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Best College Towns in the Northeast to Spend Your Student Years

According to university admissions experts, the common building blocks of great college towns include: how good the education is, how much money you need to spend and the opportunity to have a great overall life experience. With this in mind, we set out to discover which towns offer the best college experience — defined not just by having the best schools, but also by affordability and high quality of life.

Leaving the nest to start your college journey is an exciting time and, for many, it means new people, new experiences and a new town. But, the college experience is more than just classes and library sessions. It’s also about the memories, the adventures and the chance to explore a new place. And, because the city surrounding the campus acts as the background for this journey, choosing a place to suit your needs is important.

Best College Towns in the Northeast

For this ranking, we focused on college towns located in the northeastern United States. Specifically, we chose towns with a total population between 10,000 and 300,000 residents, of which at least 25% were students. We then scored the towns using 13 metrics in three categories: livability, affordability and quality of education. For more details, check out our methodology at the end of the article. At the end, we’ve also included additional insights from admissions officers about what they believe students should consider when deciding where to move, such as proximity to jobs and internship opportunities.

1. Amherst, Mass.

amherst college town ma

The #1 college town — Amherst, Mass. — is home to three of the Five College Consortium in Western Massachusetts: Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. However, what earned Amherst the top spot in our ranking was its ideal mix of high-quality education, livability and affordability. In particular, the city ranks highly in livability factors, such as entertainment options and student organizations, as well as access to outdoor amenities and air quality. Its official population was slightly more than 39,000 in 2020, but that doesn’t include the large student population or the many residents associated with the universities who spend only part of the year in Amherst.

2. Fredonia Village, N.Y.

The second city at the top of the list, Fredonia Village, N.Y., ranks #1 in terms of affordability, with lower overall costs of housing, tuition and fees being its best selling points. Granted, the town ranked slightly lower for livability because it has fewer arts and entertainment establishments compared to other college towns, as well as a relatively smaller share of young adults (aged 20-29). But, Fredonia Village also has a smaller overall population — about 11,000 — so it’s not a crowded city. Plus, the city is also next to Lake Erie — the fourth-largest of the Great Lakes and part of the natural border between Canada and the U.S. Fredonia is home to the State University of New York at Fredonia.

3. Ithaca, N.Y.

cornell university ithaca

The second New York town at the top of the charts, Ithaca came in as the third-best college town overall, as well as #1 for livability. For those looking for a friendly and welcoming town, Ithaca offers the most in terms of the number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments, as well as student organizations, natural amenities and air quality. Its population is around 32,000, but this increases during the school year thanks to the many students attending Cornell University and Ithaca College, as well as the nearby Tompkins Cortland Community College. Ithaca’s status as home to Ivy League school Cornell contributes to its #2 ranking for education quality and opportunities.

4. West Chester, Penn.

west chester pa

West Chester is a borough located in the Philadelphia metro area and home to much of the West Chester University of Pennsylvania north campus. The town ranks fourth (both overall and for affordability) and offers students plenty of options for the balanced costs of living and tuition. It’s also less than an hour from Philadelphia, and this proximity to a large city means even more opportunities for entertainment, as well as internships or employment for those willing to make the commute. West Chester’s population is around 18,500, but it’s a key point for most of the neighboring townships thanks to its location.

5. Cambridge, Mass.

harvard at cambridge ma

Cambridge, Mass., hosts three colleges: Harvard University, MIT and Lesley University. In terms of education — with so many challenging educational options and many research institutions — as well as a high score in livability, Cambridge offers significant opportunities. Notably, because of those options and its proximity to Boston, the overall cost of living here is relatively higher than in other college towns. This is justified by the increased demand created by the high population: With around 118,400 residents, Cambridge is the fourth-largest city in the state.

6. State College, Penn.

penn state college

With a population of around 42,000, State College is the largest designated borough in Pennsylvania — and its economy and culture are largely dominated by the presence of the Penn State University campus. State College, Penn., is the perfect candidate for anyone looking for a good balance of costs and overall affordability, livability and entertainment options, as well as high-quality education.

7. Princeton, N.J.

princeton nj

Located halfway between New York and Philadelphia, Princeton, N.J., is a town with many opportunities. Its estimated population is around 31,000 and it’s an important regional commercial hub and commuter town — especially for New York. Home to Princeton University, the city ranks #1 in the education category, but it also hosts many research institutions and labs. However, it only ranks seventh overall on this list because the city is more expensive than other college towns, for both living and tuition. That said, Princeton, N.J., is a small town dominated by education and research. Even so, because it’s only about an hour from two major U.S. cities, culture, entertainment and opportunities are within close proximity.

8. Storrs, Conn.

Home of the University of Connecticut, Storrs is largely a campus town. With a population of around 15,000, it’s not a crowded place and is, therefore, perfect for leading a fulfilling student lifestyle. As a smaller town with access to good amenities and entertainment (as well as natural amenities and good air quality), Storrs ranked fifth for livability in our ranking. It’s also located just 30 minutes from Hartford, Conn., so it’s close to many other big-city amenities.

9. Oneonta, N.Y.

Oneonta is a small town with a population of around 13,000. It’s home to two universities: Hartwick College and the State University of New York at Oneonta. This is a great choice if you’re looking for a beautiful and affordable college town surrounded by natural amenities, including two major municipal parks.

10. Bloomsburg, Penn.

Bloomsburg, Penn., is located along the Susquehanna River, surrounded by stunning scenery and outdoor amenities. It’s also home to Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and, in our ranking,  landed second in terms of affordability for lower tuition costs and overall cost of living and housing compared to other college towns. It’s also a smaller town: Its estimated population is around 14,000.

Ask the Experts

  • Brian P. Hazlett, vice president for enrollment management, York College of Pennsylvania
    • How important is the college town itself in the college selection decision and why?

