Best Small-Town Colleges in America

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Updated on May 31, 2023
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This page features the best small colleges in the United States. Each college has excellent academic programs. These schools also call some of the best college towns in America home. You can learn about each college and its city in the following ranking.

Additionally, the bottom of the page includes answers to common questions prospective students might have when deciding between schools in small towns and urban areas.

To create this ranking, we focused on four essential traits that the best college towns share. The best college towns in America have fewer than 150,000 residents, and a large percentage of the population possesses a bachelor's degree. These towns also have low unemployment and an affordable cost of living.

Put together, these factors make for an excellent college experience.

Top Small-Town Colleges In America

America's Best Small Town Colleges

  1. North Dakota State University

    Fargo, ND

    Located in Fargo, NDSU is one of the top 100 public research universities in the United States. Available majors include agricultural science, computer science, and business management. The university serves just over 10,000 undergraduates.

    NDSU admits new students in the spring and fall semesters. The university accepts GED scores, and prospective undergraduates must submit ACT or SAT scores. Students also need to complete specific prerequisites in high school.

    The city of Fargo offers students and locals numerous events throughout the year, including outdoor movie nights, a Fourth of July celebration, and local baseball games. Outdoor lovers can take advantage of multiple parks, many of which offer unique events during the winter. The city features dozens of food trucks that sell cuisine from all over the world.

  2. Northern State University

    Aberdeen, SD

    NSU is one of the best four-year colleges in the Midwest. The university serves approximately 3,600 students from around the world. Additionally, degree-seekers enjoy small class sizes and can choose from about 50 extracurricular activities.

    To qualify for admission, first-year applicants must have an ACT score of at least 18, a minimum 2.6 high school GPA, or rank in the top 60% of their graduating class.

    Aberdeen, South Dakota, is one of the best college towns for multiple reasons, including the presence of a second university and a small population of just over 28,000. Students can take advantage of local campgrounds, the city recreation center, and numerous parks.

  3. Illinois Wesleyan University

    Bloomington, IL

    Illinois Wesleyan's excellent academic programs and student services help 91% of first-year students advance to their sophomore year. Additionally, with an average class size of only 16 pupils, students can receive individualized attention from professors.

    Illinois Wesleyan does not require standardized test scores and accepts both the university application and the Common Application. Some majors, such as music and fine arts, may require additional application materials.

    Bloomington is home to multiple colleges and universities, making it one of the best college towns in America. The city hosts many attractions and festivals throughout the year, and airport and rail access make nearby metropolitan areas easy to reach. Additionally, the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts features many popular musical acts.

  4. Montana State University-Bozeman

    Bozeman, MT

    Although the largest university in Montana, MSU enrolls fewer students than most public universities in other states. In-state learners represent approximately half of the student body, with many students also hailing from Washington, Colorado, and California. The university offers a competitive tuition rate to in-state students.

    Admission requirements for undergraduates include a university application, high school transcripts, and standardized test scores. MSU awards credit for AP scores (of three and above) and IB scores (of four and above). Additionally, the university uses a high school GPA and standardized test score cutoff.

    Students living in Bozeman have many recreational opportunities from which to choose, including intramural sports and hiking trails. The bustling downtown area hosts live music and art fairs. Learners can also visit more than 24 city parks.

  5. Minnesota State University-Mankato

    Mankato, MN

    Minnesota State University. Mankato was founded in 1868, when just 27 students enrolled. Today, the school's student body of nearly 14,000 individuals includes learners from nearly 100 countries, and approximately 20% of degree-seekers are people of color. Additionally, learners can choose from over 130 undergraduate programs.

    High school transcripts are the biggest factor in the undergraduate admissions process, although applicants do have the option to submit ACT or SAT scores. The university uses an online orientation program to help new learners prepare for life on campus.

    The city of Mankato houses three other colleges, making it a popular college town for undergraduate students. The Mankato Marathon takes place each year, and the city maintains over 900 acres of local parks.

  6. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

    La Crosse, WI

    UW-La Crosse serves just under 10,000 learners from around the world. Students can select from more than 100 undergraduate majors, including adapted physical education, business administration, and cybersecurity.

    Admission requirements include high school transcripts and the university's application. The admissions department focuses on applicants' high school course rigor, class rank, and GPA. Although optional, standardized test scores also play a role in the admissions process.

    Situated on the Mississippi River, La Crosse has a population of just over 50,000 people. Students can take advantage of multiple parks and miles of bike paths. The city also offers fall and winter activities, like skiing and fishing.

  7. Carroll College

    Helena, MT

    One of the best regional colleges in the West, Carroll attracts students who want to develop academically and spiritually. Learners enjoy small class sizes and coursework that emphasizes experiential learning. Additionally, all programs require some courses in faith and theological foundations.

