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Top U.S. Metro Areas for College Students

Young people in a cityToday, the American Institute for Economic Research ranked the top U.S. metropolitan areas for college students. The annual AIER ranking is based on 11 criteria that gauge each area’s cultural and economic qualities.

In its 2015/2016 College Destinations Index, the cities that ranked highest overall in each city size category were San Francisco; San Jose, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Ames, Iowa. (See longer list below.)

“Many college-bound students will find themselves with a happy choice of where to go. Other rankings will help you with a college’s prestige, academics, financial aid and the quality of campus services. AIER’s College Destinations Index will help you weigh the value of the wider community in making your decision,” said Rosalind Greenstein, director of research and education at AIER.

AIER researchers weighed these criteria: youth unemployment rate; share of college-educated population; economic vitality; STEM workers; the price of rent; public transportation; availability of arts & entertainment; employees in cultural institutions; clubs and restaurants; cost of living minus rent; and diversity.

Notably, the highest ranking metro areas for the large and midsize categories – San Francisco and San Jose –  offer strong opportunities to prepare for work after college. The highest-ranking metro areas for the small cities and towns, Boulder and Ames, share strong social and cultural offerings that enhance the quality of student life.

Cities that didn’t rank at the top of the list overall still showed their own areas of strength. New York, for instance, was tops for public transportation. Washington, D.C. led in employing STEM workers. St. Louis featured the lowest cost of living. Minneapolis featured low youth unemployment, and Los Angeles rated tops for entertainment.

Among the midsize metros, Portland, Oregon ranked first for public transportation, and Cincinnati had the best cost of living. Grand Rapids, Michigan had the lowest youth unemployment, and, no surprise, Nashville led in arts and entertainment offerings.

Huntsville, Alabama, led the small metros in employing STEM workers. Asheville, North Carolina featured the best cost of living, and Provo, Utah had the lowest youth unemployment.

And among college towns, Ithaca, New York had the best public transportation system; Corvallis, Oregon led in STEM employment; Manhattan, Kansas had the lowest cost of living; Columbia, Missouri had the lowest youth unemployment; and Santa Fe, New Mexico topped the arts and entertainment offerings.

Detailed rankings are available at

The top college destinations in each category are, in descending order:

Major metros (over 2.5 million residents):

1. San Francisco

2. Boston

3. Seattle

4. Denver

5. Houston

6. Minneapolis

7. Washington, D.C.

8. Dallas

9. San Diego

10. New York

11. Baltimore

12. Los Angeles

13. Atlanta

14. St. Louis

15. Tampa-St. Petersburg

Midsize metros (1 million – 2.5 million):

1. San Jose, California

2. Austin, Texas

3. Pittsburgh

4. Raleigh

5. Salt Lake City

6. Portland, Oregon

7. Nashville

8. Columbus, Ohio

9. Grand Rapids, Michigan

10. Milwaukee

11. Cincinnati

12. Buffalo, New York

13. New Orleans

14. Cleveland

15. Kansas City

16. San Antonio, Texas

17. Indianapolis

18. Rochester, New York

19. Hartford, Connecticut

20. Orlando, Florida

Small metros (250,000-1 million):

1. Boulder, Colorado

2. Durham, North Carolina

3. Ann Arbor, Michigan

4. Madison, Wisconsin

5. Fort Collins, Colorado

6. Santa Barbara, California

7. Provo, Utah

8. Naples, Florida

9. Trenton, New Jersey

10. Huntsville, Alabama

11. Lincoln, Nebraska

12. Asheville, North Carolina

13. Des Moines, Iowa

14. Omaha, Nebraska

15. Portland, Maine

16. Gainesville, Florida

17. San Luis Obispo, California

18. Honolulu, Hawaii

19. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

20. Lexington, Kentucky

College towns (Below 250,000):

1. Ames, Iowa

2. Ithaca, New York

3. Iowa City, Iowa

4. Charlottesville, Virginia

5. Columbia, Missouri

6. Santa Fe, New Mexico

7. Corvallis, Oregon

8. Missoula, Montana

9. Fargo, North Dakota

10. Lafayette, Indiana

11. Manhattan, Kansas

12. Bloomington, Indiana

13. College Station, Texas

14. Rochester, Minnesota

15. Lawrence, Kansas

16. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

17. State College, Pennsylvania

18. Morgantown, West Virginia

19. Blacksburg, Virginia

20. Mankato, Minnesota

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