The Most and Least Affordable College Towns in 2020

Map of the most and least affordable college towns

Going to college means opening yourself up to new experiences, new friends, and new living costs. If you’re like most first-year college students, you’re going to need to learn how to balance rent, utilities, and groceries while also staying on top of all your new coursework.

And with tuition prices constantly on the rise, choosing an affordable place to attend college can be just as important as getting into a good school.

To help you find a college town where you can get the learning experience of your dreams without committing to decades of debt, we’ve looked at college towns across the nation and ranked them based on affordability. Keep reading to find a town where you can live your college life on your budget.

Our ranking criteria

Our rankings are based on three factors:

  • The median net cost of in-state tuition at the given town’s universities
  • The average price of a one-bedroom apartment in the town
  • The unemployment rate for 20–24-year-olds in the town

Other cost of living factors like average utility costs, gas prices, and grocery bills weren’t included in our rankings.

The most affordable college towns

1. Douglas, GA

Home to South Georgia State College, Douglas is the most affordable college town in the country. While the college’s average tuition costs are a bit higher than a few others in our top 10, the city makes up for this with low rent costs and an unemployment rate of 0% for college-aged residents.

  • Median tuition cost: $9,0361
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $3382
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 0%3

University:

2. Tifton, GA

Another Georgian city, Tifton’s average tuition cost is actually a bit lower than Douglas’s. However, higher rent prices and unemployment make it slightly less affordable for college students paying their own way.

  • Median tuition cost: $7,9641
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4322
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 0.8%3

University:

3. Ada, OK

Ada’s population is under 20,000 residents,4 making it a small, quiet town as well as an affordable place to study. Small towns don’t always offer the college experience you see in raucous ’80s movies, but they’re great places to attend college if you want to focus on your education.

  • Median tuition cost: $10,0001
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4652
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 3.3%3

University:

4. Morehead, KY

Morehead State University is located right next to the Daniel Boone National Forest, and it seeks to be “the best public regional university in the South.”5 This means that, in addition to being affordable, Morehead is also a great place for outdoorsy types who take their education seriously.

  • Median tuition cost: $12,7591
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4292
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 2.5%3

University:

5. Cocoa, FL

If you’ve ever wanted a college experience that includes beaches but you were always discouraged by California’s high tuition costs, we suggest looking to the other side of the country. Cocoa sits in the heart of Florida’s Space Coast region, and the town’s average tuition rates are the lowest in our top 10.

  • Median tuition cost: $5,7341
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4872
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 7.4%3

University:

6. Hays, KS

Hays’s average tuition rate is one of the highest among cities in our top 10, but the city’s affordable apartments mean you won’t break the bank to make rent. Additionally, the city boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates for college-aged residents on our list.

  • Median tuition cost: $12,3401
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4442
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 3.9%3

University:

7. Durant, OK

Not only is Durant home to Southeastern Oklahoma State University—it’s also home to the so-called largest peanut in the world. While the peanut’s status is hotly contested, it’s still a neat little landmark in this affordable college town.

  • Median tuition cost: $8,5081
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $5052
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 6.2%3

University:

8. Maryville, MO

Maryville’s university, Northwest Missouri State University, is home to the Missouri State Arboretum, a botanical garden with over a hundred different species of trees. This arboretum allows NMSU botany students to get a hands-on—and affordable—learning experience.

  • Median tuition cost: $12,2071
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4442
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 5.3%3

University:

9. Fort Smith, AR

Fort Smith is a historical town that started its life as a US military fort, making it a great place for US history buffs to get close to history while they study. The city also sits right along the Arkansas River, so it has plenty to offer outdoorsy folk.

  • Median tuition cost: $10,3971
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $4702
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 6.2%3

University:

10. Murray, KY

Finishing off our top 10 list is Murray, KY, another Southern small town. While the city’s average one-bedroom rent and tuition are some of the highest we’ve talked about so far, the town is still among the most affordable places to study in the US.

  • Median tuition cost: $12,2421
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $5312
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 3.2%3

University:

The least affordable college towns

1. Garden City, NY

While Garden City’s median tuition isn’t the highest we’ve seen, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is nearly $1,000 higher than the next most expensive on our list. This staggering rental price makes Garden City the least affordable city for college students in the US.

  • Median tuition cost: $29,0041
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $3,1062
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 3.4%3

University:

2. Malibu, CA

If you want to hit the beach between hitting the books, then Malibu might seem like the perfect place to study. However, the enormous cost of tuition and the city’s high rent prices mean Malibu isn’t a realistic option for students trying to graduate debt-free.

  • Median tuition cost: $34,7011
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $2,1062
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 2.3%3

University:

3. Santa Clara, CA

A college town in California’s Silicon Valley, Santa Clara allows technology students to study while networking and scoring internships with tech giants. This proximity to technology’s holy land is going to cost you, though—the median tuition for students in Santa Clara is one of the highest on our list.

