Like people, you can divide colleges into two types: city and rural. One isn’t better than the other, and either comes down to personal taste. If you’re a big city person (or want to be one) who is looking to enter college, then this is the right article for you.
Every big city in America is unique. From the compact metropolis of New York City to the sprawling mass of Los Angeles, there is so much choice. But every sizable US city has certain things in common that people desire. There’s the mix of cultures, the greater variety of activities, the unexpected encounters and the camaraderie that comes with belonging to a place that has its own identity. Perhaps most importantly, all big cities offer significantly more jobs than smaller cities/rural locations, so you will be in an environment where you can find more opportunities. If this is what you’re looking for, then you’re probably wondering what the best college options and what the best city options for you are.
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This article will point the way forward. It will highlight both the best urban colleges and the best cities surrounding these urban colleges. This list allows you to know the best possible college options in America’s finest cities, but it also has other uses. If none of the cities or none of the colleges on this list appeal to you, then you can take the information given below and use it to inform your ultimate choice. The entries below will give you a feel of the cities and colleges and the things that they have on offer for prospective students. You can look for similar opportunities in your city and college options and ensure that you make the right choice. At the end of the day, choosing the right environment is a huge factor in achieving educational and career success.
Located in the middle of the most famous city in the world is New York University. New York City needs no introduction, and its rankings on the methodology lists confirm that its reputation is well deserved. Times Higher Education ranks it as the joint fourth best university city in the world. And WalletHub names it the 29th best large college city in America, noting that it is also the most expensive. When it comes to the college itself, four out of five college focused methodology lists feature it, all within the top 10. College Magazine places it at third. Princeton Review places it at fifth. The Edvocate places it at eighth. And Niche.com also places it at eighth. New York University is primarily located in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn, two of the busiest, diverse and interesting areas of NYC.
Nashville is the home of country music. That means that it's filled with fun bars and musical venues. And on our methodology lists, the city ranks at 10th on Thrillist and 27th on Wallet Hub for best large college cities. Vanderbilt is praised by almost every college specific methodology list. Niche.com ranks it at 76th for best college locations. College Magazine ranks it at 10th for best college city life. Princeton Review ranks it at fourth for best college in a big city. And The Edvocate ranks it at first for urban colleges. Vanderbilt is located just over a mile from Downtown Nashville, and students are quick to praise how much they enjoy a small college town feel in a large city with many great things to do.
New Orleans is known as being one of the most fun places in America. While this article's methodology lists rank much more than just fun, that must be an important factor for anyone looking to live for four years in one place. In fact, New Orleans only makes one methodology list, WalletHub, where it's ranked at 37th. However, Tulane University makes four out of five college specific methodology lists. Niche.com states that it's in the 16th best college location in America. The Edvocate places it at ninth for best urban colleges. College Magazine places it at eighth for best city life. And most impressively it tops Princeton Review's student-generated list. Tulane is based in Downton New Orleans, meaning that your studies will be at the center of all that makes the city amazing! The college even has its own shuttle and transportation system to help students get around safely and easily.
With Austin and the University of Texas, Austin, all of the feedback is positive. The city of Austin tops two methodology lists. Thrillist names it the best college city for students. WalletHub names it the best large college city in America. And The Edvocate names University of Texas, Austin thethird best urban college. Similarly, Niche.com names it the fifth best college location in America. The college certainly is proud of its home city and involvement with all aspects of its growth. It notes that due to the high quality of talent that the college is producing every year, Dell, IBM, Intel, Apple, Samsung and National Instruments have opened offices and conduct major activities in the city.
As far as Niche.com's student reviews are concerned, you can't get a better college location than University of San Francisco's campus, with them placing it at first. Additionally, Princeton Review's student ratings place the college at seventh. And there is little doubt that San Francisco itself is a one of a kind location. WalletHub names it as the 11th best large city in America for students. Times Higher Education names it the joint fifth best university city in the world. However, the big catch with San Francisco is that it's one of the most expensive places in America. Wallet Hub states that it is the city with the second highest cost of living for young people in America. But for those who can afford it, University of San Francisco is definitely an incredible choice, giving you the opportunity to be immersed in The Golden City. As the college's website states, "Only USF puts you in the heart of the city that invents tomorrow."
Three methodology lists rank Columbia University highly. Princeton Review's student-led rankings place it as the second best city college in America. The Edvocate has a similar opinion, ranking it at fourth for urban colleges. And Niche.com's student rankings place it at 54th for college locations. NYC itself ranks at joint third on Times Higher Education's list of the best university cities in the world, and the source names Columbia as a reason for that. It also ranks at 29th on WalletHub's best large college cities in America list. Columbia University's main campus is located near the top of Manhattan, just above The Upper West Side and Central Park. And Columbia takes part in civic engagement partnerships with New York City's government, allowing the graduates to fully experience the range of cultures in the city.
