College Town Madness

This is a post I meant for last month, before creating the bracket on my work computer and then getting incredibly busy at work as well as several travel assignments. Naturally I wasn’t reminded of this intended post until I was cleaning up some old files.

Inspired by Angie Schmitt’s annual Parking Madness contest, to crown the most egregious surface parking locale, I wanted to just use the exact same bracket as this year’s tourney and compare the communities surrounding these schools.

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I think this is incredibly subjective and open for interpretation. For instance, I didn’t just go with the most quintessential college towns, or else you’d see my undergrad college town of Stillwater making it a lot farther than it did (or at least a tougher decision against Ann Arbor, tough draw). For less subjective and more empirical rankings, check out WalletHub’s rankings based on health and fitness, social environment (huh?), and academic/economic opportunity.

However, and as passionate as I am about Oklahoma State, it did not prepare me for my career in the same way that graduate school at Ohio State did. It’s not because the academic quality at OK State isn’t as good as any major public university, but the simple fact that you’re not going to become an urban development guru in Stillwater, America. Columbus, Ohio – much better. In fact I owe the fact that I have grown to specialize in low-income community development to starting my career in Ohio.

The Crux: I graded these college towns on the opportunities they provide and planning innovations that they implement, and not which are the most bucolic settings to go sip a latte under a tree. The collegiate communities below resemble where I would send my kid to go and get the most out of his or her college years:

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In the top left quadrant of the bracket (I refuse to use their erroneous geographic regions) we have a number of great urban centers, a few classic college towns, and a few unfamiliar communites. By the way don’t knock Emmitsburg, MD (home of Mount St. Mary), which is cute as a bug. Quintessential Maryland small town with great Queen Anne building stock that dwarfs the rather narrow main street. However, with Philadelphia, Madison, Dallas, Milwaukee, and Durham – the campus communities in this bracket are no joke. Gainesville, FL – a surprisingly new-urbanist college town – also made it pretty far, until running into Philadelphia, which may be one of the greatest college communities in the nation (UPenn, Temple, Drexel, Villanova, Swarthmore, La Salle, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, et al).

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In the top right quadrant of the bracket we have some of the greatest college towns in the country, including Lawrence, KS. East Lansing, Ames, West Lafayette, Burlington, Eugene, Ann Arbor, and Stillwater – all great college towns. Of the bunch it would come down to Lawrence and Ann Arbor, if it weren’t for Providence, which has garnered acclaim as a great place to go to college. Providence quietly has one of America’s strongest arts communities, fueled largely by the presence of Brown, Rhode Island School of Design, and Providence College. It also offers a great combination of affordability, opportunity, and New England charm – which sounds like marketing baloney until you actually check it out as I did recently.

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In the bottom right quadrant of the bracket we honestly have some more average communities, and some that I would just throw away completely. Rock Hill is a suburb of Charlotte, Murfreesboro is a suburb of Nashville, Orange is a suburb of Newark, and Newport is a suburb of Cincinnati. We also have a ton of Ohio Valley cities – Indy, Cincy, Dayton, Lexington, and Newport. Lexington and Newport/Covington have just about the same downtown area, whereas the latter also has a riverfront with Cincinnati directly across. I do think Cincinnati is an excellent place to attend college – earning the nod over Manhattan, KS due to cultural/academic/career opportunities, earning the nod over LA due to affordability, and earning the nod over Dayton due to anything and everything. But not Minneapolis. Hard to beat the opportunity to attend college in the Twin Cities, with direct light rail access at the U, especially if you qualify for very affordable in-state tuition that makes up for housing costs in Minneapolis.

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In the bottom left quadrant of the bracket we see the re-appearance of Cincinnati, which goes on a tear until running into a slightly more innovative major city. This quadrant has some really great cities for young people – Chicago, Nashville, Cincinnati, Richmond, and Tucson. College Park, MD is essentially DC area, and Princeton – just on the other side of Trenton – is essentially Philly area. Of course Princeton is going to be hard to beat, but just how accessible is Princeton, and what kind of value-add does the community offer the college that also bears its name? Meanwhile, don’t knock Morgantown, which really is an epically great college town; to the point about Princeton, I think Morgantown actually elevates WVU and enriches opportunities at that school. I think Chicago and Tucson are roughly equal in terms of college settings. However, I think Tucson is vastly underrated for the innovative urban planning that the city has implemented. Not to mention it is a very attractive and fit community, which you kind of do want in a college town. All in all, with one of the nation’s best-planned streetcars, a decent tech sector, incredibly diverse population, unbeatable weather, and a good school to boot, I gotta hand it to Tucson:

Given the things that I advocate, and the solutions that I know work for medium-sized cities, I think Tucson is really on the forefront of placemaking and revitalization strategies. An actual graduate setting off into the world from UA will be more beneficially affected by their time in Tucson than most people are by their college town. The local hoops aren’t too shabby, either.

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