  • Median tuition cost: $37,3991
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $2,0062
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 2.9%3

University:

4. Los Altos Hills, CA

While tuition in Los Altos is lower than many cities in our top 10, the city’s rent is still pretty high. But what really cements Los Altos in our bottom 10 is its stunning unemployment rate for college-aged residents.

  • Median tuition cost: $4,2121
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $2,1142
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 28%3

University:

5. Hoboken, NJ

Hoboken sits right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, so while its rent prices are pretty high, they aren’t as high as you might expect. That said, tuition for students living in Hoboken is still prohibitively high for anyone who wants to get through college without going into debt.

  • Median tuition cost: $37,5981
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,9282
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 3.2%3

University:

6. University Park, IL

Both tuition and rent in University Park are relatively reasonable, so it might seem like a good, affordable place to study. However, over half of University Park’s college-aged residents can’t find work, so you might still have a hard time making rent and tuition payments if you study there.

  • Median tuition cost: $17,0501
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $6902
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 51.8%3

University:

7. Orange, CA

Of all the universities in the most expensive college towns, Orange’s university has the highest average tuition cost at over $40,000. While the city’s average apartment rentals are a little more reasonable, this enormous tuition cost puts this college town well beyond what most students can afford.

  • Median tuition cost: $40,2511
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,4072
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 9.2%3

University:

8. Washington, DC

The nation’s capital is home to several prestigious universities; the Smithsonian; and, of course, the White House. This makes DC a world-class college town for students in just about any field from politics to medicine. That is, if you can manage the high rent and tuition prices.

  • Median tuition cost: $34,1761
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,4352
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 12.6%3

Universities:

9. Moraga, CA

Moraga is just a short drive (in good traffic) away from Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, so it’s an excellent place to study if you want proximity to cultural and technological epicenters. Like the other West Coast cities we’ve mentioned, though, the city’s tuition and rent are both higher than most students can reasonably afford.

  • Median tuition cost: $35,6221
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,7382
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 1.2%3

University:

10. Irvine, CA

Irvine is far from Silicon Valley, but it’s actually a major technology hub itself. Many tech giants are headquartered in the city, so it’s a great place to launch directly into a tech career straight out of college. Unfortunately, the city’s rent and tuition both follow the trend of unaffordability we’ve seen in other West Coast college towns.

  • Median tuition cost: $20,7341
  • Average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment: $1,9082
  • Unemployment rate for people aged 20–24: 8.7%3

Universities:

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Methodology

Rankings were based solely on the following factors:

  • Median net tuition cost
  • Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment
  • Unemployment rates for residents between the ages of 20 and 24

For the median net tuition cost, we took the net price for students who receive federal financial aid (such as Pell grants or federal loans) for one academic year of study. The net price was calculated by adding the advertised price for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and the average living costs at the school and subtracting the average grant and/or scholarship aid (such as Pell grants, school-based grants, and merit scholarships). For public schools, this is the average cost for only in-state students.

We removed the following schools from our rankings:

  • Schools that didn’t offer four-year degrees or higher
  • Schools that existed solely online
  • Schools without an accrediting agency listed
  • Schools with fewer than 2,000 undergraduate, degree-seeking students
  • For-profit schools
  • Schools without a net cost listed

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Education, “College Scorecard.” Updated June 1, 2020. Accessed August 24, 2020.
  2. United States Census Bureau, “MEDIAN GROSS RENT BY BEDROOMS.” Accessed August 24, 2020.
  3. United States Census Bureau, “EMPLOYMENT STATUS.” Accessed August 24, 2020.
  4. United States Census Bureau, “Ada city, Oklahoma.” Accessed August 24, 2020.
  5. Morehead State University, “About MSU.” Accessed August 24, 2020.

About Joe Roberts

Joe Roberts
Joe Roberts is a professional writer with a degree in writing studies and over three years of copywriting experience. He previously worked at Overstock.com, where he wrote about furniture, home decor, and moving. Joe has moved all over Utah, so he knows his way around a moving truck—and he spends his time (and money) expanding his personal library so it will be even heavier next time he moves.
  • Meemaw Rees

    This is the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever seen. Let’s take #13 for example, and one I have intimate experience with- Burlington, Vermont. We’ll do the nuts and bolts first. Median rent is $1222.06, with a minimum wage of $10.50. Yes, that’s a decent minimum wage comparatively, but at a 40 hr work week that means you’re pulling $1680 before taxes and before utilities. So before you can even go to the University of Vermont at $31k plus a year, you already can’t afford to buy food… And isn’t this geared toward college kids who with a full time course load often don’t even work full time? I’ve lived/worked in Boston which was on the “Top 10 Most Expensive College Town” list and found nicer apartments for less money than Burlington Vermont, with all the culture of being in a city, and much better paying jobs. I know it’s anecdotal, but I call bullshit on your stats. Not that it matters, but gas has not been under $2.99 a gallon in ages, a beer is NOT $2.54 anywhere, nor has it been under $5-6 for years, and there’s no goddamn train anywhere even in Burlington.