Six American College Towns that Wow Students

By Ron Bernthal

Every spring approximately three million high school seniors will sift through their college acceptance letters and choose one institution to attend the following fall. There are approximately 4,276 public and private 2- and 4-year colleges in the United States, and costs to attend any of them vary widely, from a few thousand dollars a year at some of the public colleges, to more than $51,000 a year for tuition, room, and board at George Washington University.

As a college professor at a campus in upstate New York, and the father of a high school senior, I have heard a multitude of reasons why a student will choose one school over another, but spending four years in a quintessential American college town is the experience that most students, even if they cannot yet articulate it, truly wish for.

I have chosen six college towns, out of the hundreds that could have been listed, that seem to offer this experience. All these towns have colleges that truly dominate the environment, and this guide is for our readers who are parents of high school students, or for those who are considering retiring to a college town, a phenomenon which is becoming more popular each year. It is also for all travelers who enjoy visiting active and progressive places, where art and culture are flourishing, new architecture is exciting, and where hotels, restaurants, and sporting events are within walking distance of Main Street. Here are some of the best college towns in the country, and facts to consider when helping your own child make a smart choice about where to spend your money.

Norlin Quad at the University of Colorado, Boulder, fills up with students as they walk to classes on campus. (Photo: Casey A. Cass)

Boulder is nestled in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, 5,430-feet above sea level, and about 45 minutes from Denver. Students at the University of Colorado here enjoy living in a prosperous, energetic town with a vibrant college neighborhood filled with pizza joints and coffee houses, bars, music clubs, and clothing shops. There is a plethora of sports activities on campus, recreational opportunities in the mountains outside of town, and excellent academic programs in architecture, business, engineering, law, and music.

“I think Boulder is a wonderful city that provides a lot of outdoor activities and community events. There are bike paths everywhere, and lots of hiking paths along the foothills. From my experience, it is a very active and fit community and is full of good energy. I have met people from all over the world in here, so I think the city is quite diversified,” said Patrick Campbell, a 21 year-old junior studying architecture.

University of Colorado student Patrick Campbell (Photo provided)

Although some students, probably many, attend college here just for the frat parties and powder skiing, Boulder is a thriving and diverse cultural center as well, where Tibetan, Asian, and Native American influences add to the town’s eclectic mix. Many high tech and scientific research firms have located here, providing this beautiful mountain town with many gourmet restaurants, music, dance and theater venues, and job opportunities for graduates who can’t seem to withdraw from the altitude and attitude.

Another college town that everyone seems to love is Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina’s main campus. There are no mountains here but the town, founded in 1819, does sit on a hill, where the original chapel once stood, and UNC is the oldest state supported university in the country. Chapel Hill’s politics tilt to the left, some say far left, and conservatives have been known to call it “The People’s Republic of Chapel Hill.” But in this sweet mid-southern town, average age 24, where females out number males 54% to 45%, talking politics usually comes after playing Frisbee on campus lawns, strolling with friends down Franklin Street on a warm fall afternoon, or cheering the Tar Heels during the annual home game against Duke at UNC’s Dean Smith Center.

University of North Carolina's Ackland Art Museum (Photo: Orange County Visitors Bureau)

It’s not all fun and games in Chapel Hill, however. The university has an excellent academic reputation for undergraduate education, and its graduate schools, including the Kenan-Flagler Business School, and the Schools of Law, Medicine, Pharmacy and Public Administration, are nationally recognized. One of Chapel Hill’s major benefits is its location just west of Triangle Research Park, a corporate complex developed in 1959, where companies like IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks and others maintain large research and development facilities. The presence of TRP, along with UNC, has made Chapel Hill a highly sought after town for permanent residency, as well as for students, resulting in off-campus housing prices that are relatively high compared to other UNC campuses in the state.

UNC student Meghan Davis (Photo provided)

“Living off campus is more expensive here than in other college towns, but comparable to living on campus. My parents agreed to pay the equivalent of what a dorm room would be, which ended up being my rent without utilities. Living off campus is about weighing distance from campus against rent. Is being within easy walking distance of campus worth the higher price? For me it definitely is,” said Meghan Davis, a 21 year-old senior at UNC. “I think Chapel Hill is the perfect college town, with a beautiful campus, a busy main street, and a tremendous sense of camaraderie. Everyone loves being here, and it shows.”

If you have not yet heard of Gambier, Ohio, you are not alone. Gambier, site of Kenyon College, is a “sleeper,” an undiscovered gem in the middle of the state’s fertile Kokosing River Valley. Most students at Kenyon form strong bonds to the college, and with each other, by never living off-campus during their four-years at school. The college and the town have a symbiotic relationship, so close physically and spiritually that the college claims the entire town center as the school’s de facto student union.

