Incredible Small College Towns
Some people love small town living. There’s a lot to be said for this kind of lifestyle. People tend to be friendlier. The pace of life is more relaxed. And accessing the wonders of the countryside is much easier. If you’re this kind of person, then you’ve got plenty of options for your college years. America is replete with colleges that are secluded from the hustle and bustle of the big city. In fact, there are so many colleges that are based in idyllic, rural locations that picking one to attend is a very difficult task.
What makes locating the right college more difficult is that”rural” has a loose definition, especially in a country as geographically diverse as the USA. Do you want to live among the picturesque vistas of New England? Perhaps the heat of the southwest is more your thing? Or could the Rocky Mountains be your idea of a rural paradise?
Luckily, this article has been created to make choosing a small town college easier. It will highlight to you which colleges are truly rural while ensuring that they offer concrete graduate job opportunities and connections that span the globe. It does this by analyzing a range of aspects that each rural college shares, such as town lifestyle, student happiness, activities on offer, employability statistics and more. Also, the list looks at the things that make each rural college unique and stand out from all the others. It then sorts these into dedicated rankings, which you can use in a number of ways. The 30 colleges below are all fine options. But if they aren’t right, then you can look at the things that they have in place and their locations. These may provide insights into what it is that you’re looking for in a college. And these insights can shape your search so that you ultimately have a set of college choices that have all that you want in small town living.
Our rankings come from dedicated research into what a range of sources name as the best rural colleges. All of our methodology sources are from respected publications that either specialize in college research or convey this information to mainstream audiences. We’ve also analyzed the small town colleges on an international scale, to see how they are considered outside of their town, state, and country. The sources are below:
College Raptor, Top 25 Best Rural Colleges: 2017 Rankings: https://www.collegeraptor.com/find-colleges/articles/college-comparisons/top-25-best-rural-colleges-2017-rankings/
Conde Nast Traveler, The Best College Towns in the U.S.: https://www.cntraveler.com/galleries/2014-10-07/best-college-towns-for-people-who-aren-t-in-college
Business Insider, The 20 Best College towns in America: https://www.businessinsider.com/best-college-towns-in-america-2017-7
The Edvocate, 2018 Best Small-Town Colleges and Universities in America: https://www.theedadvocate.org/2018-best-small-town-colleges-universities-america/
Schools.com, The 25 Best Small College Towns: https://www.schools.com/articles/25-best-small-college-towns
Top Universities/QS, Worldwide Rankings: https://www.topuniversities.com/
To qualify as a small rural college on our list, a city must have a population of 200,000 or less.
The advantage of our article compared the methodology sources is that we’ve worked out the consistent top performers so that you don’t have to. The colleges in small towns that multiple lists agree to be great are therefore the highest ranked on our list. However, another advantage of this list over the methodology sources is that we’ve conducted our own unique research and highlighted why the colleges and their towns are so well regarded.
Our rankings are below:
||University of Colorado, Boulder
||University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
||Ann Arbor, MI
||Indiana University Bloomington
||University of Florida
||North Dakota State University
||University of Iowa
||Iowa City, IA
||Northern Arizona University
||Gustavus Adolphus College
||Saint Peter, MN
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University of Colorado, Boulder
The city of Boulder, Colorado performs incredibly well on most methodology lists. Business Insider considers it to be the top college town in America. Conde Nast Traveler features it in its unnumbered list. Schools.com names it the 21st best small college town in America. And Wallethub considers it to be the 95th best small college city in America. The University of Colorado, Boulder itself is a well-regarded college, with Top Universities/QS ranking it at 190th for best college in the world. It's not hard to see why so many students find it an appealing place to study. It has more than 300 days of sunshine a year, over 300 miles of bike lanes and an amazing public transportation system. Nearby are more than 42 state parks, and the big city of Denver is just 30 miles away.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor doesn't just top WalletHub's best small college cities list, but it also tops the site's consolidated list of the best big, medium and small college cities. Schools.com considers Ann Arbor to be the 16th best college town in America. Conde Nast Traveler features Ann Arbor in its unnumbered best college town list. Top Universities/QS names the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as the 20th best college in the world. And the University of Michigan is doing many great things for Ann Arbor. One in every three Ann Arbor residents were serviced by the college's medicine department in 2017, and the college has partnerships with the Ann Arbor police department, public schools, transit authority and other local groups.
Ithaca, New York is home to two colleges, Cornell University and Ithaca College. However, Cornell is the only one of the two to make this list, as it is the only one to make QS/Top Universities list of the world's best colleges. The town of Ithaca itself is fourth place on Business Insider's list of the best college towns. It also makes 39th on WalletHub's list of the best small college cities in America. Lastly, it is on Conde Nast Traveler's unnumbered list. And Cornell University is quick to point out that Ithaca is an incredible town. It notes that Ithaca has won countless awards for being one of the best places to live in America. It also notes that Ithaca has buses that take students on day trips to New York City if they wish to experience the big city now and then.