    Admission requirements include high school transcripts, a recommendation letter, a personal statement, and standardized test scores. The college partners with local businesses to provide degree-seekers with valuable internship opportunities. Carroll awards financial aid packages to incoming first-year students who demonstrate strong academic merit or financial need.

    Students can find multiple recreational areas in and around Helena, Montana, such as hiking and biking trails, skiing resorts, and nearby Yellowstone National Park. The city also features a symphony and a modern art museum.

  8. Mount Mercy University

    Cedar Rapids, IA

    A Catholic liberal arts university, MMU was founded in 1928 and currently educates just over 1,800 students. Undergraduate majors that can lead to a fulfilling career include international studies, education, and nursing. The school's excellent programs and resources help 96% of alumni find a job or enter a master's program within nine months of earning a bachelor's degree.

    MMU does not require ACT or SAT scores for admission. The university accepts transfer credit and prefers applicants who graduated in the top half of their high school class.

    The surrounding city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, offers MMU students many opportunities for cultural and personal enrichment. Students can attend museums, theaters, and art collaboratives, and the university maintains over 4,000 acres of public parks.

  9. University of Missouri

    Columbia, MO

    Students at Mizzou can take advantage of the university's 180-year history, campus traditions, and excellent undergraduate research programs. Mizzou offers almost 100 undergraduate majors, including ancient Mediterranean studies, chemical engineering, and digital storytelling. Students can also create a custom major with an advisor's help.

    Mizzou uses standardized test scores and class rank cutoffs when admitting first-year students. Prospective learners must also take certain high school prerequisites, such as two years of a foreign language.

    Although Mizzou educates over 30,000 students, the city of Columbia provides many of the same benefits as other small college towns. Learners can explore Rock Bridge State Park and attend one of the city's monthly cultural events. Additionally, multiple organizations have recognized Columbia for its low cost of living and excellent public services.

  10. Oklahoma State University

    Stillwater, OK

    OSU was founded in 1890, when the university taught aspiring farmers about agricultural best practices. Today, the school's undergraduate majors include options like aerospace and aviation, animal science, and education. Degree-seekers can further personalize their educational experience by selecting one of 87 minors.

    OSU grants guaranteed admission to applicants with an excellent high school GPA and high standardized test scores. However, the admissions department reviews each application holistically, so an applicant's recommendation letters and essay can make up for a lower GPA or poor test scores.

    Stillwater's nightlife, live music, and cultural events make it one of the best college towns in the United States. Students can reconnect with nature by visiting one of the city's many parks, lakes, and trails. Additionally, Stillwater's Cultural District features two modern art galleries.

How Are Small-Town Colleges Different from Urban Colleges?

The area surrounding a college campus affects students' academic and recreational experience, as well as their job opportunities. A typical urban area offers more museums, theatres, and public transportation systems, and major cities usually give learners and recent graduates more career paths to explore.

Small-town colleges may have fewer major and minor options than schools in large cities. Also, small colleges may attract fewer students from out of state, making for a relatively homogenized student body. Lastly, many private small colleges are affiliated with a Christian denomination, meaning that graduation requirements might include taking one or more courses in Christianity.

What Are the Benefits of a Small-Town College Campus?

The main benefits of learning at one of the best small college towns in America include getting to enjoy an intimate educational experience. Small colleges have fewer students, meaning professors can spend more time engaging in meaningful interactions with each learner. Also, smaller classes allow students to forge professional bonds with peers.

These benefits can lead to a healthy campus community that promotes networking and greater participation in clubs and sports. Furthermore, learners who live in one of the best college towns in America may feel like a member of the community, rather than an outsider.

What Are the Disadvantages of a Small-Town College Campus?

Although the best small colleges offer many advantages, potential trade-offs include fewer academic majors, extracurricular activities, and student support services. Even if a school has an exciting major or extracurricular activity, it may not have the funding to promote it to prospective students. Also, smaller universities -- most of them private schools -- are often more expensive than larger public universities.

Living in one of the best college towns may not fit each students' needs and personality. Learners who are used to big city life may think that a small town is boring and has little to offer. As a result, prospective students should reflect on what kind of environment they want to live in for the next four (or more) years.

Does Going to a Big College Matter?

Although big colleges may have more academic and extracurricular opportunities than the best small colleges, the answer to this question depends on what each student does during their time on campus. Learners who take advantage of their college's opportunities have a greater chance of academic and professional success.

Once a student graduates and finds a job, the college they attended matters less over time. Employers typically care more about skills and experience. However, attending a big college often provides more opportunities to network and attain an entry-level career after graduation.