best college towns
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Best College Towns – Introduction

An often overlooked part of the college enrollment process is the college environment. Sure, you’re thinking about the campus, but what about the surrounding area? A campus is only as good as the college town it’s located in. A good college town can make you feel right at home, and the best college towns can offer you a chance to build lasting friendships in college. An ideal college town will have everything you need to make the move-in process go smoothly. It will have a place to pick up anything you forgot off your college checklist, a coffee shop that’ll be your go-to study spot, and maybe somewhere nice to grab dinner with the parents

Obviously, the best college town doesn’t need a Michelin star restaurant or the world’s biggest Target, but it’s important to make sure it has everything you need. Each student’s needs for their college town and college setting will differ, so think about what will work best for you. If you love artisanal coffee, then maybe a non-dining hall coffee option is a must have in your college location. No matter what, the best college town for you is out there.

What’s in this guide to best college towns?

In this college town guide, we’ll help you start to get an idea of the best college towns in America by region. Additionally, we’ll talk about which US cities have the most colleges, why college location matters and what it has to do with campus culture, and list some of the top college towns in America! We’ll cover the best college towns in the South, the best college towns in the Northeast, and the best college towns in the West.  We will also offer some more examples of the best college towns overall in America and what the best college town means for you.

So, if you’re desperately searching for the best college town for you, read on!

Why is college location important?

Like it or not, college location matters. You’re going to live in the town or city where your college is located for at least the next four years—you want to find a place that feels like home. This college environment can encompass a few different aspects, including the overall “vibe” of a college town as well as more concrete features.

For instance, if you can’t stand the cold, attending a college in Boston is probably not the right fit for you. Or if you have bad seasonal allergies, going to school in certain parts of Texas could pose a challenge. If you don’t like city living, you may want to look exclusively at the best small college towns. 

best college towns
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Furthermore, different college towns also have different relationships with the universities and colleges there. Some schools are quite isolated from their cities, while others are deeply ingrained in the college towns that house them. We always recommend doing research on a school before you decide it’s the best fit for you, whether that’s a school visit, or talking to alumni or current students. 

Finally, different college towns will also offer different opportunities. For instance, some rural college towns will offer students extracurricular and academic programs that take advantage of the natural features in the area. Conversely, big city college towns may have partnerships with businesses that some students find attractive or exciting. There are a variety of different college towns out there, and it may help to break down colleges by region in your organization. 

Which US city has the most colleges?

So, you probably want to know, which city has the most colleges? According to the data separating colleges by region and by city, Los Angeles has the highest number of colleges within its city limits. LA has a grand total of 308 institutions of higher learning, from community colleges to top-ranked universities like UCLA and USC. That’s a pretty hefty number of colleges by region!

best college towns- los angeles
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However, is the West Coast not your ideal college location? There are several other major US cities with a high number of colleges by region. These cities include Boston, New York, and Chicago. Obviously, each of these cities is fairly unique. And their college offerings are unique as well! Just because two schools are in the same college setting doesn’t mean they’ll have the same campus culture or vibe. So, you can’t always sort colleges by region and assume a “one size fits all” approach. 

Each of these college towns offers students a lot of options when it comes to their college experience. For instance, a student at Northwestern will have a very different experience than one at the University of Chicago, even though they’re in the same city. So, again, don’t think that all colleges by region will be the same just because they’re in a similar college environment to one another. 

What city has the most college students?

One more fun fact: the city that has the most college students is actually not the city with the most colleges by region. New York, not Los Angeles, has the most college students. With over a million college students, New York is the biggest and one of the best college towns in America. Not entirely surprising, right?

Best Towns and Colleges by Region

Later on in this guide, we’ll offer some lists of best college towns in different regions across the country. We’ll break down colleges by region, including the best college towns in the South, the best college towns in the West, and the best college towns in the Northeast. We’ll also address the best small college towns. But first, let’s talk about what makes a college town great. 

I’m sure you’re curious what makes a college town one of the best college towns in America. Well, there are lots of factors that contribute to the best college towns. Let’s discuss three things to consider below.

