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The Reality of America's College Towns

Most of them aren’t bucolic, ivy-covered places.

Students walk by a library on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. (Steve Helber/AP)

It’s that time of year again when college students are streaming back to school. Across the nation, some 17 million Americans are headed to college this fall.

But, where, exactly, are they heading to?

To get at this, we charted America’s biggest and best college towns based on 2014 enrollment data for some 750 metro and micropolitan locations across the U.S., including data from the economic and modeling firm Emsi. Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute mapped the data.

We broke out the data into three categories: 52 large metros with more than one million people; 321 metros with between 100,000 and one million people, the group into which most “classic” college towns fall; and 392 smaller places, mainly micropolitan areas, with less than 100,000 people. These enrollment numbers include students at two- and four- year institutions as well as other forms of post-secondary education, including undergraduate and graduate students, credit- and non-credit seeking students and some who do distance learning as well.

Our back-to-school image is one of undergrads streaming into dorms on lush campuses in classic college towns. But, the reality is that the great majority of America’s college students actually live and go to school in big cities and metros.

More than half (55.9 percent) of all U.S. college students (9.5 million) go to college in the 52 U.S. metros with more than one million people, and more than a quarter (27.6 percent, or 4.7 million) attend school in just the nation’s 10 largest metros. Another six million students (35.3 percent) go to college in places with between 100,000 and a million people; and 1.6 million, a little under ten percent, attend college in 392 locations with less than 100,000 people.

(Taylor Blake)

The map above charts the numbers of college students across these 750-plus locations. The biggest bubbles indicate the largest clusters of college students.

Not surprisingly, college students track population to a large degree. That is because most college students go to school where they live. It is typically only the most affluent and most talented students who go away to school.

Leading Large U.S. Metros for College Students

Metro

Total College Students

Example Universities and Colleges

New York

1,057,288

NYU, Columbia, The New School, CUNY, Fordham

Los Angeles

974,013

UCLA, USC, Occidental, Loyola-Marymount

Chicago

502,189

University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago

Boston

346,157

Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, Boston College

Philadelphia

342,994

University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple, Villanova

Miami

308,348

University of Miami, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic

Dallas

302,572

Southern Methodist University, University of Texas at Dallas, University of Texas at Arlington

Washington, D.C.

293,391

Georgetown University, George Washington, American, Howard, George Mason

San Francisco

279,887

University of California at Berkeley, University of California, San Francisco

Houston

270,350

Rice University, University of Houston


By sheer volume, New York is the nation’s largest college town with more than one million students. Los Angeles is next with 950,000, and Chicago third with 520,000. But then the connection between students and population shifts around a bit, as the table above shows. Boston is fourth in college students with 346,000 students, but tenth in population. Philadelphia is fifth in college students but seventh in population. Miami is sixth in students but eight in population. Dallas, which has the nation’s fourth largest population is seventh in college students. Washington, D.C., is eighth in students but sixth in population. San Francisco is ninth in students and 11th in population and Houston, which is the nation’s fifth largest metro, is tenth in college enrollment.

Where college students make up the largest share of population

Thus is becomes important to look at college students in terms of the share of population made up of college students, as the map below shows.

Obviously, college students will be more likely to make up the largest share of population in the smallest places, so we divide this analysis into our three groups by size of population: metros over one million people, metros with between 100,000 and one million people, and metros with less than 100,000 people.

(Taylor Blake)

This second map looks quite a bit different than the first one. There are much smaller circles on the coasts and much bigger ones in the center of the country.

Interestingly, Los Angeles tops Boston for large metros. College students make up 7.34 percent of greater L.A.’s population, just a bit higher than Boston’s 7.32 percent. San Diego is next with 7.27 percent, followed by Sacramento (7.23 percent), and Austin (7.13 percent). Rochester, New York (6.98 percent), San Jose (6.95 percent), Buffalo (6.92 percent), Tucson (6.89 percent), and Oklahoma City (6.8 percent) round out the top 10.

Indianapolis, Providence, Hartford, Orlando, Salt Lake City, Grand Rapids, Baltimore, and Virginia Beach complete the top 20, with between 5.7 and 6.7 percent college students each. Conversely, Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Detroit are the large metros with smaller percentages of college students, ranging between 3.4 and 4 percent.

Metros between 100,000 and 1 million people

Next we turn to metros with between 100,000 and one million people. This is where most of America’s “classic” college towns fit in.

College Town

Major University

Enrollment

Population

Percentage

Ithaca, NY

Cornell University

            33,451

                 104,606

32.0%

State College, PA

Penn State

            47,823

                 158,728

30.1%

Bloomington, IN

Indiana University

            44,564

                 164,233

27.1%

Lawrence, KS

University of Kansas

            29,512

                 116,559

25.3%

Blacksburg, VA

Virginia Tech

            45,150

                 181,555

24.9%

College Station-Bryan, TX

Texas A&M

            60,137

                 242,884

24.8%

Columbia, MO

University of Missouri

            41,057

                 172,703

23.8%

Champaign-Urbana, IL

University of Illinois

            51,660

                 237,199

21.8%

Ann Arbor, MI

University of Michigan

            76,448

                 356,823

21.4%

Gainesville, FL

University of Florida

            58,453

                 273,365

21.38%

Ithaca, New York tops this list, where students make up 32 percent of the population, followed by State College, Pennsylvania (30 percent); Bloomington, Indiana (27.1 percent), Lawrence, Kansas (25.3 percent); Blacksburg, Virginia (24.8 percent); College Station, Texas (24.8 percent); Columbia, Missouri (23.8 percent); Champaign, Illinois (21.8 percent); Ann Arbor, Michigan (21.4 percent) and Gainesville, Florida (21.38 percent)—all classic college towns.

However, the places with the largest shares of college students are all very small communities with less than 100,000 people.

Vermillion, South Dakota, tops that list, where more than 70 percent of its population is made up of college students. Pullman, Washington, is next (52.3 percent), followed by Brenham, Texas (51.4 percent) and Vincennes, Indiana (48.0 percent). This group also includes classic college towns such as Oxford, Mississippi (40.6 percent), Athens, Ohio (37.6 percent) and Ames, Iowa (35.1 percent).

Very small places (under 100,000 people)

College Town

Major University

Enrollment

Population

Percentage

Vermillion, SD

University of South Dakota

              9,998

                   13,921

71.8%

Pullman, WA

Washington State University

            25,823

                   46,808

55.2%

Brenham, TX

Blinn College

            17,707

                   34,437

51.4%

Vincennes, IN

Vincennes University

            18,198

                   37,937

48.0%

Oxford, MS

University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”)

            21,482

                   52,921

40.6%

Athens, OH

Ohio University

            24,358

                   64,702

37.6%

Starkville, MS

Mississippi State University

            18,159

                   49,403

36.8%

Levelland, TX

South Plains College

              8,534

                   23,577

36.2%

Kingsville, TX

Texas A&M University-Kingsville

            11,619

                   32,593

35.7%

Ames, IA

Iowa State University

            32,998

                   94,035

35.1%

* * *

While there are many college towns where students make up a large share of the populations, the perception of America’s bucolic, ivy-covered college town experience is a misnomer for the large majority of college students. The reality is that many more students go to college in big cities than in “classic” college towns.

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