Beyond the Classroom: 2024’s Top College Towns Where Good Life Meets Academia

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  • Bozeman, MT, home of Montana State University, ranks first in our list of best college towns in the U.S. 
  • Western college towns lead this year with 8 entries among the top 20 best college towns nationally, propelled by their young, educated populations and abundance of natural amenities. 
  • Pullman, WA, and Clemson, SC, are the second- and third-best towns to spend your college years.  

Picture this: Crisp fall days spent exploring mountain trails, the smell of fresh coffee as you enter your favorite cafe, and long conversations on campus grounds as ideas flow and friendships are forged. Your college experience isn’t just about classes. It’s also about the town that shapes you. Are you ready to fall in love with your college experience? If so, explore our list of the best college towns, where the promise of a good and vibrant life meets the thrill of the academic experience.

Notably, the college towns that made it to the top of our list this year are places that offer a balance between a great education, high quality of life and affordability. More precisely, the ranking was based on 12 different metrics, including cost of living, tuition fees, graduation rates, natural amenities, air quality, entertainment options and many more.

Overall, Bozeman, MT, offers the best mix of these features to earn the title of best college town in the U.S. in 2024. The town of Pullman, WA, came in second, while Clemson, SC, took third place out of the 236 towns and cities analyzed.

Who’s off to college this year? Meet the aspiring applicants

If you’re heading off to college soon, you’re likely part of Generation Z, and your priorities and unique needs will influence where you want to move for college. As a Gen Zer, you probably aspire to be part of vibrant communities that resonate with your values, especially those that influence your quality of life. You may also have a strong appreciation for culture and self-expression, meaning you’re drawn to places that offer ample cultural venues — such as spaces where you can connect with like-minded individuals, engage with the arts or showcase your own creative endeavors.

Moreover, if you appreciate beauty and desire a good quality of life, closeness to nature is probably important, as is living in areas with minimal pollution. With that in mind, our selection of top towns is tailored to align with these distinct preferences to showcase destinations that fulfill Gen Z’s demands.

So, without further ado, here are the top best college towns in the U.S. in 2024:

Bozeman, MT, ranks as best college town in the U.S. in 2024 

1. Bozeman, MT 

  • Outdoor paradise: Yellowstone is right in your backyard
  • Scholarships abound: a good education for a good value
  • Student life: sports, clubs, arts — MSU has it all

bozeman montana

Ranking number one on our list of best college towns is Bozeman, MT, home of Montana State University. Here, you can benefit from affordable, quality education as all students enrolled receive some form of scholarship or grant. Tuition costs are also below the national average.

Plus, Bozeman is a city that values culture and history as it boasts the highest number of arts and cultural establishments per 1,000 people. Likewise, student life at MSU’s Bozeman campus is rich with hundreds of student clubs and athletic teams to join, in addition to five sororities and eight fraternities. MSU is also known for its various options for academic development, including the Undergraduate Scholars Program, the McNair Scholars Program and more than 40 master’s degree programs.
Meanwhile, surrounded by forests and national parks, the city has a low level of air pollution, ranking sixth on our list by air quality. And, located just an hour and a half away from Yellowstone National Park, the town is perfectly placed for nature getaways. Bozeman is also a welcoming community with a higher-than-average share of young adults (34% of the population is aged 20 to 29) and with 64% of the population holding a higher education degree.

2. Pullman, WA 

  • Education and adventure: WSU brings it all to the table
  • Scenic serenity from tree-lined streets to pristine parks
  • Breathe easy: clean air and nature’s best await

pullman washington state university

Home of Washington State University’s oldest and largest campus, Pullman ranks second on our list of best college towns, and it’s easy to see why: 42% of the city’s population is made up of young adults and the streets are filled with affordable and fun dining options, cafes and hangout spots.

Plus, WSU ranks higher than average in terms of university scores. So, if you’re choosing Pullman as your college home, you get both the educational and the student life experience here. Specifically, there are more than 200 undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, as well as other opportunities to facilitate students’ personal and academic development. Add a lower-than-average cost of living and you’ll get a perfect destination for your college years.

Furthermore, with tree-lined streets and beautiful views from atop its four hills, Pullman offers plenty of picnic and walking spots that are perfect (and free) options for relaxing after class. Of course, the high natural amenity score also contributes to the low level of air pollution in Pullman, which ranked second in the country for air quality in our study. The surrounding parks and forests are also a real attraction with Idler’s Rest — only 30 minutes away from Pullman — being the perfect background for a day of relaxing and recharging.