While most of the methodology lists agree that Chicago is an incredible big city for students, most disagree on what the top college in this city is. Thrillist names Chicago the third best big city for college students in America. WalletHub places it at 10th for best large college cities in America. And Time Higher Education places it at joint fifth for best university cities in the world. It notes that the University of Chicago is one of two Chicago based top 200 ranking colleges on its world's top universities list. The Edvocate and College Magazine are also convinced that the University of Chicago is the top place that you can attend in the city, if not America; The Edvocate places it at second, and College Magazine places it at first. But the only other college methodology list that the University of Chicago appears on is Niche.com's, where it ranks at 381st. However, the college is certainly doing much to make its city incredible. It is investing in Chicago's Mid-South Side in its health, education, arts and economic growth, for example.
The University of Southern California gets its strongest ranking on College Magazine. That publication names it the second best college for city life. Additionally, The Edvocate ranks it at sixth for America's best urban colleges. Los Angeles itself is joint third on Times Higher Education's list of the best university cities, with the publication noting that USC also makes its top 200 worldwide colleges. Additionally, WalletHub names Los Angeles as the 21st best large college city in America. And the college's residential village is one of the greatest places to live in the world. It is the biggest mixed-use development in the history of South Los Angeles and provides students with at 15 acre base of operations for their time studying in LA.
City University of New York, Baruch College manages to place on four of five college specific methodology lists. Princeton Review's student-led rankings name it the eighth best city college in America. The Edvocate names it the 12th best urban college in America. Time Money lists it in its unnumbered rankings. Lastly, Niche.com places it at 88th for best college locations. New York City itself is Times Higher Education's joint fourth best university city in the world and WalletHub's 29th best large college city in America (with the expense of the city dragging it down.) Baruch College itself is located in Midtown East, near the heart of the busiest part of NYC. As Baruch college's website states, "Our campus is within easy reach of Wall Street, Midtown, and the global headquarters of major companies and non-profit and cultural organizations."
The Edvocate places the University of California, Los Angeles in its top 10 urban colleges list at seventh. Time Money also lists it in its unnumbered rankings. Lastly, Niche.com places it at 34th for best college locations. UCLA is located at the western edge of Los Angeles, which is Times Higher Education's third best university city in the world and WalletHub's 21st best large city for student life. And UCLA connects students to its city through community engagement, by "allowing students to earn credit for service learning - benefiting both students and the local community."
American University itself makes three out of five college specific methodology lists. Princeton Review's student-led rankings place it at sixth. College Magazine's qualitative assessment ranks it at seventh. And Niche.com's rankings name the college as being in the 123rd best location in America. Washington DC only makes WalletHub's list, where it is named as the 35th best large college city in America. And American University is inextricably linked to the nation's capital. It's been a presence in Washington DC since 1893 and has worked with governments to make their initiatives a success. For instance, when FDR launched the New Deal, AU began a program to train federal employees in public administration.
You may not consider this Hoboken, New Jersey-based college to be part of New York City, but technically it is in NYC's metropolitan area. It's just a 10-minute metro, train, boat or bus ride away from Midtown or Downtown Manhattan, meaning that you can have the full city experience. But what's even better is that you'll enjoy the benefits of New York at a much lower cost, as Hoboken is significantly cheaper than NYC. And Stevens Institute of Technology is in a great location in its own right. There are almost endless dining options, and Walk Score considers it to be the most walkable city in New Jersey. In fact, both Princeton Review and Niche.com's student-led review lists place it within the top 15 city colleges in America, with Princeton Review placing it at third and Niche.com placing it at 12th.
This college and city perform incredibly well on methodology lists. Pittsburgh itself is Thrillist's fourth-best big city for college students. It is also 15th on WalletHub's list of best large college cities in America. University of Pittsburgh is College Magazine's ninth best university for city life. It also ranks at 10th on Niche.com, 16th on Princeton Review, and is on Time Money's unnumbered list. And the college's students love the city. Students enjoy large, cheap apartments; a wide range of nightlife; free bus rides; free entry to museums and much more.
Boston University makes two top thirty rankings on the methodology lists. College Magazine places it at sixth. Niche.com places it at 24th. Times Higher Education also notes that Boston University is a reason why it names Boston as the joint best city for universities in the world. And the college is certainly proud of its contribution to the diversity, industry, and culture of Boston. As its website states, "Our slice of Boston is a mosaic like no other: a swirl of languages, faces, and religions."
