The Best College Towns in New York

A great college town can enhance your college experience. Discover the top 10 best college towns in New York.

portrait of Emily Gillespie-Lord
by Emily Gillespie-Lord

Updated August 25, 2022

Edited by Amelia Buckley
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The Best College Towns in New York
Image Credit: Barry Winiker / The Image Bank / Getty Images


More than just the "Big Apple," New York state is home to beautiful mountain ranges and North America's largest waterfall. In addition to its famous bustling city neighborhoods, the state boasts beautiful hiking, sleepy beach towns, and breathtaking fall foliage. The Empire State's natural beauty, growing enterprise, and endless entertainment options make it a popular option for many college students.

New York is home to some of the country's best colleges and universities. The state is known for its business and finance industries, as well as television and film, giving students the chance to be close to internships and work opportunities. New York college towns are idyllic and beautiful, much like what you picture when you think of a classic college campus.

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10 Best College Towns in New York

How did we choose our college towns for this list? We focused on smaller towns whose college campuses are generally within walking distance and are integral to their town's culture and economy. We looked at walkability scores, student employment opportunities, affordability, and entertainment options for students in and around the city.

1. Ithaca

Population: 30,569
Colleges: Cornell University, Ithaca College

Named after the Greek Island from Homer's "Odyssey," Ithaca is a classic college town in the southern Finger Lakes. Cornell University, one of New York's two Ivy League campuses, boasts 25,000 students each year. Ithaca College has a smaller student population of 5,400.

The town is home to a plethora of bars and restaurants; students will have plenty of options when picking a favorite lunch spot or cafe. Ithaca's culture is a direct result of the university population and much of the local economy is driven by students.

Many activities in town are within walking distance, including theaters, museums, and local cinemas. There are over 150 waterfalls just 10 miles from downtown as well as state parks and ski resorts.

2. Syracuse

Population: 142,874
Colleges: Le Moyne College, Syracuse University

One of New York's most populated cities, Syracuse, is home to the Syracuse university system, which includes 13 universities and colleges.

Syracuse has an excellent public transportation system, an initiative led by Syracuse University. The Connective Corridor links the Syracuse campus with the downtown area. It includes well-lit pedestrian and bicycle-friendly paths and a free public bus system.

Though Syracuse has a higher population than other college towns, students can explore 170 nature areas and parks in and around city limits. The city also hosts multiple food, cultural, and music festivals each year, in addition to the well-known Great New York State Fair.

3. Saratoga Springs

Population: 27,943
Colleges: Skidmore College

With the motto, "creative thought matters," Skidmore College is considered one of the "Hidden Ivies," and brings 2,500 students to the town each year.

Known as "The Queen of the Spas," Saratoga Springs is home to the only naturally carbonated mineral springs east of the Rocky Mountains. The city is a health and wellness destination, surrounded by wilderness.

The town is also known for the oldest organized sporting venue in the country, Saratoga Race Course. Students enjoy live shows at Caffè Lena, a venue famous for performances by Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie.

While New York City, Boston, and Montreal are all only a three hour drive away, there are plenty of activities right next to campus including horseback riding, hiking, ziplines, and haunted ghost tours.

4. Poughkeepsie

Population: 30,381
Colleges: Vassar College, Marist College

Community, nature, and higher education can all be found in Poughkeepsie. The town is home to both Vassar College and Marist College. Vassar College has a student population of 2,500. The school began as a women's-only college, but now serves students of all genders.

Marist College is the larger school of the two with about 6,400 students. Marist College also sponsors the Hudson River Valley Institute, which works with the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area to provide education and research for tourists, educators, and scholars.

Poughkeepsie is home to the world's longest elevated pedestrian footbridge, "The Walkway Over the Hudson." The town also features many restaurants and outdoor activities including hiking and skiing. Students enjoy touring the local craft beverage breweries, including the famous Angry Orchard.

5. Cortland

Population: 18,739
Colleges: SUNY Cortland

The "Crown City" sits at 1,130 feet above sea level in the southern section of the state. Cortland is home to the State University of New York, Cortland. SUNY Cortland is known for its majors in education and health. The university enrolls over 6,600 students per year.

Most Cortland residents are a short walk away from at least one bar or restaurant and the city has a few bike lanes throughout.

You can pick your own blueberries at nearby Cherry Knoll Farm, or enjoy live shows at the Cortland Repertory Theatre, one of the oldest theaters in the state. Some students find it hard to think of fun winter activities, but luckily, Greek Peak Mountain Resort offers student discounts for snowboarding and skiing.

6. Hyde Park

Population: 20,893
Colleges: The Culinary Institute of America

Known as the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hyde Park is located just north of Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River. The Culinary Institute of America, or CIA, brings over 3,000 aspiring chefs and culinary artists to the town each year.