#1. Environment

First, college location and college setting have a huge impact on a student’s experience. Different geographic areas will have different climates, cultures, and quirks. You want to choose a college location that fits your priorities and preferences. The best college towns in the South will be a vastly different setting from the best college towns in the West.

best college towns - environment
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This means you should think long and hard about what kind of climate you’re looking for in a college town. Consider what major airports are convenient and what getting home for school breaks might look like. Think about whether you’d need a car while on campus. These are all considerations when it comes to your college location and college setting. 

#2. Culture

Second, you’ll want to think about campus culture and the college environment at a school. Beyond a school’s geographic location, you want to think about the campus culture and what it would be like to be a student there. Campus culture is the “feel” of the college, and different campuses can set a very different tone for how your four years will go. You want to make sure, above all, that the campus culture at your chosen school is one you feel safe in. 

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To help you get a feel for the school’s campus culture and the college engagement of a school in general, the very best thing you can do is go on a college visit. You can register for a tour through the admissions office, or, if the campus is public, you’ll be able to go walk around and see how it feels. You should also talk to current students to see how they’d describe the campus culture. Are there fraternities and sororities? Are football games and tailgates an important part of social life? Is the college environment very studious? These are all questions to think about when considering the campus culture.  

#3. Population or Size

Finally, you should think about college size when considering a college town. College towns can be dependent on the size of the college within them, which is usually the case in the best small college towns. However, in cities like New York or Los Angeles, the college size of the many universities located there doesn’t impact the overall population very dramatically. For instance, small and mid-size schools in smaller towns will often create college environments where the town is almost a part of the school. Think Cornell, Bowdoin, etc. New York, however, will not have that college environment, and you must remember that colleges in New York are located in a city that can be more dangerous than a small college town. 

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Above all, though, it is important to keep in mind that there are no “best college towns” that apply to everyone—you want to find the best college towns for you. So, when making your list of the best college towns, think about what you prioritize in a college location, campus culture, and college size. These qualities can help you narrow down your search for the best college towns for you. 

Find a College Near You

If you’ve given a lot of thought to what the ideal college town is for you and come to the conclusion that you want to stay local, that’s great! Attending college near where you grew up is a great way to ensure that you’re familiar and comfortable with the college location and college environment. 

Rather than just plugging “colleges near me” into Google, let’s talk about how to choose which school is best for you once you’ve narrowed down that college town location. There are great college towns across the country, however, in-state college is often a great option for many students. But, just because a school is in-state doesn’t mean it will automatically have everything you need. Do research beyond picking a convenient college location before you decide the final schools on your college list! You’ll want to check out the college setting, the college size, and the college vibe as well. 

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The benefits of in-state education

One of the benefits to an in-state education is that for residents, it is usually less expensive to obtain a degree there. The difference of in-state versus out-of-state tuition can frequently be tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, move-in and move-out are much easier if you’re within driving distance of your school!

So, now you’ve searched up “best colleges near me” and you’re trying to narrow it down. This is a great first step in making a college list! When creating a college list, you want to make sure you’ve made a list of the appropriate number of “target,” “reach,” and “safety” schools. You have to do your research on any college you’re thinking about applying to. Just searching “college near me” and adding whatever comes up to your CommonApp portant won’t quite cut it. You should sign up for college visits, especially if the school is close by. Read their website, speak to students and alums, and make sure you really get the feel of the school. 

Not sure where to start finding your dream school? We can help! Check out our guides on the best schools for architecture, engineering, business, and the best liberal arts colleges.

Looking for more information to narrow down your search? Try reading up on college rankings. Then, check out our guide of the colleges with the best rankings. 

Best College Towns in the South

Think you might want to go south for the winter (and for the next four years)? There are a ton of top college towns in America located in the South. If you want to attend school in the South, you might like a) southern hospitality b) warm weather all year c) comfort food d) all of the above! There are incredible opportunities at southern schools like UVA or UNC Chapel Hill, both of which are well known for being two top universities when looking at colleges by region. So, let’s get into some well-known college towns and some you may not have heard of before.

