Living in a college town is a wholly unique experience from the student or metropolitan life. It means loud beer bars, pizza joints, quiet bookstores, vintage shops, sunny quads, caffeinated cafés, free museums, college colors and raucous tailgates.
For students, long-term renters and homeowners, living close to a massive campus is a distinctive environment. And college towns come in all shapes and sizes. Big cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta. Suburbs like Coral Gables, FL., and Chestnut Hill, MA. Small towns like Fayetteville, AR, and Blacksburg, VA. And with an identity forever intertwined with their university, from College Park, MD to College Station, TX to State College, PA.
But like any city, some college towns are cheap for renters, and some are downright pricey. But what are the cheapest college towns in the nation? Spoiler alert: They are almost entirely in the Midwest and the South.
Apartment Guide ranked cities that feature an NCAA Football Bowl Series (formerly Division I-A) university or college representing one of the “Power Five" 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 — or jump ahead to see the cheapest college towns ranked by unit size.
Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, is a lot of things wrapped in one. It's a macro-suburb, but also a self-sustaining independent City. It is an academic hub, but also a bedroom commuter community. It's home to a perennial Big 12 soon-to-be SEC football powerhouse. And it's 100 percent Great Plains college town.
Off-campus life centers on Campus Corner, a district just across Boyd Street from the University. Bookstores, college apparel shops and popular chains line the block. Louie's Grill and O'Connell's Irish Pu are some of the street's favorite college bars.
Rents in Norman have seen a bit of a gain from a year ago. The pack is led by one-bedroom units, up 10.40 percent to $777 a month on average. Two-bedroom units are up nearly 5 percent to $892. In total, this has dropped Norman three ranking spots from 2020.
That famous country song starts, “The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas." But, howdy pardner, there is a real honest-to-goodness city deep in that heart. That city is Waco, home to Baylor University.
Waco sits along I-35, halfway between Dallas and Austin. It's a modern, bustling college town on a busy interstate filled with arts and culture and a slew of urban parks that leave its infamous history in the past.
Baylor University sits on the east side of Waco along the Brazos River. But there is plenty to see and do in the rest of the city. There are a number of exhibition museums and art galleries throughout town. But for pure fizzy fun, take a tour of the Dr. Pepper Museum. The spot is in the first building built specifically to bottle the popular pop.
Outdoors, the Waco Riverwalk stretches along both sides of the Brazos. The seven-mile urban path passes several parks, university facilities and 45,000-seat McLean Stadium. Much of western Waco enjoys the Lake Waco reservoir — the 13-square mile lake is a popular spot for fishing, boating RV'ing and other lake-tivities.
Got a bunch of roommates? Starting a family? Need a home office? Waco is a great place for you. Waco is the cheapest college town in the nation for three-bedroom apartments. A triple is an average of $595 a month. That's down a significant 38.4 percent from last year. And even a two-bedroom is the fourth cheapest at $768 monthly. This has helped Waco jump eight spots from last year.
There is no university as closely intertwined with its host city as Auburn. The college town is a half-hour from the Georgia border and its eponymous university lies right at its center. A quarter of the population works at or for the university. But this is no sleepy town. Auburn is thriving. It's the fastest-growing city in Alabama and among the fastest in the nation.
A poem penned by Oliver Goldsmith proclaims, "Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain." And even a cursory stay bears this out. Both around and separate from the university, Auburn offers many museums, theaters and galleries. This includes the impressive masters' collections at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art.
There is also plenty of non-cultured fun in Auburn as well. The university lies just off downtown, where you can find several popular watering holes. The corridor down College Street offers up Halftime, Sky Bar and many others. And there's no place like Jordan-Hare Stadium the day of the “Iron Bowl" rivalry game with the Crimson Tide.
Auburn, the town, is quite affordable for students with roommates or young families. At $596 a month on average, three-bedroom units are the second-most affordable in the country. That represents a nearly 54 percent drop from a year ago. Two-bedroom apartments are also reasonable. Auburn has the fifth-cheapest college town doubles nationwide, at $799 per month. Its No. 8ranking is a 13 spot jump from a year ago.
Many college towns are inextricably tied to their university's athletic teams. But there has always been a special relationship between the city of Lawrence and Kansas Jayhawks basketball. It isn't just perhaps America's best college town. It's also home to iconic Allen Fieldhouse, where Wilt Chamberlain and Lynette Woodard once played. The arena has ranked as the top college basketball venue on the continent.