Hazlett: “Very important! Families and students are concerned about the environment where they or their student will be living for the next four years or more. They want to know that students will be safe, comfortable, and surrounded by opportunities for jobs and internships in the future. This is especially important when students begin exploring the job market during their junior and senior years. They want to have a safe and comfortable place to live, work and play (shops, restaurants, activities, sporting events, etc.) in their early adult years when they might be transitioning off campus.”

    • What are the top three characteristics of a college town that make it attractive to new students?

Hazlett: “Affordability, safety, and opportunities for employment, co-ops and internships are the top three features to look for in a college town.”

    • What information should new students research about their future college town to help them have a great college experience?

Hazlett: “Students should consider the cost of living in the local area, especially when they might be just starting their careers and living on a budget. They also want to know what industries and job markets are popular in the area, and what this might mean for their future job or internship prospects as they move closer to graduation. Also, students want to be able to live someplace where they can have a good time! Balance is important, so if the area has options for entertainment, dining, and enrichment that are affordable and appealing, then that’s important, too.”

  • Hillen Grason Jr., director of recruitment, Franklin & Marshall College
    • How important is the college town itself in the college selection decision and why?

Grason: “A college town, in many cases, is synonymous with location when considered in a student’s college selection. Location is typically among the top three (initial) factors when students build their college list, along with size and academic programs. Similar to the early stages of one’s college search, a college town can play a major part in a student’s final selection. If a student is considering multiple institutions that are very similar when considering common factors — such as cost, academic program(s), co-curricular opportunities and others — the college town can be the determining factor in that student’s college selection decision. If a student is contemplating multiple flagship institutions, the characteristics of the college town could cause a student to lean toward one institution versus another. On the other hand, if a student is considering multiple small, private, liberal arts colleges, the majority of them are found in more rural/remote locations, but some are found in cities or with access to multiple metropolitan areas.”

    • What are the top three characteristics of a college town that make it attractive to new students?

Grason: “Access: A college town can have all of the culture, shops, and restaurants that are attractive to students and families, but if the college town is not easily accessible (especially when students don’t have a car on campus), it can quickly lose its appeal.

“Opportunity: It is easy to assume that larger college towns automatically provide more opportunities to the students of institutions in/near that town, but this is not always true. The relationship between an institution and its local community is key when students are navigating their college search. Institutions that have strong relationships with their communities will be able to provide the most opportunity for students to truly immerse themselves in that college town, which only enhances their experience.

“Culture: Some students will seek college towns that include the ‘creature comforts’ that they are used to having access to in their hometowns. Others will seek college towns that expose them to facets of society they are less familiar with. This could include towns with strong performing arts centers or a variety of ethnic cuisines.”

    • What information should new students research about their future college town to help them have a great college experience?

Grason: “Students should research whether the institution they are planning to attend has connections with their future college town, which could lead to opportunities for them. They should also look at whether the college town is one that provides them the right balance of familiarity (from home) and diversity.”

Methodology

RentCafe.com is a nationwide apartment search website that enables renters to easily find apartments and houses for rent throughout the United States.

For this study, RentCafe’s research team analyzed relevant data using 13 metrics in three categories to rank the best college towns in the northeast region. We defined college towns as towns with a minimum population of 10,000 and a maximum of 300,000, as well as with a minimum student population of 25% of the total population, based on U.S. Census data.

For the category of affordability (total weight of 35%), we considered data on:

  • tuition and fees (15% weight)*
  • the percentage of students receiving grants or scholarships (5% weight)
  • the cost of living at the metro or county level (15% weight)*

For the category of livability (total weight of 30%), we considered data on the:

  • number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments (7% weight)
  • number of student organizations (7% weight)
  • share of young adults aged 20 to 29 (4% weight)
  • county level of natural amenity rank (6% weight)
  • quality at county level (6% weight)*

For the category education (total weight of 35%), we considered data on:

  • university score (12% weight)
  • student-to-faculty ratio (8% weight)*
  • graduation rate (5% weight)
  • percent of students enrolled from those admitted (5% weight)
  • first- to second-year retention rates (5% weight)

* Categories that have an inversely proportional weight: The higher the numbers, the lower the corresponding score.

Data sources:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics (tuition and fees; percentage of students receiving scholarships; student-to-faculty ratio; graduation rate; percentage of students admitted who enrolled; first- to second-year retention rates)
  • U.S. News (university score)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (air quality)
  • USDA (natural amenity rank)
  • U.S. Census (population, share of young adults; number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments)
  • Economic Policy Institute (cost of living)
  • universities’ websites (number of student organizations)

The final score is the sum of the category score and the category score is the sum of its component scores.

In college towns where there is more than one university, a weighted average was calculated based on total enrollment for the following categories: tuition, scholarships, university score, student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, admission rate and retention rate.

Fair Use and Redistribution

We encourage you and freely grant you permission to reuse, host, or repost the research, graphics, and images presented in this article. When doing so, we ask that you credit our research by linking to RentCafe.com or this page, so that your readers can learn more about this project, the research behind it and its methodology. For more in-depth, customized data, please contact us at media@rentcafe.com.

Mihaela Buzec
Mihaela Buzec
Mihaela Buzec is a writer and online content developer for RentCafe. She covers topics about everything related to the renting lifestyle, from decorating and interior design to finding the right apartment, frugal living, money saving advice, and more. She dives deep into topics of interest, writing well-researched comprehensive guides on subjects such as renting with pets, saving on utilities, or avoiding rental scams to help renters stay informed and live smart. Mihaela holds a BA in English and German Language and Literature, an MA in Current Linguistics, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in neurolinguistics. You can get in touch with Mihaela at mihaela.buzec@yardi.com.

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