Whether you're an active student seeking a cheap rental with friends, a young professional alumnus getting a place close to campus or a new family putting down roots in a progressive new city, college towns are a distinctive place to live.
They represent big cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, suburbs like College Park, MD, and smaller towns like College Station, TX, and State College, PA. But what are the cheapest college towns in the nation?
Apartment Guide ranked cities that feature an NCAA Football Bowl Series (formerly Division I-A) university or college representing one of the five Power Conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) and independent Notre Dame.
The average rental prices for one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments were calculated and then averaged to determine the most and least affordable cities.
Keep reading to find the top 10 cheapest college towns in the U.S. — along with how much you can expect to pay per room for an off-campus apartment.
In the heart of the Cumberland Mountains along the Appalachian Trail and just a half-hour from the West Virginia border is the relatively isolated city of Blacksburg, home of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University or, as it's better known, Virginia Tech. The city is culturally, economically and demographically tied to its university and a true eastern college town.
With an enrollment of 35,000 in a city of just 44,000, the best places to congregate for students are going to overlap with where the locals enjoy going out. Most activity is centered on Downtown, just off the northeastern corner of campus. Some popular locales in Downtown include PK's Bar & Grill, 622 North Restaurant & Wine Bar, Top of the Stairs and The Cellar Restaurant.
Is it Tech game day? If you can't make it to the game, head to Main Street and watch the Hokies with fans from every walk of life at spots like Champs Café and Sports Bar or Hokie House Restaurant. And be sure to check out Downtown's best annual events, such as Summer Solstice Fest or the International Street Fair with activities, vendors and food representing more than 110 nations.
Despite its seclusion, Blacksburg — the best value in the ACC — is a growing city and getting more expensive for renters. One-, two- and three-bedroom apartments have all increased year-to-year 5 percent, 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively, with three-bedroom units the best value at $344 per room.
Stanford? Nope. New Haven? No way. Cambridge? Negative. None of those are a UNESCO “City of Literature." But Iowa City is. In 2008, the United Nations recognized Iowa City as the first (and currently only one of two) U.S. Creative Cities for cultivating the importance of literature. That's a pretty big designation for the city and for its scholastic center, the University of Iowa.
But it's not just Cyclone students that hit the books in Iowa City. There are a number of beloved bookshops and cafés waiting for you to crack a book in a nook like The Haunted Bookshop, Iowa Book, Uptown Bill's Coffee House, Sidekick Coffee & Books and Prairie Lights, named “Best Bookstore in Iowa" on the Ped Mall.
And it's that Ped Mall, a downtown outdoor retail and restaurant corridor closed to traffic just across the river from the U. of I. campus, as well as along Dubuque Street, where students and locals congregate. Popular eating and drinking hangouts include Brothers Bar & Grill, Sports Column, Joe's Place, DC's, Z'Mariks Noodle Café, Pullman Bar & Diner and Nodo Downtown.
Are you a young family with a child, want a separate office, workout or music room or finding a place for you and your bestie? Good, Iowa City is the place for you. It's the No. 1 college town in the entire nation for affordable two-bedroom units, with an average monthly rent price of $739 — or just $370 a room.
Smack-dab in the middle of Iowa, Ames is one of the most overlooked college towns in the nation. Life in this city of 66,000 centers on the campus of Iowa State and its bustling student life and sits just 45 minutes north of Des Moines and only two hours from the campus of the University of Iowa, its rancorous Cy-Hawk in-state rival to the east.
ISU's campus is in the heart of this city in the heart of the state, which was named a top 10 “Best Places to Live" in the U.S. by CNN. In addition to Cyclones games, Ames features a whopping 36 public parks, a state-of-the-art aquatic center and the Octagon Center for the Arts and The Space for Ames art galleries.
Adjacent to the Iowa State campus is the city's classic college entertainment district known, appropriately enough, as Campustown, a unique six-block district filled with student apartments, bars, clubs, music venues and restaurants.
Several campus favorite eateries and pubs line the district's Lincoln Way and Welch Avenue, including Café Beaudelaire, Sips and Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. Many more establishments can be found along Main Street and Somerset Village.
Although Ames ranks a pedestrian No. 13 for one-bedroom lease price and 12th for two-bedrooms, its true value falls on its rates for three-bedroom apartments. An average three-bedroom unit rents for just $933 a month, the fourth-lowest total in the college town nation and 25 bucks cheaper than the ones over in Iowa City.
When the city of Oxford in north-central Mississippi was founded in the early 1800s, city leaders named it for the university in Britain hoping the legislature would choose it as the site for their flagship state university. Well, the plan worked and Oxford, just 80 minutes south of Memphis, became home to the University of Mississippi. Oxford is by far the smallest city in our top 10, with a population of just more than 28,000.