When imagining the classic Midwest college town, it's the aerial vistas of Lawrence that you often picture. The chants of “Rock Chalk Jayhawk" echo through the fields of Kansas wheat. The sprawling campus lies in the center of town, a part of daily life for residents. And everyone has a favorite spot to watch the game with a beer, shop for Jayhawk merch or grab a post-game bite to eat.
When talking up the local scene, it's often The Hawk or The Bull. Jayhawk Café (The Hawk) and Bullwinkles Bar (The Bull) are legendary names a block from each other. Along with Wagon Wheel (The Wheel), these are among locals and students' fave places to hang with fellow fans. More taverns, breweries, shops and music venues are north of campus up on Massachusetts Street.
Lawrence is close enough to Kansas City, MO (and Kansas City, KS for that matter) to be considered an outer suburb. It sits along I-70 between KU's two most-heated rivals. Kansas State is 90 minutes to the west and the University of Missouri is under three hours east.
Lawrence has seen rents jump in the last year. This has caused the city to drop from No. 2 on last year's list. All apartment sizes have increased in rent from a year go by at least 6 percent.
There is a college town in the U.S. named a UNESCO “City of Literature." It's not Palo Alto, CA, or New Haven, CT. It's not Cambridge, MA, or Amherst, MA. It's Iowa City. The home of the University of Iowa is just one of two cities in the U.S. with that designation. In 2008, it was recognized by the UN for cultivating the importance of literature. Quite the honor for this Midwest college town.
The cultural history recognized by the UN is all over town. Author festivals like the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Iowa Playwrights' Workshop and Iowa Summer Writing Festival are internationally recognized. And along with the Iowa City Book Festival, other annual gatherings include Mission Creek Festival, Iowa City Jazz Festival and the Friday Night Concert Series at the Pedestrian Mall.
The more than 40-year-old Ped Mall is a downtown vehicle-free outdoor pedestrian shopping district. It lies adjacent to the eastern section of the university, which straddles the Iowa River. The mall offers a variety of restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and of course bookstores.
One-bedroom apartments in Iowa City are down 12.3 percent from a year ago, to an average of $798 a month. Iowa City is the third cheapest college town for two-bedroom apartments. A double rents monthly for $747, only about 50 bucks more for that second bedroom.
The folks over in Lawrence aren't going to love when they find out Manhattan finished higher on this — or any — list than they did. Congrats, Cats fans. The home of Kansas State University, Manhattan is a classic Midwest college town. The campus is lush, green and filled with sandstone academic buildings. The community is awash with young agriculture students and fanatical football fans.
The “Little Apple," Manhattan isn't just a place for fresh-faced youngsters. Business is thriving. It has ranked as the top "Best Small Place for Business and Careers." And when it's time to leave work behind, Manhattan is known as one of the “Best Places in America to Retire Young."
But Manhattan is still a college town at heart. And it features one of the best college off-campus districts in America. Aggieville is an eight-block entertainment district with bars, varsity shops, cafes, bookstores and eateries for both locals and students. On gamedays or any day of the week, the neighborhood is a sea of purple. And if not at Bill Snyder Stadium, the purple people are likely to enjoy eating and drinking at beloved spots like Mojo's Beach Bar, Varsity Donuts, O'Malley's Alley and historic Auntie Mae's Parlor.
Manhattan is just 85 miles from its heated rival down in Lawrence. But living that much further from Kansas City keeps the prices down. In fact, Manhattan has the second cheapest college town one-bedroom apartments in America. An average one-bedroom rents for just $698 a month. For that price, you could rent six one-bedrooms in Manhattan, NY.
Let the Wildcat fans in Manhattan revel in topping their counterparts in Lawrence. But real Jayhawk devotees will tell you the true rival lies two-plus hours down I-70. Mizzou faithful can claim another victory over their KU challengers. Columbia, home to the University of Missouri, outranks them as one of America's cheapest college towns.
Columbia's Mizzou home is as geographically equitable as one can get. It lies 125 miles east of Kansas City. It lies 125 miles west of St. Louis. That's how to Show Me your primary state university. The city itself is the fourth largest in Missouri, and the fastest growing.
Just north of campus is the popular 50-square block shopping and dining area known as The District. Students and locals alike gather here among the eateries, bars, music clubs, boutiques, fair trade shops and ice creameries. And come game day, there are a plethora of watering holes to drink up and watch the Tigers. But at the top of the roster lie, McNally's and Harpo's both ranked among America's best college bars.