Athens, GA

best college towns- athens

First, we have Athens, Georgia, one of the best college towns in America. Home to the University of Georgia, students who love music will feel right at home in this college town. Athens has a great music scene. In fact, bands like Widespread Panic and R.E.M. were born there! The University of Georgia offers a great social life and a long list of majors, so they’re sure to have an opportunity for all students. Athens, Georgia is one of the best college towns in the South. 

Charlottesville, VA

best college towns- charlottesville

Another of the best college towns is Charlottesville, Virginia, home to UVA. Did you know the University of Virginia campus and Monticello together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site? Charlottesville also boasts a pedestrian-friendly Downtown Mall home to dozens of shops and restaurants, and a short drive will take you to Shenandoah National Park or Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards. This college town is great for someone looking for a robust life outside of campus!

Chapel Hill, NC

best college towns- chapel hill

Finally, another of the best college towns in the South is Chapel Hill, North Carolina — obviously home to UNC Chapel Hill, an excellent university with top-notch educational facilities and professors. Aside from that, the campus is imbued with Chapel Hill charm and tradition. While you’re there, be sure to stop by He’s Not Here, the beloved downtown drink spot. Another southern college town with overwhelming charm and lots of food and drink available around campus, be sure to add this to your “best college town” list!

Best College Towns in the Northeast

If you like that classic, dark academia charm, going to school in the Northeast may be for you. The seasons are intense, but the blustery winters are well worth it for the gorgeous, crisp fall and bright, blooming springtime. Let’s chat about some of the best college towns in the Northeast!

Brunswick, ME

best college towns- brunswick

Up first, we have Brunswick, Maine, where Bowdoin College is located. Brunswick is a combination of both village and city living, so if you’d like a little bit of both in your college town, look no further! There are specialty shops, outdoor spaces, and restaurants in the pedestrian-friendly downtown. Literary fans will be excited to know that Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while she lived in the town (Bowdoin continues to maintain her home to this day). 

Cambridge, MA

best college towns- cambridge

Next is Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home to both Harvard and MIT, you can be sure you’ll be surrounded by intellectual peers whilst in Cambridge. There are numerous great spots to get your museum fix, including the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Harvard Museum of Natural History and Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East. This is truly one of the best college towns, with a bustling nightlife in Harvard Square– El Jefe’s Taqueria is open until 4am! There are also indie movie and music venues throughout Cambridge, so there’s always some way to procrastinate doing homework. 

Ithaca, NY

best college towns- ithaca

Finally, we couldn’t talk about the best college towns in the Northeast without mentioning Ithaca, NY. Ithaca is home to Cornell and Ithaca College. There is so much to love about this college town! Some of the town’s best attractions include the hands-on Sciencenter, the Museum of the Earth, and finally, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and Hangar Theatre, a renovated airport hangar where Ithaca hosts theater performances. Keep your eyes peeled for Ithaca’s fall apple festival, February chili festival, July dragon boat festival, and September Porchfest music festival.

How many colleges are in the Northeast?

As you may know, many of America’s top schools are located in the Northeast. For example, all eight Ivy League Universities are located in the Northeast, among many other top schools like MIT.  It’s hard to pin down exactly how many colleges are in the Northeast. However, if you’re dreaming of traveling to the Northeast for your undergraduate career, you’ll have hundreds of great schools to choose from. Curious about more of the best college towns in the Northeast? Let’s highlight a few more: Amherst, Massachusetts and Syracuse, New York. 

A few more college towns to explore

Amherst is home to three top-tier schools, Amherst College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. So, the college size will seem larger with three colleges in one town! Not only is it a picturesque college setting with tons of college students living there, it also boasts lots to do. Check out the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst Cinema Arts Center, Emily Dickinson Museum, or Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, which features 18,000 items with an emphasis on American art. How’s that for something to do on a rainy day?

Syracuse also ranks as one of the best college towns, not just because it’s home to Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, and the State University of New York. There’s great nightlight in this college setting, along with a plethora of museums: the Everson Museum of Art, Erie Canal Museum, Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology, and The Warehouse Gallery. It also has more than 170 parks and recreation areas, such as the nation’s very first public golf course, and a zoo! Do we need to say more?

