that doesn’t flood every few years, Fargo is not for you. Otherwise, it’s a great (and really cheap) place to live, work, and raise a family.

Economically, Fargo is surprisingly diverse. Tiny North Dakota’s flagship state university is correspondingly petite, with about 14,000 students and fewer than 5,000 staff. The city’s largest employer is Sanford Health, a major health system in the Upper Midwest. Other health systems, insurance companies, financial back offices, and heavy equipment manufacturers round out the Fargo area’s top employers. And Fargo’s super-low unemployment rate makes for a very applicant-friendly labor market.

15. Bowling Green, Kentucky

  • Major University: Western Kentucky University
  • Population: 70,530 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $179,790 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $956 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby Lexington, Kentucky)
  • Median Household Income: $41,516 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.7% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

A little over three hours south, Bowling Green is a slightly smaller, slightly warmer cousin to Bloomington, Indiana. The home of Western Kentucky University is also the Bluegrass State’s premier high-tech manufacturing center – a remarkable cluster of innovation and expertise in an otherwise agrarian part of the mid-South.

The star of the region’s economic show is a major General Motors manufacturing plant, located outside the city limits. Other industrial employers include Magna International, a Canadian auto parts supplier; Fruit of the Loom, the storied apparel manufacturer; and Sun Products, a consumer chemicals company. Houchens Industries, a convenience store operator, is a major nonmanufacturing presence; health systems and public entities round out the employment base.

Why You Should Live There

Bowling Green has a diverse employment base for nonacademic residents, a fantastic park system protecting local wetlands and forests, and a friendly yet cosmopolitan culture that never ceases to amaze big-city transplants. Its high-ish unemployment rate, an artifact of its cyclical manufacturing base, is more than offset by below-average housing costs. If your career gives you an opportunity to move to Bowling Green, take it. When the temptation to make Bowling Green your permanent home inevitably arises, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

16. Charlottesville, Virginia

  • Major University: University of Virginia
  • Population: 47,266 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $356,506 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,110 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby Richmond, Virginia)
  • Median Household Income: $58,933 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.2% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Every college town has a story, but history really comes alive in Charlottesville. The area’s most famous resident, the founder of the University of Virginia, also happened to be the United States’ third president. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s family home, sits on a majestic rise a few miles southwest of Charlottesville’s core.

Electric streetlights and automobiles aside, Charlottesville’s red-brick downtown looks much the same as it did in Jefferson’s time. So do the city’s beautiful environs. The leading edge of the Appalachian Mountains, known locally as the Blue Ridge, lies about 20 miles to the west – visible from high points in and around town. Nearby Shenandoah National Park is a must-visit during fall foliage season. Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, two of the nation’s finest scenic byways, provide unbroken views year-round.

Why You Should Live There

If the history and scenery aren’t enough for you, Charlottesville is probably Virginia’s top craft beer town – it has more than one microbrewery for every 10,000 residents, an impressive ratio by any stretch. Like Ithaca, New York, Charlottesville is a great place for tourism entrepreneurs to get their starts, and for generally outdoorsy people for whom recreational amenities are just as important as opportunities to advance one’s career – if not more so.

Plus, Charlottesville isn’t all that far from the mid-Atlantic’s major population centers. When the urge to escape strikes, Washington, D.C. is less than 100 miles away – the perfect distance for a weekend getaway.

Charlottesville Virginia University

17. Tucson, Arizona

  • Major University: University of Arizona
  • Population: 548,073 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $235,562 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $921 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $41,625 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.5% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Tucson will always play second fiddle to Phoenix.

This unfortunate (or maybe not) fact shouldn’t detract from the general awesomeness of Arizona’s remarkable second city. In many ways, Tucson is more quintessentially Arizonan than the Grand Canyon State’s capital city – and, by extension, Tempe, the other Arizona college town on this list.

Rimmed by rocky pinnacles studded with saguaro cacti and forested mountaintops high enough for heavy winter snows, Tucson is an objectively beautiful city. Its surprisingly well-preserved 19th-century core and far-flung network of Old West satellite towns (including a few proper ghost towns) keep tourists and locals alike busy during the cooler months. And its fancy suburbs harbor some of the Southwest’s finest resorts – all contenders for our list of the world’s best honeymoon destinations, in case you’re planning a romantic getaway anytime soon.

Why You Should Live There

Tucson is beautiful, affordable, and laid-back. Oh, and it’s sunny at least 300 days out of every year here. What more could you want in your hometown? As long as you can handle the intense summer heat, which to be fair isn’t quite as bad as in lower-lying Phoenix, Tucson is your place in the sun.