Many of Columbia's most desirable rentals lie in and around The District. Several loft and loft-style units have opened up close to campus as well. Last year, Columbia held the top spot as the cheapest college town in the nation. However, increases in rents on average one and three bedrooms dropped their ranking to fourth. However, the good news is that average two-bedroom apartment rents fell by 4.4 percent to just $812 a month.
Everything, they say, is bigger in Texas. That includes college towns. Lubbock is essentially America's cheapest college city with by far the largest population among the top 10. But despite housing more than a quarter-million residents, it's just the 11th largest city in the state.
The city of Lubbock is an oasis in Northwest Texas, the only urban center for 120 miles. It's home to 40,000-student Texas Tech University and its rabid Red Raider fans. But the city is much more than football and academics.
The Lubbock region is the world's largest cotton producer, shipping throughout the world. On the other end of the spectrum, it's a wine leader as well. Thanks to unique soil composition, 80 percent of wine grapes grown in Texas are produced in greater Lubbock. The area offers a half dozen wineries open to the public.
Wine not your jam? There is much to do in Lubbock. Cultural institutions include Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts, Science Spectrum Museum, Prairie Dog Town and the Buddy Holly Center, honoring the late Lubbock native. (Be sure to take a picture in front of the giant horn-rimmed glasses for the 'Gram.) And at night, visit the dining and entertainment hub Depot District east of campus. On the edge of downtown, the former railroad depot houses pubs, live music, theaters, nightclubs and chic restaurants.
Lubbock has the largest percentage of millennial renters of any city in the South. Over 54 percent of rental household heads are under age 35. Rent prices reflect millennial livability. The city jumped 10 spots from last year's ranking as all apartment sizes have seen decreases in rent price by at least three percent.
The High Plains city is in fact the cheapest college town overall for one-bedroom units. Its $689 average single bedroom rent is down over 4 percent from a year ago.
Let's clear one thing up. Mississippi State University isn't technically in Starkville. It's in an adjoining 4,000-resident unincorporated community called Mississippi State, MS. But the next-door college town of Starkville is the cheapest in the South for renters, period.
It's also the smallest city among the top 50 cheapest college towns. The only tinier college town in the entire FBS is Chestnut Hill, which is a small Boston suburb. Starkville, on the other hand, at just 25,000 is still the largest city within 90 miles. That makes the town-gown bond even tighter.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Cotton District. North of Downtown and west of campus, the Cotton District is a two-decade-old planned neighborhood. The developer created this distinct “new urbanist" ward with walkable streets, hundreds of homes and rental units, friendly service shops and quaint restaurants and bars. This region of Starkville, to no surprise, is a popular residence for students and young professionals.
But if you choose to reside in Starkville, you better bring your bell. From The Junction to the outskirts, the sound of the cowbell is the sound of Bulldog tradition. Across campus on game days, the roar of cowbells rings out from every corner. Many have generational cowbells, handed down from alumni parent to child student fan.
Starkville jumped 13 spots from last year's cheapest college towns list. Two-bedrooms are second-cheapest in the nation at $709, down 18 percent from last year. And three-bedrooms are third nationwide, averaging $604, an incredible near 47 percent drop from a year ago. However, at $825 a month, an average one-bedroom is just the 13th cheapest among college towns.
A hundred miles from Minnesota. A hundred miles from Missouri. Three hours from both Nebraska and Illinois. Ames couldn't be more central in the Hawkeye State if it tried. That's why it's the perfect home to Iowa State University.
And it's the cheapest college town in America for renters for 2021.
Fittingly, the ISU campus sits right in the heart of town in the heart of the state. The city of 66,000 is nearly half occupied by students. Ames features three dozen public parks, an Olympic-level aquatics center and some museums and galleries. There is a plethora of fun for both residents and students. And a lot of Irish folks.
Just south of campus is the city's archetypal student residential and entertainment quarter. Campustown is a 15-square-block district with apartments, college bars, music venues and both cheap eats and stylish restaurants. Favorite hangs include Café Beaudelaire, Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers and the quartetto of bars that make up a spot known as The Big 4.
Ames had already ranked high at No. 5 in 2020. This year, it jumped to No. 1 cheapest college town on the backs of affordable two- and three-bedroom units. The city ranks first for the most affordable doubles. The average $659 a month rent is down nearly 27 percent from last year. Triples also got cheaper, down almost 28 percent from a year ago to an average of $673.