Best college towns in West

Going to school in the West is great for those who want open spaces, coastal views, and terrific year-round weather. Many top college towns in America are out west, so let’s discuss a few of them below!

Berkeley, CA

best college towns- berkeley

Up first is Berkeley, California, home of course to UC Berkeley. This city is a huge college town – home to a dozen higher education institutions. So, if you’re looking for a place where you’ll be surrounded with other students, look no further! Berkeley also has incredible nightlife, with lots of bars to stop by and mingle with other college students. 

Claremont, CA

best college towns- claremont

Next, let’s check out Claremont, California. Claremont hosts the Claremont Colleges (CMC, Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer). This cute college town is leafy green and extremely walkable. Claremont is also home to the Claremont Museum of Art and the 86-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Those two attractions alone make Claremont pretty high up on our list of the best college towns in the West. Hungry? Head to the Cheese Cave to indulge in some delicious dairy!

Boulder, CO

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Finally, we’ve got Boulder, Colorado. Home to UC Boulder, Boulder is an outdoorsy person’s paradise. This college town has great weather and an array of excellent hiking, biking, and fishing options. Fear not though, fair weather friends! This city nicknamed itself the “Athens of the West” for a reason. Several Beat Generation writers (Ginsberg, for one) have holed up here, and there’s an endless number of used bookstores for perusal on a wintery day. So, there’s a little something for everyone in Boulder. 

Still stuck on the differences between East Coast and West Coast schools? Check out our handy guide

What is the best state to go to college in?

So, far we’ve discussed college towns in the South, West, and Northeast. Now, let’s get into some of the overall best college towns in America. Location is often a driving factor in students’ college choice process, and it should be. The region, city, and state that a college is in greatly shapes the experiences of its students. After all, students will call their college town home for four formative years.

That being said, you should keep in mind that there is no one best state to attend college. However, researching colleges by region can be a great way to refine your college list.  Students can find a school that meets their needs no matter the state. In fact, when it comes to college towns, many have a variety of characteristics in common. When you’re researching college location, you should consider campus culture, college setting, political and economic factors as you choose a college town to call home for the next four years.

Even when researching colleges by region, there is great variety in nearly every state. You’ll find plenty of colleges with different campus cultures, a different college setting and varied student life opportunities. You can find urban, rural, and suburban college towns in almost every state in the United States.

Exploring the “best college near me”

Many students begin researching the perfect college town by starting with their preferred location. For students who are looking to stay close to home, this could start with a simple Google search of the “best colleges near me”. Looking for a college town in your area may be helpful in finding a close, comfortable, and affordable college.

For other students, staying close to home is the exact opposite of what they are looking for. These students might be most interested in a college town 100 miles away from their hometown, for example. No matter your interest in staying close to home or venturing to a new part of the country, researching colleges by region is a helpful place to start.

So, you may be wondering, “What’s the best college near me and how can I find more information on the best colleges near me?” Check out some of the best college towns in America here. Later in this article, we will discuss all of the many sources for researching the best college towns in America.

What are the best college towns?

Students can locate lists of the best colleges by region or the top college towns in America online. For example, USA Today publishes a list of the best college towns. This year, the list includes the following best college towns:

Each college town on this list has its own unique characteristics. However, there are also many similarities that landed these cities on the top college towns in America list. Colleges by region often share characteristics or similarities based on college size and college type. The above list includes some of the best small college towns and also college towns that serve unique populations.

Different characteristics to suit different needs

For example, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah is a private research university with most of its students belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With over 34,000 students and a community committed to spiritual growth, BYU could be the perfect college town for Mormon students.

Across the country, the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, boasts a vibrant student life that revolves around football tailgates and college nightlife. The University of Florida is a quintessential college town that is steeped in school spirit and regional sport rivalries.  

Finally, known as one of the “brainiest” college towns, the University of California Davis is the only UC school that is in a small town. 30% of the residents in Davis, California are students at UC Davis. UC Davis is a short drive from San Francisco, Sacramento, and Silicon Valley. While on campus, students enjoy extensive bike trails through the city of Davis. With proximity to large cities and a small-town feel, it is no surprise that UC Davis would top the list of the best small college towns and the best college towns in America.