Hyde Park is known for some of the best and most diverse food in the country, as restaurants all over the city are staffed by CIA student talent. The CIA is one of the top four-year culinary schools in the country. And New York City, one of the food capitals of the world, is only two hours away.

Outside the kitchen, students can enjoy visits to the historic Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Vanderbilt Mansion, or walks through the Hyde Park trail system.

7. Rochester

Population: 206,848
Colleges: University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology

Located on Lake Ontario, the Flower City was once a town with a thriving floral and seed industry. Keeping with their roots, Rochester is a popular destination for plant lovers. Highland Park, a 150 acre arboretum, features 1,200 lilac shrubs. The Rochester Lilac Festival is also popular with students.

The University of Rochester is home to 12,000 students and the Rochester Institute of Technology enrolls almost 20,000 students.

Rochester is also home to Kodak cameras and famed photographer George Eastman. Students can explore this history at the George Eastman Museum operated in collaboration with Rochester University. Students can also enjoy trips to The Strong National Museum of Play and catch minor league hockey and baseball games.

8. Brockport

Population: 8,292
Colleges: SUNY Brockport

In a quaint village 25 miles west of Rochester, SUNY Brockport has nearly as many students as the town does residents. Around 6,900 students attend the school each year. SUNY Brockport is known for its nursing and health services programs.

Nicknamed "The Victorian Village on the Erie Canal," Brockport has many different antique shops, restaurants, and a preserved Victorian museum, the Morgan-Manning House. The village is small, just over two square miles.

The cost of living is only 3% higher than the national average and most everything is within walking distance. For more lively entertainment, students often drive to nearby Rochester or one hour to Buffalo.

9. Plattsburgh

Population: 19,465
Colleges: SUNY Plattsburgh

Known for its majors in business management and marketing, SUNY Plattsburgh is ideal for students who want that small town feeling and lower cost of living while also being near a big city. Around 4,800 students attend SUNY Plattsburgh each year.

Plattsburgh lies just outside the 6 million acre Adirondack Park, where students can hike its numerous trails and mountain peaks. For an outdoor experience even closer to home, there are hiking and biking trails on campus along the Saranac River.

The downtown area is highly walkable with several coffee shops and cafes. Students often drive an hour away to Montreal and Lake Placid for more shopping, dining, and concerts.

10. Hempstead

Population: 53,000
Colleges: Hofstra University

The naturally flat area of the Hempstead Plain on Long Island served as the center for early aviation and test flights. It is also where Charles A. Lindbergh began his solo flight to Paris.

Known for its psychology and finance programs, Hofstra University prides itself on small class sizes with a student-to-teacher ratio of 13-to-1. Hofstra has around 6,000 undergraduate and 2,900 graduate students.

Hempstead has a high walkability score with many activities close to campus, such as coffee shops and restaurants. Students can catch hockey games at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum less than a mile from campus or spend a quiet afternoon at the Hofstra Museum of Art. New York City is only 40 minutes away, putting students close to internship and career opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions About New York College Towns

What is considered a college town?

A college town is a city that is heavily influenced by a local college or university. A college town's culture and economy evolves with the college community; many businesses cater to students. Not all college towns are rural and some have a larger population.

For example -- Ithaca is a college town of 30,569. Both Ithaca College and Cornell University have a combined student population that nearly doubles the town's size. Much of the town's economy is driven by college students.

Is New York a good place to go to college?

New York is a great place to spend your college years, with over 200 colleges across the state to choose from. Nearly every campus boasts nearby hiking trails, festivals, and other entertainment. Colleges in New York are welcoming to international students as well.

New York also has a strong and affordable public university system, the State University of New York -- also known as SUNY. In the SUNY system, there are 64 different campuses ranging from two-year and technical schools to universities. Students can easily plan their entire college career with SUNY.

What are the best colleges in New York?

With some of the highest-rated and most-competitive schools in the country, New York offers many different options for students. Out of more than 200 different institutions, some of the best colleges in New York include Columbia University, Cornell University, and Barnard College.

While the schools at the top of the list are also the hardest to get into, students who wish to study in New York should not feel discouraged. Many smaller schools make the list as well.

How many colleges are there in New York City?

There are around 120 universities and colleges in New York City. These include New York University, Barnard College, and the SUNY Empire State College in Manhattan.

New York City is not considered a college town as it is much larger than most cities, especially a typical college town. College towns have a significantly smaller population than some New York boroughs, let alone the entire city. With such a large metro area, too many other factors contribute to the city culture for it to be considered a college town.

What is the biggest college town in New York?

Rochester is one of the biggest college towns in New York and the largest on this list. The town's population alone is over 206,000 people and the local colleges and universities bring in tens of thousands of students. Syracuse is also one of the largest college towns in New York, with nearly 143,000 residents.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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