The Very Best College Towns

State Street in Madison, Wisconsin

State Street in Madison, Wisconsin

What’s important to me in a college?

You’ve probably asked yourself that question all year. By now, you can rattle off a long list. Academic reputation? Of course. The right job after graduation? You bet’cha! Tuition and financial aid? Join the club. The party scene? Well, just keep that one to yourself.

By now, you’re buried in well-meaning advice from your parents, advisors, and peers. And you’re wrestling with the same fears as everyone else. Am I ready to move far away? Would I thrive or get lost on a big campus? Do I want to stay with my friends – or make a clean break? Once you start making campus visits, you’ll be asking a new question: Do I really want to live here?

The “college experience” extends far beyond campus. The surrounding community comes with a certain “vibe,” whether it’s artistic or entrepreneurial, traditional or counter-cultural, welcoming or reserved. For the next 3-5 years, you’re going to be part of that community. These people will become your friends, mentors, and network. And your surroundings will color your hardest lessons and happiest memories. After graduation, you’re bound to head back to that community (if you haven’t laid down roots there first).



To help students measure the best communities for them, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) released its annual “College Destinations Index” in October. An independent, non-profit research firm, AIER measures the student life, culture, economic health, and opportunities available to students in 75 communities ranging from Boston, Massachusetts to Fairbanks, Alaska.

The index evaluates and ranks communities according to 12 criteria. They include the following:

  • Population
  • Student concentrations (Number of students per 1000 residents)
  • Housing costs (Fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment)
  • Accessibility (Percentage of residents who bike, walk, or take public transportation to work)
  • Arts and leisure (Concentration of arts, entertainment and recreational establishments)
  • Foreign-born students (Percentage)
  • Innovation (Percentage of workers in innovative fields)
  • Unemployment percentage
  • Entrepreneurial activity (Net change in businesses per 100,000 residents over three years)
  • Brain drain (Annual change in share of population with college degrees)
  • Academic research and development (University dollars per student)
  • College education (Percentage of residents with a Bachelor’s degree or higher)
  • Earning potential (Median earnings)

In addition, AIER’s index breaks communities into four categories: major metros (2.5 million or more residents), mid-size metros (1.0 to 2.5 million residents), small metros (250,000 to 1.0 million residents), and college towns (Under 250,000 residents).

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