Tucson is also one of the few college towns on this list where most residents have nothing to do with the local university. Tucson’s largest employer, just edging out the U of A, is Raytheon, one of the United States’ biggest (and most controversial) defense contractors. The military and U.S. government have huge presences here too: Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Fort Huachuca, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol collectively employ nearly 25,000 people in and around Tucson.

18. Lincoln, Nebraska

  • Major University: University of Nebraska – Lincoln
  • Population: 289,102 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $209,324 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $968 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $55,224 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.2% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Worry not. You’re in absolutely no danger of confusing Lincoln with Tucson.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine two more different college towns. Whereas Tucson sprawls across a beautiful valley in the high desert of southeastern Arizona, Lincoln springs up seemingly out of nowhere on the tabletop-flat marshland of southeastern Nebraska, about an hour’s drive southwest of Omaha.

Lincoln won’t win any beauty contests, but this scrappy little city has plenty going for it. Like Madison, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio, it’s both home to a Big Ten university and the seat of a Midwestern state’s government. You won’t forget it either: the Nebraska State Capitol, designed and built in the throes of the Great Depression (which hit this part of the country particularly hard), is the country’s second-tallest. At 400 feet from base to crown, it looks more like a high-rise office building than a capitol dome.

Why You Should Live There

Lincoln’s three largest employers are the state government, the University of Nebraska, and the local public school system. The U.S. government, the municipal government, and the region’s top health systems round out the pack.

Boring, perhaps, but also stable. Lincoln isn’t prone to the boom-and-bust cycles that bedevil its Sun Belt compatriots. (Even beautiful Tucson is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the defense economy.) Lincoln weathered the Great Recession better than just about any city of its size, and its sub-3% unemployment rate reflects an enviable buyer’s market for labor. If you’re looking for work in the public sector, healthcare, or academia, your chances are better in Lincoln than almost anywhere else.

Nebraska University Lincoln

19. Tallahassee, Florida

  • Major University: Florida State University
  • Population: 194,500 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $193,170 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,253 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $43,799 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.9% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Culturally, if not geographically, Tallahassee is about as far from Miami as you can get without leaving the Sunshine State. The capital of Florida is decidedly a part of the Old South, a sociopolitical region that could care less about state lines.

Tallahassee has been Florida’s state capital since the early 19th century. Florida State, the city’s biggest higher education institution, launched in 1851. Florida A&M University, one of the country’s most storied historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), held its first classes in 1887. The two institutions coexist amid the gently rolling hills and dense piney woods of the eastern Florida panhandle.

Tallahassee is a classic “eds and meds” town. The city’s biggest employers are higher education institutions, the state government, and local health systems. Nonpublic, nonmedical employers include United Solutions Company, a cooperatively owned credit union processing firm, and Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, a local insurer.

Why You Should Live There

Tallahassee’s housing costs are low by any objective measure. The figures are especially stark in the context of the Sunshine State, coastal areas of which are increasingly out of reach for first-time homebuyers.

Tallahassee is less than an hour from the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and less than three from the Atlantic Ocean, but it might as well be a world away. If you’re looking for (almost) beachfront real estate at middle-of-the-country prices, and year-round warmth to boot, it’s hard to do better than Florida’s capital. Plus, Tallahassee is 200 feet above sea level. The waves lapping with ever more urgency against Miami Beach and St. Petersburg won’t reach this far inland until long after we’re gone, if ever.

20. Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Major University: University of Tennessee
  • Population: 187,603 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $213,420 (median list price; 2017 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,082 (2020 RENTCafe estimate)
  • Median Household Income: $37,703 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.7% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Knoxville anchors Tennessee’s third-largest metropolitan area, a region of some one million souls on the western front of the Great Smoky Mountains. Along with Asheville, North Carolina, a similarly sized community on the eastern side of the mountains, Knoxville is one of the two urban gateways to the most-visited stretch of the Appalachian Mountains. Look east from any high point in town, including the roof of your own house, and you’ll see iconic blue-hued peaks stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction.

Knoxville itself is a testament to the power of reinvention. Once a major manufacturing center for the interior South, the city spent much of the 20th century in a deindustrialized funk. Thanks to concerted efforts by public agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, nonprofit institutions like the University of Tennessee, and an increasingly activist private sector, Knoxville has emerged as Tennessee’s premier hub for high-tech R&D activity.

