December 27, 2016 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Photo: University of Colorado Boulder, in Boulder, Colorado.

Today, the American Institute for Economic Research ranked the top U.S. metropolitan areas for college students. The annual AIER ranking is based on nine criteria that measure each area’s cultural, demographic and economic qualities.

In its 2017 College Destinations Index, the cities that ranked highest overall in each city size category were San Francisco; Denver; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Boulder, Colorado. (See longer list below.)

“The location you choose to go to college determines where you will likely spend the next four years of your life, and possibly where you will start your career. Our ranking reflects the characteristics that make cities attractive to the average college student,” said Amanda Knarr, program coordinator at AIER.

AIER researchers weighed these criteria: youth unemployment; share of college-educated population; pervasiveness of diversity; the labor force participation of young adults; share of STEM workers; rental costs; ease of access to the city without a car; presence of arts and entertainment; and bars and restaurants.

San Francisco and Denver, the top ranking cities in the two large-city categories, offer a favorable economic climate and strong opportunities to prepare for work after college. The highest ranking metro areas for the small cities and towns, Ann Arbor and Boulder, boast a highly educated population, large numbers of STEM workers, as well as strong public transportation systems and plentiful bars and restaurants.

Cities that didn’t rank #1 nevertheless showed their own areas of strength. New York, for instance, led the major metro category for public transportation. Boston led in employing STEM workers. Minneapolis had low young adult unemployment, and Los Angeles was best for entertainment.

Among the top midsize metros, Portland, Oregon boasted by far the best public transportation system, and Pittsburgh and Cleveland had the lowest rents. Austin, Texas had the lowest youth unemployment, and Nashville and Las Vegas led in arts and entertainment offerings.

In addition to Ann Arbor, Norwich, Connecticut also demonstrated a strong record of employing STEM workers among the top small metros. Kalamazoo, Michigan had the lowest rent among this category, and Lincoln, Nebraska had the lowest young adult unemployment.

And among towns, Champaign-Urbana had the best public transportation system; Boulder, and Lafayette, Indiana ranked first and second on the share of STEM employment; Fargo, North Dakota featured the lowest rents; La Crosse, Wisconsin had the lowest youth unemployment; and after Boulder, Bloomington, Illinois topped the arts and entertainment offerings.

If you or your child is deciding on a place to go to college, our rankings may prove useful.  Although our findings are more general, we recognize that individual preferences play a strong role in the decision making process. The “College Destinations Tool” on our website lets you choose factors that you value the most to customize your own ranking. The tool, as well as detailed overall 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. Washington, D.C.

4. Minneapolis

5. Seattle

6. New York

7. Los Angeles

8. Chicago

9. Dallas

10. Houston

11. San Diego

12. Baltimore

13. Atlanta

14. St. Louis

15. Miami


Midsize metros (1 million – 2.5 million):

1. Denver, Colorado

2. Austin, Texas

3. Portland, Oregon

4. San José, California

5. Raleigh, North Carolina

6. New Orleans, Louisiana

7. Nashville, Tennessee

8. Columbus, Ohio

9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin

10. Virginia Beach, Virginia

11. Las Vegas, Nevada

12. Kansas City, Missouri

13. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

14. Tucson, Arizona

15. Richmond, Virginia

16. Charlotte, North Carolina

17. Cleveland, Ohio

18. Rochester, New York

19. Hartford, Connecticut

20. Buffalo, New York


Small metros (250,000-1 million):

1. Ann Arbor, Michigan

2. Tallahassee, Florida

3. Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina

4. Madison, Wisconsin

5. Gainesville, Florida

6. Fort Collins, Colorado

7. Honolulu, Hawaii

8. Santa Barbara, California

9. Bremerton, Washington

10. Santa Cruz, California

11. Lubbock, Texas

12. Norwich, Connecticut

13. Lexington, Kentucky

14. Lincoln, Nebraska

15. Eugene, Oregon

16. Albuquerque, New Mexico

17. Lansing, Michigan

18. Amarillo, Texas

19. Portland, Maine

20. Kalamazoo, Michigan


College towns (Below 250,000):

1. Boulder, Colorado

2. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

3. Flagstaff, Arizona

4. Ithaca, New York

5. Iowa City, Iowa

6. Bloomington, Indiana

7. College Station, Texas

8. Manhattan, Kansas

9. Columbia, Missouri

10. Bloomington, Illinois

11. Charlottesville, Virginia

12. Lafayette, Indiana

13. Fargo, North Dakota

14. Athens, Georgia

15. State College, Pennsylvania

16. Rochester, Minnesota

17. Blacksburg, Virginia

18. Jacksonville, North Carolina

19. La Crosse, Wisconsin

20. Bellingham, Washington

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Aaron Nathans

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