Boston has no shortage of world-class colleges. In Fact, Times Higher Education states that it has the joint highest amount of top 200 colleges in the world on its top colleges list. And Northeastern certainly stands out. It only features on two methodology lists, but they're both the ones that take student reviews to heart. Niche.com names it the 27th best-located college in America, and Princeton Review places it at ninth. Northeastern's primary focus is on experience, meaning that the city of Boston is a key part of this. Students from every discipline take part in community engagement activities. One example of how students help Boston and its residents is the Husky Volunteer Team, which creates teams of three to 10 students who then partner with an organization for one season. These activities include after-school tutoring, visiting elders and distributing meals.
Emory is based in the capital of America's south, Atlanta, to make the list. Times Higher Education names Atlanta the joint fifth best city in the world for universities and specifically cites Emory as one of the reasons for this. Emory is also Princeton Review's 11th best city college in America and Niche.com's 75th best-located college in America. And while Emory can be called a city college, it's definitely in one of the more rural areas of Atlanta, Druid Hills. And students that study in this college are likely to remain in the vicinity after graduation. In fact, one in three alumni currently lives in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
Pittsburgh has two entries on this list, and both colleges have their uniquely appealing qualities. Duquesne is in the heart of the city, and its campus, "offers breathtaking views of Pittsburgh and its three rivers, is a short walk from downtown and only 30 minutes from Pittsburgh International Airport." Because of this and other reasons, the two student-led methodology lists place Duquesne University in the top 20 city colleges in the country, with both Princeton Review and Niche.com naming it the 17th best.
This is one of two colleges located in Washington DC to make this list. The Edvocate gives George Washington University its highest placing, at 10th. Niche.com places it at 43rd. The former source uses quantitative stats and the latter source relies on student reviews, meaning that the college has both the numbers and the personal approval to secure its reputation. George Washington University's main location is the Foggy Bottom Campus, which is between the White House and the Kennedy Center. As the college's website states, this, "gives you unparalleled opportunities and turns the city into your classroom."
This college makes Time Money's unnumbered list of the 10 best urban colleges. Additionally, it makes 29th on Niche.com's student review led rankings of the best college locations in America. The college's metropolitan area of Minneapolis is the 19th best large college city in America on WalletHub. And the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities's links to both Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota mean that over 225,000 graduates currently work in the local area. The college is also quick to point out that Minneapolis ranks first in health, according to Livability.com.
This is one of many colleges on this list based in Boston, which is tied with London for being the world's best university city, according to Times Higher Education. This is also another college that performs strongly on student review led methodology lists, with Princeton Review placing it at 10th for city colleges and Niche.com placing it at 54th for best-located colleges in America. One advantage of Suffolk University is that instead of merely being within Boston's metropolitan area, its main campus is right in the heart of Downtown, with Boston Common being literally across the street.
College Magazine considers Drexel University to be the fifth best college in America for city life. Niche.com states that it has the 83rd best college location in America. However, Drexel's home city, Philadelphia, only makes WalletHub's list of the best large college cities, where it places at 32nd. One factor affecting Philadelphia's rankings is its high cost of education, which WalletHub notes is the fifth highest in America. However, studying at Drexel is definitely worth it, as graduates earn $56,620 on average one year after leaving college.
The northwestern city of Seattle is ideal for many urban minded students. WalletHub names it the fifth best large college city. And Thrillist names it the 12th best big college city for students. University of Washington itself is in Time Money's unnumbered list of the top 10 urban colleges and 93rd on Niche.com's list of the best college locations in America. The college's main campus is in the very heart of Seattle. And the college is committed to the safety of its students that reside and work in its big city location. For instance, it has a safety escort service called Husky NightWalk, where uniformed security guards can be called can be called to keep students safe at night.
Houston, Texas has the fifth largest metropolitan population in America, which is apt as Thrillist names it the fifth best big college city for students. WalletHub isn't so generous and places it at 31st on its best large college cities list. The Edvocate considers Rice University to be the fifth best urban college in America. And Niche.com states that it's the 112th best-located college in America. Rice University is in the heart of Houston and its ability to create an incredible place of learning among a giant urban center has led to a range of distinctions. For instance, the Princeton Review also states that Rice students have the best quality of life and the fifth happiest attitudes in America.
This college makes Time Money's unnumbered list of the 10 best urban colleges. It also ranks at 118th on Niche.com's list of the best college locations in America. And University of California, Berkeley is part of the San Francisco Bay Area, meaning that its city ranks at 11th on WalletHub and joint fifth on Times Higher Education. Berkeley is incredibly easy for students to live in and commute into the main San Francisco hub of activity. You don't even need a car, as there is a light rail connecting the two areas together.