For Ole Miss students and Oxonians alike, most of the activity centers on downtown Oxford in the district around the Courthouse known as The Square. Locals refer to the town as “The Little Easy," with grand dreams of a tiny New Orleans with a raucous bar scene despite alcohol sales ending at 1 a.m.
Many establishments in the district are popular with both students and locals, including the well-known Library Sports Bar, Funky's Pizza and Daiquiri Bar, Blind Pig Pub, Boure Restaurant and Bar, The Coop, City Grocery, Mesquite Chop House, McEwen's and Ajax Diner.
Looking for daylight activities in The Square? Check out Neilson's Department Store, purported to be the oldest retail store in the South, and the iconic Square Books where Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley, James Dickey, George Plimpton and Alice Walker have all walked the aisles.
Ole Miss is actually located in the unincorporated enclave of University that houses the campus, with Oxford the thriving college town surrounding it. Out in Oxford proper, you will find the best value apartments in the entire Power Five in the city's three-bedroom units. The average three-bedroom leases for a mind-boggling $512 a month — nearly $200 less than anywhere else in the nation — with a value of just $170 monthly per room.
Halfway between Chicago and St. Louis along the I-57 Blues Highway, Champaign shares the campus of the University of Illinois with its neighbor Urbana. Home of the first Farm Aid concert, Champaign knows how to manage the space between working, studying and having a good time, having been named one of the top five “Best Places for Work-Life Balance" by NerdWallet.
Not just a higher education town, Champaign is a technology hub centered on the IU Research Park, home to more than a hundred biotech research facilities, tech companies and start-ups to go along with its 50,000-enrollment university. But after hours, the nightlife shines.
Students gather in Campustown along eight blocks of Green Street on the northwest side of campus at popular hangouts like Murphy's Pub, KAM's, Legend's Bar & Grill, The Red Lion and Illini Inn. And after the clubs let out, hunger can be satisfied at the end the night at Wingin Out or the next morning at Cracked on Green. Several mid- and high-rise apartment buildings have sprung up in the district in recent years, as well.
But Champaign locals in search of nightlife congregate more regularly in Downtown. The district features parks, apartments, cafes and 35 locally-owned contemporary bars and eateries including The Cowboy Monkey, Esquire Lounge, Maize, Seven Saints, Hamilton Walker's and Big Grove Tavern. Downtown offers boutique small city shopping, as well as the annual Roger Ebert Film Festival, named for the famed film journalist who was an Urbana native.
The best value of any town in the Big 10 Conference, Champaign is actually the No. 1 cheapest college town in the nation for the college student and young professional favorite one-bedroom apartment. At just $632 a month on average, Champaign is just one of four Power Five towns with one-bedrooms less than $700.
Just 80 miles separate the campuses of Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma, one of the most heated rivalries in college sports. While the schools share the storied 125-year old rivalry known as Bedlam, the cities of Stillwater and Norman are very different places.
Just a half-hour south of downtown Oklahoma City, the state's largest city, Norman itself is actually the third biggest. Balancing the line between an academic hub, bedroom community, suburb and independent city, Norman still offers all the trappings of a true South Central college town.
The heart of off-campus life is Campus Corner, four blocks of crimson-and-cream retail shops, restaurants, apparel stores, national chains and bars like Louie's Grill, O'Connell's Irish Pub and Seven47.
While the lease prices for one- and two-bedrooms in Norman have dropped by 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, from a year ago, both still remain higher than its Bedlam rival to the South. However, despite a rise of nearly 4 percent, three-bedroom units in Norman remain a slightly better value than those in Stillwater at an average of $1,104 monthly.
Oklahoma State fans will be happy to find out their beloved Cowboys come in ahead of the Boomer Sooners from up the road at the University of Oklahoma in college town rental prices. As opposed to the usual results between the two cross-state rivals on the gridiron, when it comes to value, Stillwater beats out Norman in a squeaker.
While Norman offers a suburban vibe, Stillwater — equidistant from Oklahoma City, Tulsa and the Kansas border — is a full-fledged Southern Plains small-city college town. Activity certainly revolves around the university, but Stillwater offers much in the city as well, with a number of museums, cultural institutions, family destinations and a legendary and diverse music scene, in addition to its college town favorites.