Focus on what you want in a college town

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many lists ranking the best college towns that are published year after year. Students should reflect on their personal preferences and educational needs when looking to identify the best college town for their needs. Reflecting on college location may allow students to discover whether they prefer the best college towns in the South or the best college towns in the Northeast. Exploring colleges by region can also help students put together a list of characteristics that suit their interests.

Even when a student has narrowed down the college location, they may find themselves exploring more characteristics of the ideal college setting. And even if you decided on the most ideal college setting, the campus culture can differ greatly between those institutions

Are you looking for the “best colleges near me” or “the best college towns across the country”? Or maybe, you’re just focused on the “best small college towns”. Getting to know colleges by region and location is one of the first steps to identifying a college town that’s a good fit for you.

What is the best college town in America?

Unlike college rankings, there are a few metrics that can be used to create a definitive list of the best college towns in America. Remember, there is no one best college town in America. Instead, you want to focus on finding the best college town for you. You should reflect on some of the characteristics shared earlier in this article to decipher what type of college town is the best for you.

Reflecting on your unique personal needs can help you narrow down your own list of the top college towns in America. What is the best college near me? Am I interested in attending college in the South or on the West Coast? Am I looking for a college size that is fewer than 2,500 students or more than 10,000? These are all great questions to begin thinking more deeply about your needs and preferences in the college search process.

best college towns
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Understanding the college within the town

Whether a college town has a rural or suburban college setting, it is incredibly important to understand the college environment and the larger culture of the town. The relationship between a school and its college town is particularly important when researching the best small college towns. There are many college towns where local entertainment, employment, and hobbies all revolve around the fact that it is a college town. The liveliness of the city will typically mirror the colleges’ academic calendar (e.g., summer break, fall break, Homecoming, etc.).

But not all students are interested in attending college in a small college town. For many students, it will be important to have access to a larger metropole beyond their college town. Having access to a city allows students to explore entertainment and restaurants beyond that of the college town. Access to a large city also means that students are in closer proximity to internships and careers after graduation. This proximity allows students to build on career connections established with companies during their undergraduate years.

Do your research

After you have a good understanding of your personal preferences, it is time to begin extensive research on the best college town for you. Don’t forget to look beyond college rankings and focus on what college towns might be the best fit for you. Many websites provide a list of the best college towns each year. You can find websites dedicated specifically to the best college towns in the South and travel websites that compile their favorite college towns to visit.

Top college towns in America that you may not have heard of

Let’s review a list of three colleges towns ranked as top college towns in America by various sources that you may not be familiar with.

Ames, IA

best college towns ames

Ames, Iowa is home to Iowa State University, where more than 45% of the residents are enrolled at the university. This guarantees students a large population of college-aged peers to interact with. Ames is affordable, friendly, and home to a top tier research institution. Not only is Ames a great college town, but it is also ranked amongst the top places to live.

Missoula, MT

best college towns missoula

Cited as a premier college town, Missoula, Montana is home to the University of Montana. Missoula is the second largest city in Montana, with 10,000 of those residents enrolled at the college. The college town of Missoula, Montana spans 56 acres and includes a 25,500-seat football stadium, golf course, soccer field, and plenty of student housing. Missoula also takes advantage of its natural habitat, offering a strong natural resource curriculum based on the 3 million acres of wilderness surrounding the city.

Ithaca, NY

best college towns

Well, this one you may have heard of because we discussed it on our list of best college towns in the Northeast. But, last on our list is Ithaca, New York is a city home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College. Ithaca is scenic with many green hills, gorges, and waterfalls that fill the city. The city population is quite small, but both Cornell and Ithaca College add a whopping 20,000 college-aged students to the population. This makes Ithaca the quintessential college town.

Each of these institutions has unique benefits for college students. The one thing that they have in common is a community that exists for residents and college students alike. These communities have great relationships with their respective universities, and the lines are often blurred between resident and student.

How do I find the best college towns near me?

There are many ways to identify the best college town for you. A simple Google search of “colleges near me” can help you build a list of the top college towns in America near you. There are various college search websites to assist you. Check out our College Finder Series to learn more about researching college towns.

