What Makes a College Town, and Which Are the Best?

As you know, we here at The Chronicle’s Buildings & Grounds blog are not big believers in “best” or “top 10″ lists. But when this list of the “top 10 college towns of 2012″ arrived in my in box this morning, I couldn’t resist passing it along.

In doing so, I’m not saying the list is definitive—it’s put together by a publication called Livability, which I have never heard of. But I thought it would spur conversation about everyone’s favorite college towns.

And for starters, we need a basic definition of a college town. “True college towns are places where the identity of the city is both shaped by and complementary to the presence of its university, creating an environment enjoyable to all residents, whether they are enrolled in classes or not,” Livability’s editors write. “They’re true melting pots, where young minds meet old traditions, and political, social, and cultural ideas of all kinds are welcomed.”

That’s pretty broad. But the editors go on: In a college town, “the college is not only a major employer, but also the reason for more plentiful shops, restaurants, and entertainment businesses.” And it has to look like a college town, too: “It doesn’t seem right to call a place a college town if you can’t tell classes are in session with a quick glance at the mix of people on a busy sidewalk.”

OK. But setting aside the notion that a college town has to have twentysomethings plodding around with loaded bookbags (or stumbling out of bars and vomiting on your front lawn), consider how many cities meet the other criteria—especially the cities shaped by the clout of colleges.

For example, what would Baltimore be without the Johns Hopkins University? The economic equivalent of a smoldering hole in the ground, that’s what. Or consider Rochester or Syracuse, N.Y., from the same perspective. And what about Boston and Philadelphia—are they “college towns”?

As you’ll see from the list below, most of Livability’s “best” college towns are relatively small, remote places, based on colleges that are highly ranked by the Princeton Review. Livability, true to its name, also factored in cost of living and walkability. (College towns, by their nature, should be among the most pedestrian-friendly communities America has left.) Here’s the list:

  1. College Station, Tex.
  2. Oxford, Miss.
  3. Logan, Utah
  4. Champaign, Ill.
  5. Lawrence, Kan.
  6. Corvallis, Ore.
  7. Bloomington, Ind.
  8. Athens, Ga.
  9. Ann Arbor, Mich.
  10. Blacksburg, Va.


Seeing Bloomington and Ann Arbor here reminds me of some of the not-so-great college towns I have known. When I traveled to Purdue University several years ago, a local fellow had a quip about West Lafayette, Ind.: “It’s a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit here.”

When I went to Central Michigan University, someone had a terse assessment of that fairly flat college town: “Mount Pleasant—it’s neither.” (I had a good time anyway.)

The list also raises a question: What towns would we hold up as “best,” especially if we stripped away some of the prejudices that Livability imposes? I went to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and places like the Nordeast, Cedar-Riverside, and Dinkytown neighborhoods formed my “college town”—although they would never appear on a list like this.

I’ve also been charmed by overlooked places like Decorah, Iowa, home of Luther College, and Elkins, W.Va., home of Davis & Elkins College. I recently found Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to be a lot nicer than I’d heard it would be.

More-conventional places are always in the running: Boulder, Colo.; Burlington, Vt.; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Madison, Wis., just to name a few. (Is there a relationship between great college towns and craft breweries? Consider these maps. I’m just wondering …)

But those of us who make a living traveling to college towns want to know about the hidden gems. What’s your favorite college town, and why? I would like to see some surprising answers. Provide links, if you can.

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