The Best — And Worst — College Towns & Cities

Austin’s 6th Street. Courtesy photo

What do Austin, Orlando, and Ann Arbor all have in common? Besides the presence of some retail and fast-food chains, probably not much. But, according to new research from WalletHub, those three cities are the best for college students. The financing platform examined 31 different data points to compile a ranking of more than 400 cities and towns with colleges in the U.S. The results were divided into three categories — large cities, midsized cities, and small cities. Austin placed first in the large cities category while Orlando topped the midsized cities and Ann Arbor led the small cities.

Using the 31 different metrics all rated on a scale of 1 to 100 where 100 was the best, WalletHub based the rankings on three different categories — “Wallet Friendliness, Social Environment, and Academic & Economic Opportunities.” For Wallet Friendliness, WalletHub looked at factors like housing costs, an adjusted cost of living for “young people,” the cost of higher education, and loan debt per person. Social Environment included categories like students per capita, nightlife options per capita, share of population aged 18 to 35, and festivals per capita. The academic and economic opportunities category was weighted the heaviest at 50 points and included categories like the quality of higher education, the median income for part-time workers, and entrepreneurial activity.

Austin is the state capital of Texas and one of the fastest-growing large cities in the U.S. It is rapidly becoming a tech outpost — known as “Silicon Hills” — for large coastal firms and is home to offices for Google, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, eBay, and PayPal, among others. Located in Central Texas, Austin is also within 200 miles of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Besides being home to the University of Texas-Austin, the city is home to about a dozen other higher education institutions.


Following Austin in the large city category is Tampa, Florida. Located on the state’s west coast, the city of about 400,000 is the third-largest in the state and is home to the University of South Florida and a few other colleges. Up next is Seattle, which is home to the University of Washington and Seattle University, again, among other higher education institutions. Rounding out the top five are San Diego and Las Vegas.

As for medium-sized cities, Orlando tops the list. The city of just under 300,000 is also considered a tech hub and is home to the University of Central Florida. Orlando is followed by Scottsdale, Arizona, which rests just outside of Phoenix. After Scottsdale, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Gainesville, Florida round out the top five respectively. Those three cities serve as the home to the flagship universities in their respective states. Salt Lake City is home to the University of Utah, while Reno is home to the University of Nevada and Gainesville is home to the University of Florida.

Leading the way for small-sized cities is Ann Arbor, the home to the University of Michigan. Following Ann Arbor is Provo, Utah, which is where Brigham Young University is located. After Provo, Rexburg, Idaho, Charleston, Illinois, and Stevens Point, Wisconsin round out the top-five. Rexburg is home to Brigham Young University – Idaho. Charleston is where Eastern Illinois University is located and Stevens Point is home to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

At the other end, a few California cities rank as the worst large-sized cities for college students. Oakland is at the bottom. Across the Bay from San Francisco and neighbors to Berkeley, Oakland has a high cost of living. And while nearby places like San Francisco and San Jose have been impacted by high salaried jobs, Oakland hasn’t kept pace as much. Following Oakland as the next-worse city for college students is Santa Ana in the southern portion of California. Up next is Stockton, which rests in the northern part of California’s Central Valley. Rounding out the bottom five are Detroit and Arlington, Texas.

Shreveport, Louisianna ranks at the bottom of mid-sized cities. Following Shreveport are Bridgeport, Connecticut, Jackson, Mississippi, Augusta, Georgia, and Yonkers, New York. As for small cities, Germantown, Maryland is at the bottom. Kendall, Florida follows as the second-worst small college city. Rounding out the bottom five are New Rochelle, New York, East Los Angeles, California, and Compton, California.

The entire report and methodology can be found here.

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