New Kenyon Athletic Center is used by students, faculty, and the local residents. (Photo: Greg Sailor)

This friendly and cooperative connection between 1,600-student Kenyon College and a town only slightly larger may be too close for some students looking for a bigger cast of characters (you certainly won’t get lost in the crowd here), but parents take note, the average class size here is only 14. “The vast majority of students at Kenyon live on campus, and this is probably the most predominant contributing factor to the close-knit feeling of Kenyon and Gambier. Underclassmen live in dorms, while upperclassmen have the opportunities to live in apartments on-campus,” said Kate Hellman, a Kenyon sophomore. “The mayor of Gambier is a professor at Kenyon, you can walk into the dining hall and eat meals without swiping an identification card, and students and professors alike take Pilates classes and play basketball together at the new, and quite striking, Kenyon Athletic Center.” To give you an idea of Gambier’s small size, a survey of town residents who commute to work showed that 50% walk to their place of employment.

Kenyon College student Kate Hellman (Photo provided)

Cornell’s campus sits on a hill overlooking the town of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake, a 40-mile long “finger” lake in central New York State. Add 150 nearby waterfalls, including 215-foot Taughannock Falls, rolling terrain with vineyards and gorges, a popular downtown pedestrian-only “commons,” a history that goes back to the 1700’s, and you can see why students and parents love the place.

Buildings of Cornell University cast an imposing skyline over the natural environment of Ithaca, New York. (Photo: Charles Harrington, Ithaca CVB)

The university is Ivy League, with numerous undergraduate degrees covering everything from Asian Studies to Theatre Arts. Its professional schools of Medicine and Law are well known, as is the School of Hotel Administration and the Johnson Graduate School of Management. Of course, it is often not just the natural beauty of a campus, or the availability of a great library (Cornell’s is rated #4 in the country by Princeton Review), that makes the college experience so memorable. Nightlife and socializing are often considered le plus important factor when choosing colleges.

Cornell student JC Shepphard. (Photo provided)

“I love That Burrito Place,” said JC Sheppard, a Cornell sophomore. “After fraternity parties we often make our way to College Avenue where we always run into people we know at one or two in the morning, usually at College Town Bagels, which is open late. There is also a really neat place called Stella’s, a pretty Bohemian place with cool kinds of tea. They have wireless there so it’s a real good place to hangout.”

Spend a few days in Middlebury, in any season, even the muddy spring, and you will find it extremely difficult to leave. This picturesque and historic Vermont town has lots of white colonial homes with green or black shutters, brass eagles on the door, and a fluttering American flags on the front porches. But there are also organic food markets, funky live music clubs, and a diverse group of students. The close knit student body is the result of living in a very small town, and the fact that over 95% of Middlebury students live on campus. The residence halls are grouped into five intimate Commons areas, which the college calls “living and learning communities.” Off-campus housing in Middlebury is affordable, but only available to seniors, and limited by an agreement between the town and the college. Seniors wishing to live off campus must enter their name in a lottery.

Main Street, Middlebury, Vermont, offers a quintessential New England scene within walking distance of Middlebury College. (Photo: Addison County Chamber of Commerce)

Living on campus, however, is not a big drawback. The campus offers lots of diversions, including the beautiful new Gwathmey Siegel-designed library, and Kenyon Arena, home of Middlebury’s NCAA championship men’s hockey team. The town center is nearby, and students can walk or bike to Main Street for shopping at the Ben Franklin Store or Main Street Stationery. The campus was rated a high #13 on Princeton Review’s Best Quality of Life list. “I think the best things about living in Middlebury is its cosmopolitan and sophisticated atmosphere while still maintaining its small-town Vermont lifestyle, and all the outdoor activities available nearby, everything from hiking the Long Trail, to sailing on Lake Champlain, to skiing at Middlebury Snow Bowl and other areas,” said Tom Brant, a 19 year-old Middlebury sophomore.

ASU's Gammage Auditorium is the last public structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose former winter home, known as Taliesin West, is located in nearby Scottsdale. (Photo: Nick Doan)

Sun-splashed Tempe is home to Arizona State University, a huge state campus that defines this Phoenix suburb. Junior Brianna Barcelo, 21, a cheerleader for the ASU Sun Devils basketball team, sums up the feelings that many students express about living in Tempe (pronounced Tem-pee): “Everyone I know on campus seems to really love living here. Even students who grew up in nearby towns look forward to living here, and the out of town students really like the weather, the parties, the love of our sports teams, and the beautiful campus.” Although ASU is rated one of the top party schools in the country, and the Mill Avenue district buzzes with social activity nearly every night, the town has an intellectual side as well. ASU’s Biodesign Institute brought out the world’s first gene detection platform; the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability tries to find a more balanced approach to the growth of cities; and Richard & Bauer’s modern Interdisciplinary Science & Technology lab on ASU’s campus is a symbol of future energy efficient architecture. There is also a wonderful Ceramics Research Center at the ASU Art Museum, and concerts at Gammage Auditorium, the last public structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of the major developments in town, for both year-round residents and students, is Tempe Town Lake, a 2-mile long lake that was created in 1999 using reclaimed water. This area offers lots of recreational amenities, including the opportunity to sail on a desert lake.