3. Clemson, SC 

  • Historical charm meets academic excellence
  • Vibrant student life: spirited football games and dynamic cultural events
  • Natural beauty all around from the Blue Ridge foothills to a picturesque lake

clemson sc

Clemson, SC, takes the third spot in our ranking, in addition to being the first Southern town to make an appearance. Home to Clemson University, the city boasts a historical campus with redbrick buildings nestled among tall oak trees. The tradition of the university is also shown in its rating: It ranks among the top 50 best universities, as well as among the top 20 best in terms of graduation rates.

Interestingly, this is the second-youngest town on our list as 47% of Clemson’s residents are between 20 and 29 years old. As you might expect, the young and energetic vibe spreads throughout the city with spirited football games and all sorts of events being organized by students in town, as well as exhibitions of emerging local and guest artists on display at the Lee Gallery.

Clemson is also a town that’s surrounded by natural beauty — from the Blue Ridge foothills to beautiful lakes such as Lake Hartwell and Lake Issaqueena all offering recreation options close to campus.

4. Gainesville, FL 

  • Where charm meets affordability: a vibrant college town gem
  • Dynamic student life from Greek chapters to cultural hubs
  • Endless adventures in nature’s playground with state parks aplenty

gainesville fl

A picture-perfect college town, Gainesville ranks fourth on our list of best college towns. Home of the University of Florida — a highly ranked educational institution — the city attracts students due its charm and edgy attitude, particularly priding itself on its uniqueness. What’s more, being a student here means having access to a lot of student organizations — from innovators to artists — and being part of vibrant communities, including Greek fraternities and sororities. You also don’t have to spend a lot here because tuition and fees are significantly lower than average, which propelled Gainesville to our top 10 locations by tuition costs.

It’s no wonder that the admissions yield is higher than average here, as well, with 48% of the people admitted to the university choosing to enroll. The campus also houses the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Harn Museum of Art and the Butterfly Rainforest, which offers students plenty of options for enriching their free time.

Otherwise, the town itself is a gem for those who enjoy a larger community and the outdoors (either for sport or recreation). In fact, with eight state parks nearby, you’ll never run out of options for hiking, biking, walking the trails, or even kayaking and scuba diving in some of the many freshwater springs nearby.

5. Boone, NC 

  • Where mountain majesty meets student vitality
  • A unique vibe with an artistic haven and thriving community
  • Your gateway to success: affordable tuition and high-quality education

boone nc app state university 

Boone, NC, occupies the fifth spot, offering students a mix of affordable education and good quality of life. Here, more than 45% of Boone’s population is made up of young adults — and with students living on and off campus, the student vibe is all around the town. In particular, the arts scene is thriving as the town offers a higher-than-average number of arts and entertainment establishments to its residents. At the same time, the below-average cost of tuition also makes Appalachian State University desirable for many students who want to experience a mix of good student life, as well as accessible, quality education.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone is a quaint town with a vibrant arts and culture scene and a strong student vibe. The university also ranked fifth for education on our list, so Boone will offer you a high-quality educational experience, as well as plenty of opportunities for engagement and personal development through student organizations and sports clubs.

6. Moscow, ID 

  • Moscow’s winning formula: scholarship haven plus clean-air oasis
  • Where beauty meets opportunity: stunning campus, engaging student life
  • Living/learning community: dive into student life from day one

university of idaho moscow id

Moscow, ID, took the sixth spot on our list. It was propelled to this rank by the fact that all students enrolled at the University of Idaho receive some sort of scholarship or grant and because this town had the best air quality out of all of the places on our list. What’s more, the University of Idaho is recognized as the most beautiful college in the state, as well as one of the best options for an engaging student life.

If you’re attending college here, you also get to experience student life firsthand as the university requires all full-time, first-year students under 21 years old to live in organized living groups, including fraternities and sororities.

7. Laramie, WY 

  • Serene charm: mountain tranquility meets academic excellence
  • Opportunities abound: diverse academic offerings and plenty options for student engagement
  • Perfect balance: affordable education, affordable living

laramie wy

Coming in at number 7 is Laramie, a quiet mountain college town in Wyoming that’s home to the campus of the University of Wyoming. Here, the university consists of seven colleges and offers students a variety of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs. There are also dozens of fraternity and sorority organizations on campus, and students are encouraged to participate in activities, events and clubs dedicated to their own interests.