Why You Should Live There

No one can take away the Great Smoky Mountains – that’s a view I’d love to wake up to every morning. And now that Knoxville’s high-tech sector is firing on all cylinders, it’ll take a lot to blunt its economic momentum.

If the prospect of escaping into the mountains every weekend isn’t enough to convince you to buy property in Knoxville, the region’s impressive cultural amenities might just do the trick. The Knoxville Opera and Knoxville Symphony Orchestra have delighted local audiences for decades – the orchestra is the Southeast’s longest continually operating string section, in fact. The Dogwood Arts Festival, held annually every April, is one of Tennessee’s biggest (and lowest-key) gatherings of its kind.

Tennessee University Knoxville

21. Ames, Iowa

  • Major University: Iowa State University
  • Population: 66,258 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $267,159 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $906 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby Des Moines, Iowa)
  • Median Household Income: $46,127 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.8% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Ames is an unexpected find amid the endless cornfields of central Iowa. I’ve been to Ames many times, and while I can say unequivocally that it’s neither as cultured nor as picturesque as Iowa City, I hurry to stress that Ames has much to redeem it – there’s a reason it made this list, after all.

The brilliant agricultural science researchers at Iowa State University arguably deserve more credit than any other single cohort for improving food security for the world’s middle- and lower-income populations over the past century. Their compatriots at the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory and Agricultural Research Service’s National Animal Disease Center keep the nation’s livestock population healthy. And their non-veterinary colleagues in Iowa State’s IT department helped birth the world’s first proper supercomputer – though it would be a stretch to say that Ames remains at the locus of computing innovation today.

Why You Should Live There

Thanks to Iowa State University’s remarkably steady ship, Ames has a rock-bottom unemployment rate and an employee-friendly job market. It’s also a pleasant place to live, with more than three dozen public parks and a property crime rate that’s low even by Iowa’s don’t-bother-to-lock-your-doors standards.

Opportunity abounds in Ames, but as in Iowa City, there’s an outlet for restless transplants looking for jobs that align better with their skills and passions. In this case, it’s Des Moines, Iowa’s state capital, a 30-minute drive to the south in ideal traffic conditions. Des Moines’ economy, dominated by blue-chip insurance firms, major banks’ back offices, local and national health-care companies, and Iowa’s state government, is the stuff of legend.

22. Corvallis, Oregon

  • Major University: Oregon State University
  • Population: 58,856 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Median Home Value: $394,807 (2020 Zillow estimate)
  • Median Monthly Rent: $1,324 (2020 RENTCafe estimate for nearby Eugene, Oregon)
  • Median Household Income: $49,835 (2019 Census Bureau estimate)
  • Unemployment Rate: 5.5% (September 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics reading)

Setting the Scene

Corvallis is a small city about 90 miles south-southwest of Portland, on the fertile bottomlands of the picturesque Willamette Valley. Like other low-lying Pacific Northwest towns, Corvallis has a mild climate marked by wet winters and warm, dry summers.

Like other smaller college towns, Corvallis is politically liberal and eminently low-key. Its on-the-ground reality is definitely out of keeping with its on-screen depiction in the classic 1978 comedy Animal House, in which the title fraternity rampages for more than 10 minutes of screen time down the city’s main drag. Don’t worry – they’ve had plenty of time to rebuild.

Why You Should Live There

Aside from its beautiful valley setting and pleasant, laid-back vibe, Corvallis is renowned for its commitment to sustainability. The city gets at least one-quarter of its power from renewable sources – a figure that’s likely to rise considerably in the coming years. If you’re worried about your personal impact on the environment, there are worse places to live than Corvallis.

Final Word

You needn’t be a geography expert to see that this list is heavily weighted in favor of non-coastal cities.

That’s no accident. For a variety of reasons, coastal towns tend to be more expensive than inland locales, particularly in densely populated regions like the Northeast corridor and Southern California. I had little luck finding under-the-radar coastal college towns to bulk up this list. The closest I got was Tallahassee, Florida, a couple dozen miles from the Gulf of Mexico – the most affordable by far of America’s three saltwater coasts.

If you want to live in a coastal college town with a great economy and lots for postgrads to do, such as New Haven, Long Beach, or Seattle, you’ll need to adjust your budget accordingly. Coastal living comes with all sorts of benefits you can’t find inland, often including greater earning power, so the trade-off might well be worthwhile.

Published at Mon, 14 Dec 2020 15:00:42 +0000

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