10 Best “Hidden Gem” College Towns in the U.S.

When it comes to evaluating a college, many people consider its size, academic programs, reputation and rankings, cost, campus activities, culture, and, of course, location.

Location is key when searching for a school, and it can make or break a college experience. That’s why we rounded up the 10 best “hidden gem” college towns in the U.S.

When compiling a list of the top “hidden gem” college towns, we looked at towns with the best student life, culture, and activity in combination with reputable local colleges and universities.

Our goal for this list is to highlight cities that, although beloved by their residents and students, are rising in reputation throughout the country for their excellence as quality college towns.

These hidden gems represent some of the finest cities one could study in at the undergraduate or, in some cases, the graduate level.

Without further ado, here 10 amazing hidden gem college towns:

Rome, Georgia

Rome, Georgia
Thomson200, Rome GA viewed from Myrtle Hill Cemetery, Nov 2017, CC0 1.0

Not Rome, Italy. We’re talking about Rome, Georgia, a town tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s about and hour-and-a-half drive from Atlanta. Berry College is just a 10-minute drive to the historic downtown area, and Shorter University is even closer.

In downtown Rome, you’ll find plenty to eat and drink, including breweries, rooftop bars, ice cream shops, and food trucks.

If you’re looking to get active, rent some bikes and pedal along the Downtown Heritage Trail, where you’ll see all three of the city’s rivers. There’s also plenty of nearby hiking, kayaking, tubing, and camping options.

Each year, Rome hosts a number of big events, including its Spring Art Market, Spirit of the Sun Festival, and bull-riding competition.

Home to: Berry College, Shorter University, Georgia Highlands College, and Georgia Northwestern Technical College

Charleston, Illinois

Eastern Illinois University
Bubba73 (Jud McCranie), Eastern Illinois University, CC BY-SA 4.0

Charleston, Illinois, calls itself “Downstate Illinois’ biggest secret,” and one of its main features, Eastern Illinois University, ranks No. 8 on U.S. News and World Report’s list of top public schools in the Midwest.

The city of Charleston is about three hours from Chicago and two hours from St. Louis and Indianapolis. Charleston’s downtown square is home to a number of local shops and restaurants. Around various corners, you’ll find impressive murals depicting the city’s rich history.

A huge part of Charleston centers upon Eastern Illinois University students. That’s because 44.1 percent of the town’s population is 18 to 24 years old. In fact, WalletHub recently named Charleston a top college town due to its high number of part-time jobs, which is perfect for students. Housing costs were also some of the lowest in the country.

Here’s a fun fact: John Liautaud, a former Eastern Illinois University student, founded the first Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in Charleston, Illinois, in 1983.

Home to: Eastern Illinois University

Davidson, North Carolina

Davidson, NC
Dacoslett, Chambers Building, Davidson College, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The town of Davidson, North Carolina, was actually founded after the school, which simply emphasizes the important role the school plays in the tight-knit community. Students can easily walk to the downtown area, which features a number of locally owned coffee shops, restaurants and shops.

The Kindred, which was voted one of the South’s top restaurants by Southern Living, offers a cozy spot to grab a craft cocktail or celebrate a special occasion. If you want something a little more low-key, stop by The Soda Shop diner, which has been a town staple since 1951.

At the center of everything, you’ll find The Village Green, which hosts many of Davidson’s annual events, including concerts. On Saturdays, you’ll find a farmer’s market, where you can stock up on local eggs, produce, baked goods, and flowers.

Not too far away, you can enjoy Lake Norman, and Charlotte is only a 30-minute drive, making the small town readily accessible for out-of-town visitors who are flying in.

Home to: Davidson College

Binghamton, New York

SUNY Binghamton
Greynol1, School of Management, Binghamton University, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

Binghamton University ranks No. 31 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top public schools, making it the No. 1 public university in New York state.

Not only is a solid institution, the town itself offers students plenty of opportunities to learn outside the classroom, with major employers including Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, IBM, and Maines Paper and Food Service. It’s also centrally located to other big cities: a one-hour drive to Ithaca, New York; a three-hour drive to New York City; and a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Philadelphia.

The town itself is also a creative hub. It hosts a number of festivals and houses a number of art galleries and museums.

There’s plenty for students to do when they need a break from studying. They can shop Antique Row, escape on a hiking trail, or even take a tour of the town’s mosaic displays.

Home to: Binghamton University (also known as SUNY Binghamton)

Middlebury, Vermont

Recently ranked No. 7 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top national liberal arts colleges, Middlebury College offers plenty of open green spaces for students to mill about. The school itself is just a short walk from Middlebury’s historic downtown area, which sits along Otter Creek.

The town itself is small, but it gives students just what they need: a locally owned bookstore, a sporting goods store, a bundle of restaurants, and even a board game shop. In addition, it features the Vermont Folklife Center, the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, and the Middlebury College of Art.

