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America's Leading College Towns

America's Leading College Towns
Keith Bedford / Reuters

Judging by the lines at Target, it's back-to-school time in America. Amid the runs on No. 2 pencils and twin XL sheets, the last week in August brings the seasonal influx of students back to college towns — but which cities and metros feel this movement the most?

To find out where these students are concentrated, my colleague Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, crunched U.S. Census Bureau figures on people age 15 and above enrolled in private college, public college or graduate school based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. The MPI's Zara Matheson mapped these numbers.

Across the country, there are roughly 22 million students enrolled in college, according to the ACS figures. College students make up 9.98 percent, on average, of the population of U.S. metro areas.

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson, data from U.S. Census Bureau

The first map (above) charts the metros where college students make up the largest share of the adult population. 

The metros with the largest share of college students read like a veritable who's-who of college towns. Ames, Iowa (home to Iowa State University) ranks first, with college students making up 34.2 percent of its adult population. Ithaca, New York, home to Cornell University, is second with 32.8 percent. Rounding out the top five are State College, Pennsylvania (31.8 percent, home of Penn State University), Lawrence, Kansas (31.1 percent, the University of Kansas), and College Station-Bryan, Texas (30.6 percent, Texas A&M University). The rest of the top ten include Blacksburg, Virginia (29.0 percent, Virginia Tech), Bloomington, Indiana (27.8 percent, Indiana University), Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (26.9 percent, University of Illinois), and Gainesville, Florida (26.8 percent, University of Florida).

While these metros each have a large share of college students, taken together they are home to a surprisingly small number of the nation's student population. The 20 metros with the largest shares of college students are home to just slightly more than 750,000 of them, 3.5 percent of the nation's total. 

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson, data from U.S. Census Bureau

The picture changes substantially in the second map (above), which charts the metros with the largest total number of college students. Although we tend not to think of them this way, America's largest metros are also its largest college towns.

Two metros are home to more than one million college students — greater New York City with 1.3 million and greater Los Angeles with nearly 1.1 million. Both of these metros contain multiple major schools, like New York's Columbia University, New York University, and Barnard College and L.A.'s UCLA, USC, and Loyola Marymount University, just to name a few. 

Chicago is next with more than 670,000 students, followed by Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, each home to slightly more than 450,000 college students. Boston is next with nearly 400,000 college students. 

The next several metros are a bit more surprising. Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami are the nation's seventh and eighth largest college towns respectively, with roughly 380,000 students each. San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, and Detroit are each home to more than 300,000 college students, while San Diego, Riverside, Phoenix, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Seattle, and Baltimore all host more than 200,000 collegians. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and several other metros have more than 150,000. That's more than double the number who go to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and five times more than Ithaca, New York.

America's college students are overwhelmingly concentrated in these metros. The 25 metros with the most college students are home to a total of almost 9 million students — more than 40 percent of the total. The top ten are home to 5.8 million students, more than one in four (26.6 percent), while just the top five are home to roughly 4 million, or 17.9 percent of all college students.

These figures show that our perceptions of college towns — small main streets near liberal-arts schools with sprawling, ivy-covered grounds — are misnomers. In fact, the norm of U.S. college life is more filled with concrete sidewalks, taxi cabs, and late-night diners.

Top image: Keith Bedford / Reuters

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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