One-bedroom units were however about flat year-to-year at a $773 per month average. That's ranks as just the ninth-cheapest single unit in the country.
The rest of the top 25 is a varied collection of schools from around the country. It ranges from big schools (Texas A&M, largest in the nation) to big cities (Los Angeles, home to UCLA and USC). It includes bitter rivals from Auburn and Alabama to Purdue and Notre Dame to Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
Fans in the cheapest college towns root for the Tigers (Mizzou), Tigers (Auburn) and Tigers (LSU). They wear logos of Wildcats (K-State), Wildcats (Kentucky) and Wildcats (Arizona). They support Fighting Illini and Fighting Irish alike. It's a swath of hardwood and gridiron royalty. Here are the full top 25 cheapest college towns.
|Rank||City||University||1BR Avg Rent||2BR Avg Rent||3BR Avg Rent||2020 Rank|
|1||Ames, IA||Iowa State||$773||$659||$673||5|
|2||Starkville, MS||Mississippi State||$825||$709||$604||15|
|3||Lubbock, TX||Texas Tech||$689||$874||$1,065||13|
|4||Manhattan, KS||Kansas State||$698||$867||$1,077||3|
|6||Iowa City, IA||Iowa||$798||$747||$1,033||8|
|13||Blacksburg, VA||Virginia Tech||$850||$1,006||$1,073||9|
|16||West Lafayette, IN||Purdue||$842||$1,055||$1,150||19|
|17||South Bend, IN||Notre Dame||$886||$1,069||$1,291||32|
|18||Columbia, SC||South Carolina||$994||$1,134||$1,104||28|
|19||Oxford, MS||Ole Miss||$898||$954||$1,457||4|
|19||Winston-Salem, NC||Wake Forest||$976||$1,138||$1,128||16|
|21||Baton Rouge, LA||LSU||$992||$1,127||$1,264||26|
|21||State College, PA||Penn State||$738||$1,136||$1,804||27|
|24||Tallahassee, FL||Florida State||$1,175||$1,259||$837||17|
|25||East Lansing, MI||Michigan State||$894||$1,140||$1,444||42|
If four years of roommates are enough for you, these are the cheapest college towns to consider. Whether you're a recent grad, a young couple or a single person, one-bedroom apartments are a great deal. They are comfy, cozy and offer plenty of room. And in a dozen college towns, they are under $800 a month on average.
Here's the full top 25 based on one-bedroom units.
|1BR Rank||City||University||1BR Avg Rent||1BR YoY % Change|
|1||Lubbock, TX||Texas Tech||$689||-4.13%|
|2||Manhattan, KS||Kansas State||$698||0.65%|
|4||State College, PA||Penn State||$738||1.11%|
|9||Ames, IA||Iowa State||$773||0.11%|
|12||Iowa City, IA||Iowa||$798||-12.34%|
|13||Starkville, MS||Mississippi State||$825||4.40%|
|14||Corvallis, OR||Oregon State||$831||0.94%|
|15||West Lafayette, IN||Purdue||$842||-6.38%|
|16||Blacksburg, VA||Virginia Tech||$850||12.59%|
|17||South Bend, IN||Notre Dame||$886||-15.35%|
|19||East Lansing, MI||Michigan State||$894||8.90%|
|20||Oxford, MS||Ole Miss||$898||10.49%|
|23||Winston-Salem, NC||Wake Forest||$976||13.33%|
|24||Baton Rouge, LA||LSU||$992||1.37%|
|25||Columbia, SC||South Carolina||$994||-6.11%|
Two-bedroom units are the most popular and representative value-sized apartments. Whether with a roommate, an expanding family or in need of a home office, two bedrooms offer flexibility and affordability. It's no surprise that most cities that are the most affordable for doubles are also so overall. And in 14 college towns, you can snag a two-bedroom apartment for under a grand monthly on average.