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
This college performs incredibly well on student review led sources, especially when considering that it has a tiny enrollment of around 900 students per year. Princeton Review states that it's the 13th best city college in America. Niche.com places it at 196th for best college locations in America. And it's located in one of the most vibrant and storied areas of New York City, The East Village. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art's infrastructure has been instrumental in developing New York City into the city that it is. When its Foundation Building was opened in 1858, it was the tallest building in Manhattan and paved the way for skyscrapers. Additionally, its Great Hall has served as a forum for pioneers, innovators and influential minds of the last 200 years.
This Atlanta based college is College Magazine's fourth-best educational institution for city life. It also ranks at 339th on Niche.com's list of best college locations. Atlanta itself ranks on all three of the methodology lists that rank the best college cities. It's eighth on WalletHub's large cities list, sixth on Thrillist's best big cities for college students list and joint fifth on Times Higher Education's list of the best university cities of 2018. Spelman College is a historically black, women's college. And it's also a member of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, which allows students to participate in a range of entertainment and engagement activities in the Atlanta area.
Niche.com's students are incredibly impressed with DePaul University. They rank it at number two in the country. However, no other methodology lists feature it and instead recommend other Chicago-based colleges. One thing that may be affecting the other methodology sources is that DePaul is a Catholic college, so its religious study style may not be to everyone's taste. Further research proves that DePaul is indeed a great college and is a fine choice for anyone that wants to be immersed in America's historic second city. The college even covers the cost of riding on Chicago's buses and trains for students throughout their study.
Saint Edward's University is one of several colleges that perform incredibly well on Niche.com's student review led list of the best college locations but don't appear on other methodology lists. Its Niche.com ranking is third place. But Saint Edward's University's place on this list is secured by being based in Austin, which both Thrillist and WalletHub name as the best big city for students in America. It's a Catholic university, and that means that religion guides the way that its students interact with Austin. Its 4,600 students completed a combined 70,000 hours of community service in the college's home city in 2017 to 2018.
Saint Petersburg itself may not be the biggest city in the world, but it is a part of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, extending its reach to a community of over 2 million. The Tampa Bay area is Thrillist's 11th best big city for college students. It's also the third best large college city for students on WalletHub's list. And the best college for studying in this sunny and relaxed area is University of South Florida - St Petersburg; Niche.com ranks it at sixth for colleges in the best locations in America. The college's website states that "a bustling downtown is a short walk away, with an array of world-class museums, a performing arts center, restaurants, nightclubs, and parks."
Boston tops Times Higher Education's list of the greatest college cities in the world. It also ranks at 14th on Thrillist and 40th on WalletHub. And MIT itself ranks just inside the top 10 of Niche.com, with the student reviews putting it at ninth. And none can doubt that MIT is located in the best possible place to enjoy and take advantage of all that Boston has to offer. It's "between Central and Kendall Squares and across the Charles River from Boston's Back Bay." MIT also notes that this is an amazing area for collaborating with and contributing to the city's community.
Methodology: Here's How We Rank Schools
At Best Value Schools, we help students of all ages get the best possible value for their education. When choosing the best schools and programs, we prioritize tuition rates, student debt, financial aid opportunities, graduation rates, and the availability of online programs.
We source unbiased data from government and educational databases like the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 6,374 schools across the U.S. We organize that data into five weighted categories to compile our school rankings.
Full-time faculty percentage, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention and graduation rates
Tuition rates, median student debt, and financial aid
Admission and enrollment rates
Number of program options
Online Enrollment Score
Portion of learners taking at least one online course
You can read more about our comprehensive evaluation process on our methodology page.
To compile this unique list, we’ve consulted a range of sources. These sources come in several forms. Some are lists of the best cities for students, and some are lists of the best city-based colleges. Ultimately, our rankings combine both to give what most sources agree to be the top options.
To be considered a college in an urban environment, the college must have its main campus in a big city’s metropolitan area. That means that while University of California, Berkeley, for example, is not within the heart of San Francisco, it still counts as a big urban college, because Berkeley, its home city, is in the San Francisco metropolitan Bay Area. And to be considered a big city, the city’s metropolitan area has to have a population of one million people or more.
The ranking criteria of our methodology sources are diverse. For example, WalletHub combines 28 different factors, including the cost of living, quality of education and crime rate. Other sources, such as Niche.com and Princeton Review use student reviews and ratings as a primary source to indicate the quality of an urban college. Our list combines the range of sources above and sorts it into a list that prioritizes the colleges and cities that are most frequently cited as the best across the articles. We’ve also conducted our own research into the cities and colleges, to ensure that the article’s statements are factual and give a genuine opinion on quality.
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