What to Consider When Visiting a College Town
The location of a college or university can be just as critical to a student’s experience as its academic program, social scene or extracurricular activities.
Hailing from the sleepy town of Evensville, Tennessee, Elijah Boles first set foot on the campus of Yale University in Connecticut in fall 2020. To save time and money, he’d only visited colleges in his home state, so he never got to explore Yale or its surrounding area prior to starting school there.
When he finally ventured off-campus and into the city of New Haven – whose population of roughly 134,000 is about 50 times that of his hometown – Boles was pleased to find a walkable area near the college with good food and pretty buildings scattered throughout.
“My first impression of New Haven was that it was a relatively manageable city for someone who comes from a small town,” the second-year philosophy student says.
For many students, the area in which their college is located will be the place they call home for at least four years. Some people might dream of attending university in a bustling metropolis like New York City, while others prefer a quiet suburb like Davis, California. When visiting college campuses for the first time, you’ll want to take some time to explore the off-campus environment.
Here are four factors to consider as you head into town after wrapping up the campus tour:
- Off-campus housing.
After spending much of his life in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, Cristobal Spielmann was ready for a change of scenery; he moved to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount University. Spielmann says Los Angeles’ size makes it rife with opportunities for exploring.
“You could step five minutes away and find a completely different neighborhood,” the fourth-year environmental science student says.
Jeremy Moore, the associate dean of students at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, says students should take into account the diversity of a college town, especially if they belong to certain marginalized groups.
“If a student is a student of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, thinking about that, identifying and meeting those personal needs, is going to be really important,” he says, noting that a more diverse environment can feel more welcoming to these students.
While many high school students gravitate toward choosing big cities like New York City or Los Angeles for college, Brian Taylor, the managing partner at Ivy Coach, a college admissions counseling firm, recommends students consider the benefits of attending school in smaller towns as well.
“When you go to a school like Duke or Dartmouth, you come away with lifelong friendships because there’s not much else to do,” he says. “Those lifelong friends, we would argue, are the biggest benefit of attending any school.”
The ability to conduct errands on foot or via public transportation is particularly important for younger students attending four-year colleges and living on campus, as they may not have access to a car.
While Boles says most of the places he enjoys in New Haven are easy to walk to, there’s one exception: His favorite pizza place is a bit of a trek.
Still, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Yale students are able to run most of their errands without a motorized vehicle. Walk Score, a company that assigns walkability, bikeability and transit scores to each zip code and city in the U.S., gives Yale’s zip code a 98 out of 100 for walkability, deeming it a “Walker’s Paradise.”
Tools like Walk Score can give students an objective value of their future home’s level of car dependence. With a Walk Score of 69, students who attend the University of California—Los Angeles, for example, may have to hike half an hour on foot just to buy groceries. A trip to the beach in L.A. requires a car as well.
Meanwhile, those who attend Bowdoin College in the town of Brunswick, Maine – which has a Walk Score of 91 – will be able to get around quite easily without a vehicle.
Due to space constraints, many students will have to live in off-campus housing at some point during their college career.
“In many college towns, there is limited housing available on campus,” Moore says. “That means a lot of students are living off campus.”
In these cases, access to affordable, high-quality housing is crucial. Housing costs often rise with proximity to a university — Spielmann says apartments close to his campus tend to be scarcer and more expensive. In his final year at Loyola Marymount, he lives a 30-minute walk from campus.
For this reason, Moore says many students wind up in the suburbs further away from where they take classes. Here, public transportation can make all the difference — commuter students in Boulder and the surrounding area benefit from a strong bus system connecting them to campus. Many universities, like Naropa, offer students resources for securing off-campus housing. When deciding on a school to attend, you may want to look into whether or not it’s typical for students to live off-campus at a given university. Talking to current students and researching your prospective school’s off-campus housing resources can help you gain insight on the quality of nearby housing.
Potential students should also consider opportunities for getting involved in the local community or, as Moore says, breaking out of the “campus bubble.”
“It’s not just about coming here and essentially leasing your time for the next four years,” he says. “It’s really about how you get involved. One of my recommendations for students and families alike is to understand your responsibilities as a member of (the) community.”
One way to do this is to find campus programs that allow students to engage with the local community. Whether it’s a volunteer day or a club dedicated to a specific hobby, campus organizations often allow students an opportunity to get involved in the surrounding area.
Moore says many students are attracted to Boulder because of the city’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains and the outdoor activities there. Because the city is home to several major companies, students have ample internship and job opportunities that allow them to contribute to the city’s economy more actively.
Spielmann says he appreciates interacting with the wide range of cultures and experiences that Los Angeles offers. When looking for opportunities to commemorate a Chilean holiday he celebrates at home, Spielmann was excited to find an authentic Chilean restaurant just 15 minutes away from campus — something that might be tougher to find in a small or less diverse city.
“Every kind of person has an outlet here,” he says.