World-famous sports bar and restaurant Eskimo Joe's, a hub for students, music enthusiasts, Pokes fans and T-shirt-toting tourists, was voted the “Best College Post-Game Hangout" by Sporting News and serves The Odyssey's “America's Greatest Cheese Fries." Eskimo Joe's sits just steps away from 60,000-seat Boone Pickens Stadium and Gallagher-Iba Arena, one of the oldest basketball arenas in the NCAA.
While Stillwater ranks as the No. 2 best value in the nation (and No. 1 in the Big 12) for both one- and two-bedroom apartments, it falls to 17th for three-bedroom value at $1,133 a month on average.
Manhattan, home of Kansas State, is a classic college town, a place filled with farm-fresh agriculture students, lush green campus lawns and Saturday afternoon face-painted football fans, where nearly 20 percent of residents are enrolled at the university.
“The Little Apple" has been named both one of the “Best Places in America to Retire Young" by CNN and Forbes' No. 1 "Best Small Place for Business and Careers." It's not just Wildcat weekends on the K-State campus — just 85 miles down the road from bitter rival University of Kansas — that makes Manhattan stand out.
The beating heart of college town life in Manhattan is the Aggieville neighborhood. The eight-block district is everything you want out of a Midwest college entertainment hub, with lines of bars, shops, cafes, bookstores and restaurants catering to the college crowd. Both on game days and off, the establishments of Aggieville are crowded with purple-clad swarms of students and boosters.
Popular spots include Taco Lucha, Mojo's Beach Bar, Kite's Bar and Grill and historic Auntie Mae's Parlor, founded in 1930. Other required stops include Varsity Donuts, Sisters of Sound indie record store and live music venues O'Malley's Alley and The Hat.
If you're looking to live roommate-free in Manhattan, you'll be paying the third lowest price in the nation for college towns for one-bedroom units at $694 a month on average. Although that represents a nearly 5 percent jump from the previous year, that price would only pay for a sixth of the price of rent for a one-bedroom in the other Manhattan in New York.
The folks over in Manhattan aren't going to be happy when they find out Lawrence finished higher on this — or any — list than they did. Any discussion of college life in Lawrence begins and ends with the University of Kansas basketball Jayhawks who play at legendary Allen Fieldhouse, ranked the “Best Place in America to Watch College Basketball" by the Orange County Register. But there's much that makes Lawrence one of America's best college towns.
The KU campus is close enough to Kansas City to be considered an outer suburb but isolated enough to feel like the definition of a Midwest campus city. It sits just two hours separated along I-70 in either direction from its two most-heated rivals, Kansas State to the west and Missouri to the east,
Every Lawrence resident has their pick for favorite restaurants, like Dempsey's Pub, Jefferson's and The Underground, or favorite college bar, whether it be Jayhawk Café (The Hawk), Bullwinkle's Bar (The Bull) or The Wagon Wheel (The Wheel). More options abound on Mass Street with The Granada and Liberty Hall music venues and beloved taverns like Louise's, The Sandbar and Free State Brewing Company.
When you imagine an archetypal Big 12 campus town, Lawrence is often what comes to mind. You can almost hear “Rock Chalk Jayhawk" echoing in the hills almost all the way to K-State. But the two rival towns have more in common than different. Rental rates between the two schools are nearly identical, with one-bedrooms separated by just $3, two-bedrooms by $10 and three-bedrooms by only $4.
While the folks over at Kansas State dream of drubbings of the University of Kansas, real KU fans will tell you their true rival is the one across the border in Columbia at the University of Missouri. But Mizzou's home town has them all beat — and everyone in the nation beat — as the top-ranked college town in America for rent value.
The city of Columbia sits in the center of the Show Me State, exactly 125 miles from Kansas City and 125 miles from St. Louis, a true equitable state university. The city is the fourth-largest in the state and its fastest-growing, as well as the most populous among our top 10. But it's more than just Mizzou that makes Columbia a world-class college town, as Stephens College and Columbia College all sit within two miles of each other on the east side of downtown.
Columbia's downtown along the East Broadway corridor doubles as hangout central for UM and its neighbors. The 50-square-block downtown region known as The District is home to the town's most popular bars and restaurants among students and locals including Campus Bar & Grill, Shiloh Bar & Grill, Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, Addison's, Tellers Gallery & Bar, Harpo's Bar & Grill (Redbook's “Best College Bar" in Missouri) and McNally's Irish Pub (a College Ranker top 10 “Best College Bar in the Nation").
If you're looking for live music downtown, you have options like The Penguin Piano Bar and The Blue Note. For the best wings in town before the show, hit up CJ's, and for the morning after, Broadway Diner opens up at 5 a.m. You'll also find plenty of shopping and retail in The District, including a number of boutiques, small businesses and fair trade shops, as well as a number of rentals and loft apartments.