Indiana University Bloomington
The city of Bloomington is sixth on Business Insider's list of best college towns. It's also featured in Conde Nast Traveler's best college towns list, 25th on Schools.com's best small college towns list and 43rd on WalletHub's best small college cities list. And Indiana University, Bloomington is the world's 323rd best college on Top Universities/QSâs list. Overall, that means this college and its town feature on five different methodology lists! In fact, students love living in Bloomington so much that many end up living there permanently. Bloomington is the number one city for work-life balance, according to Forbes, and the sixth best college town to live in forever, according to College Ranker.
Gainesville is counted as a mid-size city on WalletHub, where it is named as the third best in the country. However, its population is only slightly more than 130,000. Conde Nast Traveler also states that Gainesville is one of the best college towns in America. And Top Universities/QS also ranks the University of Florida as the joint 180th best in the world. The University of Florida makes the most out of its incredible location. For instance, the college has two lakes, which are both utilized for academic and leisure activities.
North Dakota State University
Fargo, North Dakota places on three methodology lists. WalletHub considers it to be the 84th best small college city in America. Business Insider names it the 13th best college town. Most impressively, Schools.com names it the top small college town in America. And while Fargo is a fairly small city, with a population of just over 167,000, that's still enough people to make it the most populous place in the entire state of North Dakota. In fact, the closest big city to Fargo is Winnipeg, Canada. Fortunately, North Dakota State University has been able to forge strong bonds with its local community. For instance, the college recently worked with the Fargo Park district to bring an art installation to the city's downtown area.
This may sound like a college located in a big city in Florida, but it's actually in Oxford, Ohio, which has a population of 21,371. College Raptor names Miami University the seventh best rural college in America. The Edvocate has the same opinion, also placing it at seventh for small college towns. WalletHub names it the 15th best small college town in America. Lastly, Top Universities/QS places Miami University at between 800th and 1000th on a global scale. And the visuals that surround this college couldn't be any more breathtaking. The poet Robert Frost even called it, "the most beautiful campus that there ever was." However, the college does have strong ties with other areas, being only 35 miles north of the city of Cincinnati. It also has a center in the European country of Luxembourg.
Business Insider ranks Iowa City at fifth place for best college towns. It notes that it has a population of just over 164,000, meaning that it's small but not tiny. WalletHub names Iowa City as the 44th best small college city. University of Iowa itself is Top Universities/QS's joint 435th best college in the world. And the college is quick to point out that its home city has won a range of awards from other sources. For example, Livability.com named it the fourth best place to live in America.
Northern Arizona University
Business Insider is highly impressed with Flagstaff Arizona, home to Northern Arizona University, and places it at third on its list. WalletHub names it the 62nd best small college city. What sets Flagstaff apart is that it's located in the largest pine forest in the world. If you love exploring forests and the outdoors in a warm climate, then Northern Arizona University should be your number one choice of college. But Flagstaff has much more going for it than just a forest. It also has a ski resort, a creek canyon, an urban trail system, monthly art exhibits, an observatory and a bustling town square.
Gustavus Adolphus College
Gustavus Adolphus is College Raptor's eighth-best rural college. It's also just over 12 miles away from Mankato, Minnesota, which is WalletHub's 63rd best small college city. Gustavus Adolphus College is a Lutheran institution, and this identity is strongly entwined with its educational approach. In fact, the college has five daily church services. But regardless of religious values, anyone can appreciate the beauty of its location. It is spread across 340 acres of land, which is all exquisitely landscaped. For travel to larger surrounding cities, students can take advantage of the Greyhound bus service in the local area.
University of Missouri, Columbia
Business Insider places Columbia just within its top 10 college towns, in ninth place. Schools.com has a similar opinion, placing it at 11th on its small college towns list. Lastly, WalletHub places it 95th for best small college cities. And Columbia's college, University of Missouri, Columbia, ranks at 591st to 600th on Top Universities/QS's global rankings. The college's website perfectly sums up just why Columbia is for many the perfect small college town. It points out that there are always lots of fun things to do, whether it's watching sporting matches, enjoying outdoor concerts, eating at the restaurants or exploring the wild.