Plus, tuition fees at the university are much lower than the average, ranking 16th by cost of tuition on our list. Likewise, the cost of living in Laramie is also lower than average, thereby offering students a balance of a good education and an accessible lifestyle.

8. Amherst, MA 

  • Scholarly appeal: intellectual epicenter and community connections
  • Where minds meet: vibrant student culture, enriching community events
  • The best of both worlds: suburban serenity and academic dynamism

amherst u mass

Amherst, MA, is an intellectual hub occupying the 8th position on our list thanks to the quality of education offered here at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, but also the much higher-than-average percentage of population with higher education (72%). Accordingly, the sense of community in Amherst is enriched by the strong student vibe and the numerous events organized by student groups.

If you decide to go to college in Amherst, you’ll also benefit from a dynamic academic environment as the town is in a suburban setting and close to other colleges (linked through the Five College Interchange).

9. College Station, TX 

  • Where innovation meets inspiration: pioneering spirit and endless opportunities
  • Your gateway to exploration: city vibes and affordable living
  • Dynamic spirit: innovation hub and your own personal growth playground

college station texas a&m

College Station, TX, is home to Texas A&M University, the state’s first public institution of higher learning and the second-best university on our list of the top 10 college towns. More precisely, it’s a hub of innovation that’s perfect for personal development and growth where you can pursue your interests by participating in various organizations or clubs.

What’s more, College Station ranked among the top 20 spots for best air quality. Overall, students living here can benefit from a larger city vibe, enjoying cultural and sports events; concerts; and fine locations for eating out or grabbing coffee. And, with below-average costs for tuition and living, you can enjoy all of the benefits of the town without breaking the bank.

10. Storrs, CT 

  • Unique fusion: where rural charm meets urban energy
  • Minds thrive together: community connection and educational excellence
  • Explore, learn, flourish: diverse campus life and natural serenity

storrs ct u conn

Rounding out the top 10 best college towns in the U.S. is Storrs, CT, home to the main campus of the University of Connecticut. Here, the town offers a blend of rural and urban vibes with a strong sense of community provided by its young, well-educated population. Namely, around 46% of Storrs’ population is between 20 and 29 years old, while 73% of its population holds a higher education degree.

Campus life is also diverse at UConn with more than 700 student clubs and organizations and many cultural centers, theaters and museums. Consequently, students living here can enjoy a quiet environment that fosters learning, while also benefiting from close proximity to natural attractions and free recreational options.    

West & South lead the national top, but each region has its champions 

When looking at the top by each region, Amherst, MA, takes the crown in the Northeast; Athens, OH, in the Midwest; Clemson, SC, in the South; and Bozeman, MT, in the West. Check out the top 10 by region and see the newcomers:  

Methodology 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 12 metrics in three categories to rank the best college towns in the U.S. 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 10% of the total population, based on U.S. Census data (395 towns). We then eliminated towns with no colleges/universities or if the colleges present had fewer than 3,000 students enrolled. We also eliminated towns where data was not available for all of the categories. The final list included 236 candidate college towns to enter the analysis.

For the category of affordability, we considered data on:

  • tuition and fees (12% weight)*
  • the percentage of students receiving grants or scholarships (7% weight)
  • the cost of living at the metro or county level (12% weight)*

For the category of livability, we considered data on the:

  • ratio of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments per 1,000 people (8% weight)
  • share of population older than 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher (8% weight)
  • share of young adults aged 20 to 29 (8% weight)
  • county level of natural amenity rank (8% weight)
  • air quality at county level (8% weight)*

For the category of education, we considered data on:

  • university score (8% weight)
  • student-to-faculty ratio (8% weight)*
  • graduation rate (8% weight)
  • percentage of students enrolled of those who were admitted (5% weight)

* Categories that had 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; and admissions yield)
  • U.S. News & World Report (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; share of population with a bachelor’s degree)
  • Economic Policy Institute (cost of living)

In college towns where there was 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 and admission rate. For the final ranking, the city that obtained the highest total score was awarded 100 points and all total scores of the following cities were adjusted accordingly.

Fair use & redistribution  

We encourage 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 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 

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Mihaela Buzec is a senior 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.

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