Here's the full top 25 based on two-bedroom units.
|2BR Rank||City||University||2BR Avg Rent||2BR Room Price||2BR YoY % Change|
|1||Ames, IA||Iowa State||$659||$329.50||-26.68%|
|2||Starkville, MS||Mississippi State||$709||$354.50||-17.61%|
|3||Iowa City, IA||Iowa||$747||$373.50||1.10%|
|8||Manhattan, KS||Kansas State||$867||$433.50||0.81%|
|9||Lubbock, TX||Texas Tech||$874||$437.00||-6.39%|
|14||Oxford, MS||Ole Miss||$954||$477.00||7.85%|
|15||Blacksburg, VA||Virginia Tech||$1,006||$503.00||9.43%|
|17||West Lafayette, IN||Purdue||$1,055||$527.50||-2.42%|
|18||South Bend, IN||Notre Dame||$1,069||$534.50||-5.22%|
|19||College Station, TX||Texas A&M||$1,076||$538.00||4.57%|
|20||Baton Rouge, LA||LSU||$1,127||$563.50||1.26%|
|21||Columbia, SC||South Carolina||$1,134||$567.00||-5.53%|
|22||State College, PA||Penn State||$1,136||$568.00||-14.21%|
|23||Winston-Salem, NC||Wake Forest||$1,138||$569.00||21.60%|
|24||East Lansing, MI||Michigan State||$1,140||$570.00||-29.80%|
If you have the money, three-bedroom apartments are a great value with all the space you need. You can have multiple roommates or raise a couple of kids. You can exert your power couple 'tude and each have a private home office. Triples are not only convenient but a long-term solution. Six college towns offer average three-bedroom units for under a thousand a month. And when amortized, rents are just a few hundred bucks each month when split among roomies.
Here's the full top 25 based on three-bedroom units.
|3BR Rank||City||University||3BR Avg Rent||3BR Room Price||3BR YoY % Change|
|3||Starkville, MS||Mississippi State||$604||$201.33||-46.74%|
|4||Ames, IA||Iowa State||$673||$224.33||-27.90%|
|5||Tallahassee, FL||Florida State||$837||$279.00||-20.41%|
|8||Iowa City, IA||Iowa||$1,033||$344.33||1.98%|
|10||Lubbock, TX||Texas Tech||$1,065||$355.00||-2.98%|
|11||Blacksburg, VA||Virginia Tech||$1,073||$357.67||4.06%|
|12||Manhattan, KS||Kansas State||$1,077||$359.00||14.62%|
|13||Columbia, SC||South Carolina||$1,104||$368.00||-9.91%|
|15||Winston-Salem, NC||Wake Forest||$1,128||$376.00||5.63%|
|16||West Lafayette, IN||Purdue||$1,150||$383.33||5.26%|
|21||Baton Rouge, LA||LSU||$1,264||$421.33||-0.49%|
|22||South Bend, IN||Notre Dame||$1,291||$430.33||-20.28%|
Living in a sweeping green college town in the Midwest and the South is a unique experience. But so is living in or near a big city that's also a college town. But the combination of both collegiate city and bustling metropolis is a pricey proposition. By far, the most expensive college towns for renters are big cities and their suburbs. And of course, the costliest are near the coasts.
The most expensive college town in America is Los Angeles. The nation's second-largest city is home to both USC and UCLA. It also carries the most expensive two- and three-bedroom units, and the third priciest one-bedrooms. The expensive metros of Seattle and Nashville also rank in the top 10.
Seven of the top 10 most expensive college towns are suburbs of large, high-cost-of-living cities. Palo Alto, in the Bay Area, is the second most expensive place to live overall. It also has the highest one-bedroom average lease among all college towns.
Several other high-priced college towns also double as upscale and desirable suburbs for more than students. Among these are Boston College's Chestnut Hill, University of Miami's Coral Gables, Berkeley, CA just north of Oakland, Boulder, CO outside Denver, Chicago suburb Evanston, IL and Piscataway, NJ in the New York City metro.
Here are the top 10 most expensive college towns.
|Rank||City||University||1BR Avg Rent||2BR Avg Rent||3BR Avg Rent||2020 Rank|
|60||Los Angeles, CA||UCLA / USC||$2,754||$4,433||$6,901||62|
|59||Palo Alto, CA||Stanford||$2,957||$4,290||$4,242||N/A|
|58||Chestnut Hill, MA||Boston College||$2,861||$3,382||$4,310||58|
|57||Coral Gables, FL||Miami||$2,445||$3,322||$5,011||57|
As we poured through data a few interesting observations and oddities popped out as outliers and quirks.
Apartment Guide ranked 60 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 is listed as a single city home to both UCLA and Southern California. Clemson, SC (Clemson), Stillwater, OK (Oklahoma State), Provo, UT (BYU), Morgantown, WV (West Virginia) and Pullman, WA (Washington State) are not included because they did not have sufficient rental inventory. Provo, Morgantown and Pullman were all included in last year's study.
Each city included in our report was ranked one through 60 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 2021 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.
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