The Edvocate considers Carleton College to be the second best small town university in America. On an international scale, Top Universities/QS ranks it at between 651st to 700th. And Carleton College is based in Northfield, Minnesota, which is 44 miles away from the big city of Minneapolis. Northfield itself has a wide range of fun, friendly activities for students to enjoy, including, "concerts, plays, art exhibits, sports matches, lectures, film screenings and more." If that weren't enough, then Carleton College also has a range of unusual and fun nontraditional traditions that most students participate in, such as relaxing at The Cookie House, grooving to Silent Dance Parties and eating late night breakfasts.
Kansas State University is the only college that can claim to be in a small town and also in the heart of Manhattan. That's because Manhattan, Kansas has very little in common with its New York City namesake. It's a city with a population of just over 50,000 people, and Business Insider places this small town with a big name at eighth on its list of the best college towns in America. WalletHub also names it the 67th best small college city in America. Kansas State University itself is 751st to 800th on Top Universities/QS's list of the world's best colleges. However, in some areas, this college is seen as being at the forefront of the world. For instance, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has referred to Kansas State University as the "Silicon Valley for biodefense."
University of Mississippi
The Edvocate places this college at sixth on its list of the best small town universities. And on an international scale, University of Mississippi is ranked between 801st to 1000th on Top Universities/QS's list (which is impressive when you consider that there are over 26,000 colleges in the world.) The college is based in Oxford, Mississippi, which has a population of 23,000. The nearest big city to this town is Memphis, which is 84 miles away. And the college itself is great to attend because while it has that small town location, it's also somewhere that's growing fast. Enrollment has increased 40.5% over the last decade.
WalletHub names Princeton, New Jersey as the 21st best small college city in America. Conde Nast Traveler also recommends the town in its unnumbered list. Top Universities/QS considers Princeton University itself to be the 13th best college in the world. And while the college's town is small and sleepy, it's also only 50 miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Princeton University is also proud of the fact that its hometown has a growing restaurant scene, great shopping, unique cultural centers and lots of great outdoor locations.
College Raptor's ranking criteria have led Williams College to be considered its number one entry. However, it doesn't appear on any other methodology list. Williams College is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts and is in an idyllic New England backdrop, right near the borders of Vermont and New York State. In fact, it's only a few miles from the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, meaning that you'll have plenty of opportunities to engage with nature. And while Williamstown only has a population of 7,700, it's part of the Pittsfield metropolitan area, which is still tiny, at just over 40,000 residents. The nearest sizable city to Williams College is Albany, New York, which is 40 miles away and has a metropolitan population of just over 1.1 million people.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Top Universities/QS considers the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to be the joint 83rd best college in the world. And Chapel Hill itself performs strongly on methodology lists. For example, WalletHub names it the 16th best small college city in America. It is also cited on Conde Nast Traveler's unnumbered list as being one of the best college towns. Even though Chapel Hill is a small town, population-wise, there are many incredible things to enjoy. For example, it has 350 acres of parks, 95 restaurants and 13.2 miles of bike lanes.
Middlebury College tops The Edvocate's list of the best rural colleges but doesn't appear on any other methodology list. Its location in Vermont's Champlain Valley is truly one of a kind. As the college's website states, "Our natural setting [â¦] with the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, is crucial to our identity, providing refreshment and inspiration as well as a natural laboratory of research" As you may imagine for such an incredibly located school, sustainability and environmentalism are core parts of the college's identity.
Providence, Rhode Island has 180,000 people, meaning that it's only just within this list's definition of a small college town. However, its population has remained stable since 2001, so it will probably retain its small town feel for many years to come. On the methodology lists, WalletHub considers Providence to be a mid-size town and ranks it at 26th best. Conde Nast Traveler also recommends the city on its unnumbered list. Brown University itself is 56th on Top Universities/QS's international top colleges rankings. And Brown is incredibly active in Providence. It engages with the local community by facilitating community partnerships and building relationships with neighbors, nonprofits, schools, civic organizations, and businesses.
United States Military Academy
The longest occupied military outpost in America may not be what you pictured when you thought about rural college towns. But West Point, New York, the home of United States Military Academy, is in an incredible location. There are a range of historic buildings, and it's surrounded by state parks and has the Hudson River just to the east. The nearest sizable city is Poughkeepsie, which is just over 33 miles to the north. However, 60 miles to the south is the busiest city in the world, New York. College Raptor names this school the second best rural college in America.
The University of Georgia
Athens shows that there's much more to the state of Georgia than Atlanta. Business Insider considers the city to be the 14th best college town in America. WalletHub places it at 32nd on its small college cities list. And Conde Nast Traveler names the city one of the best college towns in its unnumbered list. Top Universities/QS also considers the town's college, The University of Georgia, to be the 431st best college in the world. The college is located in the middle of downtown Athens, which has numerous, "art galleries, trendy shops and distinctive dining options." The college also points out that its hometown has a vibrant and legendary music scene.