ASU Sun Devils basketball cheerleader Brianna Barcelo. (Photo: Ron Bernthal)




Boulder – University of Colorado

Flying Home: Denver International (DEN), about 1.5 hours from campus
Population of town: 93,418
Student enrollment: 24,507 (undergraduate, fall 07)
Students as percent of town population: 27%
Hanging Out: Pasta Jays, Connor O’ Neal’s, the Walrus Saloon, Trident Cafe
TRB (Tuition + Room + Board): $31,289 (2007-2008 out of state undergraduate)
Median off-campus rental (1-bedroom): $901.00
Median condo cost (2-bedroom): $143,000
Average February temperature: 36°
Who’s Hiring: Celestial Seasonings; Sun Microsystems; Whole Foods Markets Inc.; Ball Aerospace; IBM, NOAA
Visiting Day: St.Julien Hotel & Spa (, Hotel Boulderado (, Boulder University Inn (

Chapel Hill – University of North Carolina

Flying Home: Raleigh-Durham (RDU), about 19 miles from campus.
Population of town: 49,919
Student enrollment: 17,628 (undergraduate, fall 2007)
Students as percent of town population: 35%
Hanging Out: W.B. Yeats Irish Pub, Top of the Hill, East End Martini Bar, Carolina Coffee Shop, Linda’s Bar & Grill, West End Wine Bar
TRB: $27,049 (2007-2008 out of state undergraduate)
Median off-campus (1-bedroom): $690
Median condo (2-bedroom): $226,100
Average February temperature: 43°
Who’s Hiring: UNC Hospitals, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of NC, Chapel Hill/Orange County Public Schools, General Electric, A Southern Season
Visiting Day: Carolina Inn ( ), Marriott Courtyard Chapel Hill (, The Franklin Hotel (

Gambier – Kenyon College

Flying Home: Mansfield Regional (MFD), about 32 miles from campus, or Port Columbus International (CMH), about 47 miles from campus
Population of town: 2,042
Student enrollment: 1,600 (undergraduate, fall 2007)
Students as percent of town population: 78%
Hanging Out: Middleground (organic food caf�), the Grill, Village Inn
TRB: $43,280 (2007-2008 undergraduate)
Median off-campus rental (1-bedroom): N/A
Median condo cost (2-bedroom): $124,000
Average February temperature: 25°
Who’s Hiring: Rolls-Royce Energy Systems, Inc, Ariel Corporation, Knox Community Hospital
Visiting Day: Russell Cooper House ( ), Kenyon Inn, Gambier House (, Holiday Inn Express/Mt. Vernon (

Ithaca – Cornell University

Flying Home: Ithaca Tompkins Regional (ITH), about 5 miles from campus, Syracuse (SYR) and Binghamton (BGM), both about 55 miles from campus
Population of town: 29,952
Student enrollment; 13,562 (undergraduate, fall 2006)
Students as percent of population: 45%
Hanging Out: College Town Pizza, Stella’s, College Town Bagels, That Burrito Place
TRB: $45,971 (2007-2008 undergraduate)
Median off-campus rental (1-bedroom): $574
Median condo cost (2-bedroom): $96,300
Average February temperature: 25°
Who’s Hiring: Borg Warner Automotive, Ithaca School District, Cayuga Medical Center, Wegmans, Emerson Power Transmission, Franziska Racker Center
Visiting Day: Statler Hotel & J.Willard Marriott Executive Education Center (on campus) (; Hilton Garden Inn (, Best Western University Inn (

Middlebury – Middlebury College

Flying Home: Burlington International (BTV), about 32 miles from campus
Population of town: 8,183
Student enrollment: 2,350 (undergraduate, fall 07)
Students as percent of population: 28%
Hanging Out: Mister Ups, Two Brothers Tavern, The Grille, Fire & Ice
TRB: $46,910 (2007-2008 undergraduate)
Median off-campus rental (1-bedroom): $512
Median condo/house cost (2-bedroom):$181,300
Average February temperature: 20°
Who’s Hiring: Porter Hospital, Addison Central School District
Visiting Day: Middlebury Inn (, Inn on the Green (, Swift House Inn (, Marriott Courtyard (

Tempe – Arizona State University

Flying In: Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), five miles from campus
Population of town: 165,796
Student enrollment: 51,481 (undergraduate, fall 07)
Students as percent of town population: 31%
Hanging Out: Dave & Busters, Dos Gringos Trailer Park, Rula Bula, Gordon Biersch Brewing, Oregano’s Pizza Bistro
TRB: $24,323 (2007-2008 out of state undergraduate)
Median off-campus rental (1-bedroom): $683
Median condo cost (2-bedroom): $199,300
Average February temperature: 57°
Who’s Hiring:US Airways, Safeway, Salt River Project, Maricopa County Community College District, Freescale Semiconductor, Medtronic Microelectronics Center
Visiting Day: Mission Palms (, Marriott Courtyard Tempe (, Fiesta Resort & Conference Center (


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