Many small towns with large universities boast their own student-centric culture, complete with cafes, clubs, bookstores and bars all catering to young academics. But a college town's unique blend of bohemian and small town-life can be just as appealing to older folks, including parents hoping to stay close to their prospective students.
The roads in Boulder often end near trailheads leading into the adjacent Rocky Mountains, plus the town center boasts many of the state's best restaurants, art galleries and bookshops within walking distance from the University of Colorado. It's with good reason that Boulder is frequently ranked as one of the nation's healthiest and most family-friendly cities.
Vermont's largest city sits on the shores of Lake Champlain and has a walkable downtown area with mixed-use development just beside the University of Vermont campus. It's known for its high rate of job placement for graduates, but parents will appreciate that the town is close to great hikes and a ski resort, plus it boasts a thriving music scene from which rock band Phish originated.
Though once called the foodiest small town in America by Bon Appetit magazine, Chapel Hill is actually a well-sized part of a larger metropolitan area but retains its town identity thanks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The college brings with it a thriving alternative music scene and strong tech and science industries set amidst beautiful Georgian architecture.
With top programs in agricultural engineering and veterinary medicine, Iowa State University is only the largest of many employers in Ames that keep the unemployment rate low and the level of prosperity high. The town is also home to breweries, golf courses, and museums. The downtown area of Campustown is a university-adjacent neighborhood with bars, boutiques, and restaurants unique to Ames.
About half of Ann Arbor's residents are students during the school year, but even the non-enrolled locals celebrate the University of Michigan's record-setting football program. Other cultural offerings include performing arts troupes, on-campus museums and an annual film festival. Ann Arbor is also nicknamed "Tree Town" for the dense forests found easily in area parks and residential areas.
Home to Dartmouth college and crossed by the Appalachian Trail, Hanover has cross-country skiing in winter and hiking and rock climbing in summer. Given its tiny population and village green-style town center, this is a true old New England town where harvest festivals and recreational opportunities abound.
Wisconsin's capital city is rich in history—the University of Wisconsin includes sites used as a Union Army training camp. Sitting on an isthmus between two lakes, Madison offers abundant outdoor activities, big-name employers like Google and Microsoft, and food and nightlife scenes centered around State Street, which connects the university campus to the state capital.
Ithaca's cold winter climate and isolated locale give the city a strong sense of identity almost as much as does the presence of Ivy League college Cornell. Even in winter, residents can get outside to enjoy a diverse music scene, wine trails, and the unparalleled seasonal scenery of the nearby Finger Lakes.
The low-key metropolitan area surrounding Pennsylvania State University is nicknamed Happy Valley for a reason. The mid-sized city is known for its residents' unifying devotion to the college football team, but also deserves recognition for its low crime-rate and idyllic setting beside rolling hills of golden farmland and green forest.
San Luis Obispo has a cooler climate and a longer history than most of California, with historical sites like a mysterious underground city indebted to earlier Spanish and Native American settlers. The beach town is home to the California Polytechnic State University, plus an annual film festival and monthly parade of costumed bike riders.
Oregon State University supplies almost half of Corvallis's population of 55,000 while also helping it consistently rank as one of the nation's most educated cities. Beyond the university, parents can enjoy the mild weather, clean air, and ample Pacific Northwest parkland. The town has even been ranked as having the longest life expectancy in the state for its citizens.
Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia is a major point of pride for Charlottesville residents. Other enticing community fixtures in Charlottesville include repertory theaters, craft breweries, the nearby Shenandoah National Park, and the Downtown Mall, one of the nation's longest outdoor pedestrian malls.
Hartford is one of the nation's oldest cities and hosts the Mark Twain House and the Wadsworth Atheneum, America's oldest public art museum. The University of Hartford and Trinity College bring the city its large student population, while a high concentration of insurance companies creates economic opportunities aplenty.
Named for its blooming flowers and designated Indiana's first "Tree City," Bloomington is also home to Indiana University Bloomington. Education and pharmaceutical companies are among the largest employers, while culturally Bloomington boasts old vaudevillian theaters and thriving punk & traditional music scenes.
Provo is home to Brigham Young University, the nation's third largest private college, and several billion-dollar tech companies. The community hosts multiple annual festivals, but the best sights are outside the city in the nearby national forests where Rocky Mountain peaks and southwestern red rock canyons meet.
Amherst hosts the campuses of three high-profile schools—Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The Massachusetts town is noted for its artistic communities, cultural institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass, and as an outspoken hub of liberal politics.
The University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University reside in Lawrence, an architecturally-distinguished college town situated between Topeka and Kansas City. The town of 90,000 has a strong music scene centered around the annual Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.
The liberal arts-focused Flagler College is housed in the former Ponce de Leon Hotel, just one of the many historical sights in what is the nation's oldest continuously-inhabited European settlement. There are themed annual events year-round, while monthly art walks and historic pubs provide entertainment the remainder of the time.
In addition to Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky, Lexington also boasts one of the nation's most stable economies and the world's largest basketball-specific arena. The Urban Growth Boundary, established in the late 1950s, keeps the city dense and walkable while also helping to preserve surrounding Bluegrass woodlands, horse farms, and bourbon distilleries.
Iowa City has the University of Iowa's acclaimed Writer's Workshop to thank for its distinction as North America's only UNESCO City of Literature. Healthcare and education are top employers in the small metropolitan area, which is also noted for cultural events like their Book Festival, Landlocked Film Festival, and Summer of Arts program.