This college is based deep in upstate New York and is in the town of Kirkland, which has a population of just over 10,000 people. However, the most notable area in Kirkland is the village of Clinton, an incredibly picturesque place that has produced a disproportionate amount of famous figures for its small size. It also has a natural foods store, a range of restaurants, a supermarket, and pharmacies. However, 10 minutes away from Clinton, students can find Target, Macy's and all the other stores that you would expect in America. The nearest sizable city is Syracuse, which is 45 minutes away. College Raptor places Hamilton at fourth on its list.
This college's city, Lawrence, makes Conde Nast Traveler's unnumbered list of great college towns. It's also the 86th best small college city, according to WalletHub. University of Kansas itself is joint 367th on Top Universities/QS's global rankings. And Lawrence is definitely an interesting and vibrant community. It was founded by abolitionists, and its current population is no less committed to freedom and individuality, meaning students are able to express whoever they want to be!. Also, Students can find over 30 music venues, 50 city parks and 100 trails in and around Lawrence.
Bowdoin College's town of Brunswick, Maine is right near the state's incredible coast. It's also situated very close to lakes, rivers, and mountains, which are all well worth exploring. And adventuring in these environments is something that students do together. For instance, the Outing Club has 400 members and organizes over 150 excursions per year. And while Brunswick has that perfect small town feel, with only 20,000 residents, the larger city of Portland is easily accessible, being just 27 miles away. College Raptor considers Bowdoin College to be the fifth best rural college in America.
Conde Nast Traveler is quick to highlight Ames, Iowa State University's hometown, for its Reiman Gardens, which is a 17 acre stretch of beautiful land. This attraction is on Iowa State University's campus, so students will have plenty of opportunities to enjoy it! WalletHub also names Ames as the 18th best small college city in America. Top Universities/QS places Iowa State University itself at joint 489th best on an international scale. And the college is focused on helping its rural communities. For instance, it has the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative, which aids rural entrepreneurs (many of whom are graduate students) in turning agricultural business ideas into a reality.
This Ohio based college has over 440 acres of space. And you may not think of Ohio as the most creative place in the world, but Oberlin College defies this perception. Its creative classes are incredible, and it has produced the singer Rhiannon Giddens, the jazz musician James McBride and the independent filmmaker Laurie Collyer. The town of Oberlin itself has a range of fun activities to participate in, including events at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and the Apollo Theater. Additionally, the city of Cleveland is only 34 miles away. Oberlin ranks sixth on College Raptor's best rural colleges list.
Top Universities/QS ranks the University of Vermont at between 531st to 540th on global rankings. And its hometown makes three methodology lists. Burlington is Schools.com's 14th best small college town, WalletHub's 114th best small college city and is featured on Conde Nast Traveler's unnumbered list. And despite being rural, Burlington really does have everything a student could want. There are over 100 restaurants, numerous historic sites, and over 40 art galleries. But it's also a great business community. Forbes has named it as one of America's best tech hubs, and The Kauffman Index placed Vermont as the fifth best state for startups. If that weren't enough, then there are ski resorts just half an hour away.
Principia College has the largest collection of iconic buildings built by the incredible architect Bernard Maybeck. And these are spread out over a 2,600-acre campus that is placed above the Mississippi River, which is also the border between Illinois and Missouri. This college is a Christian Science college, with 100% of the students and the faculty following the religion. And these faculty and student members know how to have fun. In fact, the college has even produced a list of the top 101 things to do on and around campus. However, if students do want to experience a big city, then St Louis is only a 45-minute drive away. College Raptor names it the ninth best rural college.
College of William & Mary
Conde Nast Traveler cites Williamsburg as one of the best small college towns in its unnumbered list. Additionally, Top Universities/QS places the College of William and Mary between 581st to 590th for best global universities. Williamsburg is well known as a historic tourist destination, which has its own unique appeal for certain students. As College of William & Mary's site states, who wouldn't want to attend a college with, "a living museum and an amusement park as the local backdrop"? You don't even have to worry about tourists crowding the town, as term time takes place during the less busy months, meaning you'll have the fun of the city mostly to yourself and your friends!
This college is definitely secluded. It takes over an hour of driving for someone to get from the campus to the nearest sizable city, Minneapolis. Instead, students spend their days, "amid 2,700 acres of varied terrain [â¦] It includes wetlands, several lakes, an oak savanna, a restored prairie, and hiking trails that wind through an extensive pine and hardwood forest." There are actually two colleges in this location. Saint John's University is for men and the College of Saint Benedict is for women. Both are Catholic institutions. Of the two, Saint John's University is included because it makes 10th place on College Raptor's list.