Online research on sites like Campus Reel focuses on campus culture and college environment, which are incredibly important in identifying the best college towns. Ideally, you will be able to research the “feel” of a college prior to even stepping foot on the campus. Following a college on social media is another way to get a sense of the culture on campus.

best college towns
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Talking to students and graduates from your high school about their experiences in nearby college towns can also be helpful in identifying the best college towns. While every student’s experience is unique, hearing from current students allows you to get some feedback from people you can relate to. When it comes to campus size and location, people from the same hometown are likely to share common perceptions.

College visits are key

Of course, there’s no better way to find out what a college town is like than to visit in person! College visits are one of the most important litmus tests in discovering if a college is right for you. And you shouldn’t wait until your senior year to visit a college either. Instead, college visits should be woven into your college search process. If time and resources allow, it can be helpful to visit a college in each of the specific regions you are considering. The best college towns in the South will differ from the best college towns in the Northeast or on the West Coast.

Students should also consider visiting campuses of different sizes. Small, medium, and large campuses have unique attributes that affect the student experience differently. For example, small campuses are more likely to have low student-to-faculty ratios and can be a more comfortable environment for students coming from smaller high schools. Large campuses are more likely to have large-scale Division 1 athletics programs. This could be a deciding factor for a student seeking a college town with a vibrant athletic culture.

Finally, campus visits should give you a better perspective on the city that the college is in. The best colleges for students typically have a college location and college environment that students can feel comfortable in. Large metropolitan cities, such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, provide a large influence outside of the classroom. Conversely, more suburban and rural communities such as Ithaca, New York, or Auburn, Alabama provide a more college-centric experience.

What are the worst college towns?

Now that you have heard more about discovering the best college towns, let’s discuss the worst college towns. First and foremost, there is no such thing as a list of the “worst college towns.” The worst college towns will be the ones that don’t suit your needs. Your needs are based on your preferred college location, campus culture, college environment, college setting, and college size. The worst college towns for you will be places that don’t meet these requirements. 

So, if you crave a bustling campus, a quieter college town like Williamstown, Massachusetts might not suit you. You might be happier somewhere like Cambridge, MA, where Boston is just a few train stops away.

worst college towns
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Or, if you hate hot weather, you likely wouldn’t have a great time in College Station, Texas, where summer temperatures climb to the hundreds. Instead, you might consider somewhere like Princeton, New Jersey, or Brunswick, Maine. You may decide to rule out all the best college towns in the South and focus solely on the best college towns in the Northeast due to weather alone.

Considering safety

Finally, you want to find a college town where you’ll feel safe. The worst college towns are the ones where you won’t feel at home. Safety in your college town is more than just public safety. A safe college is somewhere you will feel affirmed and supported by fellow students, faculty, staff, and the local community. Mental health resources, multicultural centers, and a welcoming campus climate are all characteristics you should inquire about on-campus visits.

Best College Towns – Final Thoughts

So, as you can see from Parts 1 and 2 of this guide, there is no objective list of the best college towns or the worst college towns. Students should think deeply about which college towns have the characteristics that are most important to them. Some of those characteristics include college location, campus culture, college environment, college size, college setting, relationship between the school and the city, and proximity to larger metropolitan areas. 

Remember, the best college towns in America and the worst college towns are decided by your unique needs. You should consider your preference on the college environment, college size, campus culture, and the college environment to create your own best college towns in America list!

Whether you are looking for the best college towns in the South, the best college towns in the Northeast, or the best college towns in the West, College Advisor can assist you. College Advisor is here to help you find a college town that feels like home and to share more information about the college enrollment process!

You can use some of our online resources such as our College Finder guide, our How to Find Your Dream school guide, or our best colleges guide. We know that academic offerings also shape your college search greatly. Check out some of our guides on the best liberal arts colleges, top engineering schools, best schools to study architecture, and best schools to study business. Happy searching!

best college towns

This article was written by Chelsea Holley and Laura Frustaci. No matter what stage you are at in your college search, CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help. To get one-on-one advising with an Admissions Expert, create your free account or schedule an advising consultation by calling (844) 343-6272.