Columbia is consistently affordable across the board, a top-six cheapest college town for every apartment type. But the best value in the city for you and your family or roommates is Columbia's three-bedroom units, which run an average of just $284 per room monthly.
The rest of the top 25 is an assortment of very big schools (Texas A&M, the largest in the nation by enrollment), bitter rivals (Auburn and Alabama), (Penn State Nittany) Lions, (Auburn) Tigers and (Baylor) Bears — oh my — and both Bulldogs (of Georgia) and Bulldogs (of Mississippi State). Here are your full rankings across the country, from Tallahassee, FL, to Pullman, WA.
|Rank||City||State||University||1-BR Average Rent||2-BR Average Rent||3-BR Average Rent|
|14||College Station||TX||Texas A&M||$891||$988||$964|
|25||State College||PA||Penn State||$730||$1,324||$1,546|
If you're a lucky student or fortunate grad, you may have the opportunity to forgo the inconvenience of a roommate and still have a separate bedroom space in the comfort of a one-bedroom apartment. For these renters, many college towns offer plenty of affordable single-bedroom units, with the top 15 cheapest, all less than $800 a month.
Here's the full 25 based on one-bedroom units.
|Rank||City||State||University||1-BR Average Rent||1-BR YoY Change|
|8||State College||PA||Penn State||$730||-0.56%|
|18||East Lansing||MI||Michigan State||$821||-2.38%|
|21||College Station||TX||Texas A&M||$891||-10.06%|
Whether you're sharing your living space with a roommate or expanding your young family, there are many college towns where two-bedroom apartments are a great option. And prices are surprisingly affordable in many of these cities, with every one of the top dozen renting on average for under $900.
Here's the full 25 based on two-bedroom units.
|Rank||City||State||University||2-BR Average Rent||Cost Per Room||2-BR YoY Change|
|18||College Station||TX||Texas A&M||$988||$494.00||-1.20%|
|23||Chapel Hill||NC||North Carolina||$1,052||$526.00||-25.52%|
For bigger families with great college town careers or students and young grads who love a bustling apartment full of roommates coming and going, there are many affordable university area options both in complexes and single-family rentals with a full three bedrooms. And in our current work-from-home environment, a cheap college town three-bedroom can also provide a separated space in which to set up a set of home offices, one in a living room and one in a spare bedroom.
Here's the full 25 based on three-bedroom units.
|Rank||City||State||University||3-BR Average Rent||Cost Per Room||3-BR YoY Change|
|7||College Station||TX||Texas A&M||$964||$321.33||61.75%|
A good education is priceless — well, if money is no option. Conversely, the most expensive college towns are pricey affairs regardless of apartment size. While USC and UCLA's Los Angeles are the most expensive college towns — costliest overall and for one- and three-bedroom units — and Seattle, home of the University of Washington, is second, it's the suburbs where the prices get pricey.
Eight out of the 10 most expensive college towns are suburbs of a large high cost-of-living city, including Berkeley outside of San Francisco, Chestnut Hill home of Boston College, Coral Gables in the Miami suburbs, Rutgers' Piscataway by New York City, Evanston in a northwestern direction from Chicago and College Park, MD, just outside Washington, D.C.
Here are the top 10 most expensive college towns.
|Rank||City||State||University||1-BR Average Rent||2-BR Average Rent||3-BR Average Rent|
|1||Los Angeles||CA||UCLA / USC||$3,200||$4,522||$8,333|
|4||Chestnut Hill||MA||Boston College||$2,920||$3,721||$4,874|
As you pour through the data, there are a few interesting observations and oddities that pop out as outliers and quirks.
Apartment Guide ranked 63 cities that feature an NCAA Football Bowl Series (formerly Division I-A) university or college representing the five Power Conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC), plus Notre Dame. Los Angeles was listed as a single city as home to both UCLA and the University of Southern California. Clemson, SC (Clemson University) and Palo Alto, CA (Stanford) were not included because they did not have sufficient rental inventory.
Each city included in our report was ranked 1 through 63 for one-, two- and three-bedroom unit prices per bedroom. That total was then added together and divided by three. Cities with the lowest total score were determined to be the most affordable.
Rent prices are based on a rolling weighted average from Apartment Guide and Rent.com's multifamily rental property inventory of one-bedroom apartments. Data was pulled in August 2020 and goes back for one year. A weighted average formula was used that more accurately represents price availability for each individual unit type and reduces the influence of seasonality on rent prices in specific markets.
The rent information included in this article is used for illustrative purposes only. The data contained herein do not constitute financial advice or a pricing guarantee for any apartment.