Each year, Middlebury hosts the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, which features works from around the world, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the oldest writers’ conference in the country.

If students are looking to escape for the day, they can get outside and go skiing, kayaking, fly-fishing, golfing, biking, or hiking. In fact, there are several hiking trails that start in downtown Middlebury.

According to the postmodern architect Robert Venturi, “Middlebury looks like what everyone things an American campus should be but seldom is.”

Home to: Middlebury College

San Luis Obispo, California

San Luis Obispo
Gregg Erickson, Cal-Poly-performing-arts-center, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

San Luis Obispo (also known as SLO) is one of the oldest cities in California and is located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, exposing students to plenty of internship and job opportunities.

The city itself has a lively arts and culture scene with a number of museums, art galleries, and theaters. Additionally, there’s the annual SLO Film Festival, Festival Mazaic, and Cal Poly Rodeo.

San Luis Obispo has also become quite a foodie destination, with plenty farm-to-table eateries, local breweries and wineries, and top chefs.

If students are looking to get outside for some fresh air, the town boasts 315 sunny days a year. Because of its location — tucked between the beaches and mountains — students enjoy a variety of activities, like surfing, hiking, cycling, and camping.

Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the town’s unofficial landmark, Bubblegum Alley. Leave your mark with a chewed piece of gum; there are an estimated two million pieces already there.

Home to: California Polytechnic State University, Cuesta College

Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks, Alaska
FairbanksMike, Downtown Fairbanks, Alaska, CC BY 2.0

It’s not that Fairbanks, Alaska, is a lesser known city. It’s actually probably one of the more well-known cities in Alaska. But when it comes to college towns, you wouldn’t traditionally think Alaska has the best, and that’s what makes Fairbanks such a hidden gem.

The school itself has more than 8,000 students, and it’s a tight-knit community. That sense of community bleeds into the town, too, where with just a short drive or bus trip, students have access to bookstores, coffeeshops, parks, and restaurants.

If students want to get outside, there’s plenty to do — even in the winter. They can visit a nearby reindeer ranch, enjoy the Northern Lights, or even check out natuaral hot springs.

Here’s a fun school tradition: When temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero, UAF students line up at the school’s entrance sign where the temperature glows on display and pose for photos in swimsuits. It’s called the “40 Below Club,” and there’s even a Facebook page for it.

Home to: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Beloit, Wisconsin

Beloit Wisconsin
Visit Beloit, Downtown Beloit, Wisconsin, CC BY-SA 4.0

Easily walkable from the Beloit College campus, downtown Beloit, Wisconsin, sits alongside Rock River. Although fairly small in size, students have a number of entertainment, food, and shopping options to choose from, including Bushel & Peck’s local market, an escape room, and clothing boutiques.

Beloit is also home to the second-largest open-air farmers market in the state (which operates during warmer months) and is host to an annual international film festival.

The town is also a great place for students to gain experience and exposure. Although it’s home to many smaller, local businesses, students can also find opportunities with national brands, like ABC Supply Co., Frito-Lay, Kerry America’s, and Kettle Foods.

The school’s Center for Entrepreneurship is also located downtown, where students have the opportunity to showcase new products and gain experience in accounting, management, and marketing. You’ll also find revolving student art exhibits at Gallery ABBA, also located downtown.

Home to: Beloit College

Kalamazoo, Michigan

Mxobe, Kalamazoo, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

It’s true. Kalamazoo sounds like the name of a fictional town you’d read about in a book, but it’s actually home to a number of higher-ed institutions, including top-ranking Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University.

You might not find the town on any of the mainstream “top college town” lists, but the American Institute of Economic Research ranked it 20th among best small metropolitan college towns, thanks to the city’s vibrant restaurant selection, rich arts and entertainment scene, and diverse population.

The community supports its local students by providing them with plenty of opportunities to learn outside the classroom — in labs, social service agencies, schools, financial institutions, medical offices, museums, and local government offices.

Home to: Kalamazoo College, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College

Orem, Utah

Just 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, Orem, Utah, is one of the larger cities on this list.

In fact, Utah Valley University is one of the largest and fastest growing colleges in the country, with more than 37,000 students. Additionally, Orem sits adjacent to Provo, Utah, which is home to Brigham Young University. The metropolitan area as a whole is full of college students.

Despite its size, Orem is known to be a safe and affordable city. In fact, the city’s slogan is “Family City USA.” It even ranked No. 13 on Money’s list of best places to live in 2018, thanks to its quality schools, easily accessible outdoor activities, and affordable cost of living.

The city is also a great town for job-seekers and entrepreneurs. In fact, Fobes ranked it the best midsize city for jobs in 2017, and SmartAsset called it the most entrepreneurial small to midsize metro in 2016. That’s good news for students, who’ll find plenty of job opportunities post graduation.

Home to: Utah Valley University, Mountainland Technical College, Utah College of Dental Hygiene

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