Top Five College Towns

As spring quickly transforms into summer, seniors are finally at the end of their high school journey and have made their decisions on where to enroll next year. Not only did these future freshmen examine their college’s academic offerings and campus resources when making their decisions–I hope they also kept in mind that they will be part of the college’s local community.

From my experiences in college counseling, I’ve found that some communities are more receptive to college students than others—these are towns where college students love to live and learn. The following locations have great public transportation, easy access to affordable resources, and a community that supports a vibrant social and cultural environment.

Amherst, MA

Located just two hours west of Boston, this town under thirty square miles is home to three distinctive institutions. Amherst College sits in the town center, to the south of which is Hampshire College. Founded in 1965, Hampshire is known for its alternative curriculum, where students design their own course of study. Just a few blocks north of the town center lies the University of Massachusetts. With almost 25,000 students, the commonwealth’s flagship institution offers not only a great research faculty and graduate programs, but star-studded concerts and a competitive NCAA Division I athletic program. Smith College (to the west in Northampton) and Mount Holyoke College (to the south in South Hadley) are within a ten-mile radius. Together, they make up the Five College consortium. Not only are students linked through free campus shuttles, but they can cross-register, too! So, don’t be surprised when you are eating in the town’s affordable restaurants (I recommend a slice of Antonio’s pizza or a pop-over at Judie’s) and you run into a student, professor, or staff member of one of these colleges.

Berkeley, CA

The Bay area is expensive (San Francisco ranks #2, behind New York City as cities with the highest cost of living in the United States.) But, across the bay, Berkeley provides relatively affordable opportunities and a unique counterculture that college students enjoy. Walking on Telegraph Avenue, you will not only run into the 33,000 students who attend UC-Berkeley (and the Nobel Prize winners who teach there), but you’ll also meet students from the other dozen colleges located in the San Francisco-Oakland area who’ve take advantage of the cost-effective Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Because Berkeley is at the axis of the BART system, it only takes a few dollars to get there. Grab a panini at Bobby G’s or a cupcake from the Love at First Bite bakery, before catching a movie in the historic Shattuck Cinemas (show your student ID for discounted tickets). Also, if the weather is nice (and it usually is) try to catch a show at the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre. Inspired by the great theatres of the Hellenistic period, this outdoor facility is a great backdrop for live music and theatre.

Montreal, Canada

If you can handle the frigid winters, Montreal is a great place to be a college student. Located just seven hours from New York City, Montreal has the second highest number of post-secondary students in North America, making for ample opportunities to meet college students from all over the world studying at one of Montreal’s two-dozen institutions.

There are a few reasons Montreal trumps other American cities in its college student friendliness. First, studying in Montreal is a bargain. For Americans, tuition is significantly less than other private colleges—international students pay about $12,000 for tuition at McGill University, widely considered the “Harvard of Canada.” Also, with a student ID, students can use Montreal’s extensive public transportation system (STM- La Societe de transport de Montreal) at a 50% discount. Second, there is really no city in the United States that so fluidly combines European charm with North American pragmatism. A truly bilingual city, students will not need to enroll in French classes to learn the language. Students here are independent and do not confine themselves to their campuses; you’ll see students shopping and clubbing on St. Catherine Street and sipping café in the Latin Quarter at all hours of the day. Finally, Montrealers know how to throw a party—with world class jazz, film, and comedy festivals and the only Grand Prix event in North America, it’s hard to deny that four years in Montreal is one hot experience.

Washington, DC

Don’t be surprised that Washington, DC is on my list; there is more to DC that the federal government. Although New York and Philadelphia may have more institutions of higher learning, DC stands out because of the diversity of its institutions and the opportunities for students to get involved through internships. Many national and international organizations have headquarters in our nation’s capital, providing opportunities for students to intern in organizations as diverse as the National Institutes of Health, XM Satellite Radio or the Nature Conservancy. In fact, DC’s robust financial, non-profit and administrative sector means that only 27% of the District’s employees work for the federal government.

Planned by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, students who study at the dozen or so colleges within the nation’s capitol take advantage of a well-planned city with distinct neighborhoods and a clean subway system, the Metro (unfortunately, the Metro does not offer student discounts). Most students will usually congregate in the Northwest quadrant, where you’ll find great shopping in Georgetown (not to be confused with the adjacent Jesuit university), diverse cuisine in Adams Morgan, and dancing at DuPont Circle.

Boston, MA

This list would not be complete without Boston. With more than 100 colleges and 100,000 students in its surrounding area, there’s no need for a car when exploring this town of 600,000. Students can easily take the train or bus to Metro North or South Stations or fly into Logan International Airport. Once you get into Boston, a student can get a monthly LinkPass for only $59 to fully explore the city.

Although Boston is costly, living on campus actually helps many students enjoy the city’s cultural resources. A college ID opens doors to many discounts all over Beantown. Students can stroll through the Isabella Gardner Museum for only $5, normally priced at $15, and get student discounts at many retailers. Saving 10%-15% on your bill goes a long way in a town filled with private colleges. And, parents, take heart: most night clubs and bars in Boston close at 1 am, coinciding with the last T train runs of the evening, which means that your child can’t spend late nights avoiding their academic responsibilities.

*Note: To make it on this list, students should have opportunities to interact with those from other institutions on a regular basis. Unfortunately, that eliminated traditional college towns like Austin, TX, State College, Pennsylvania, Ames, Iowa and Boulder, Colorado.

Get expert help applying to college with ApplyWise’s online college counseling program.

Article by Katherine L. Cohen, PhD, Founder and CEO of IvyWise, LLC and

9 Responses to Top Five College Towns

  1. Trident January 9, 2013 at 5:24 PM #

    Berkeley is definitely a great college town; very friendly atmosphere with lots of friendly people. It has a peaceful vibe yet there’s still lots of fun things to do such as visiting all the quaint coffee shops.

  2. J & R Tutors August 23, 2012 at 2:47 AM #

    Good points! Boston is surely one of the lists, hope you’ll posts schools which offers tutorials in certain subjects as well.

  3. Peter Jensen December 22, 2011 at 5:28 PM #

    Great article – no doubt that these colleges really are in a class of their own. A top league. If you get an education from one of these it’s much more valuable that a lot of other smaller colleges, so maybe it’s wirth the trouble. I would say.

  4. Mikael April 5, 2011 at 4:08 PM #

    @Tammy, I think the feeling of “safe” is one of the major blocks that stop us from really excelling at what we do. Not that I don’t follow you because I feel the same way, but looking back “safe” hasn’t been the best road to travel.


  5. Mariana April 3, 2011 at 1:37 AM #

    For those that are not aware Amherst is the third oldest institution of higher education in Massachusetts and in 2008, when Forbes started ranking undergraduate programs,it ranked Amherst College as the seventh best college or university in the United States. I know that because my fiancee is proud of being an alumnus. 🙂

  6. Dhibhi March 31, 2011 at 12:28 PM #

    The University of Montreal is very good and not as expensive as Universities in the US. It is the second largest in Canada with more than 55,000 students in different faculties. It is ranked 136th in the world.My brother is in the Faculty of Dentistry since last year and is very happy.

  7. Andrea March 29, 2011 at 4:52 PM #

    “A truly bilingual city, students will not need to enroll in French classes to learn the language.”
    Knowing French is definitely an asset, though, as many Quebecois look down on those who only speak English. I agree that it’s an exciting and mind-broadening city for American students. Also very gay-friendly, if that matters to you.

  8. Tammy Correa March 12, 2010 at 7:24 PM #

    I went to college close to home. I did start in the bay area (Moraga, CA) which is very close to Berkeley and San Francisco. St. Mary’s College was a bit expensive for my parents at the time $22,000/year back in 1993! I ended up at UC Davis. Davis, CA was a wonderful college town and close to Sacramento and only an hour from the bay area. I enjoyed Davis so much that I went on and got a MS from the school as well! Perhaps I should have spread my wings a bit wider, but Davis, CA was so homey and it felt safe. The institution as well as the environment are both important elements when going to school, or choosing a school.

    • Jermaine Rucker April 25, 2010 at 1:46 AM #

      I agree with Tammy Correa. I too attended UC Davis from 1995 to 1998 and had a great experience, and that was after spending two years at the University of San Diego, a private catholic university which was very expensive (similar to St. Mary’s in Moraga, CA). Davis is a great college town…it offers a safe and fun academic environment. Davis, CA would’nt be Davis, CA without the university. UC Davis is known for its horticulture and agriculture programs, so know ahead of time that, “yes” there is a farm on campus. I also was an athlete, and involved my self in campus clubs and community service and really enjoyed my self. Besides, Davis is about 1 and 1/2 hours away from one of the greatest cities in the world, “San Francisco”. Enjoy!

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