By Luke Paton
Posted January, 2015
The cost of tuition and other fees invariably goes up each year, so selecting a college or university in line with students’ financial resources is becoming increasingly important. As a result, looking at more reasonably priced schools closer to home and pursuing the different opportunities for financial aid may be options for those who want to gain a college education but without a significant strain on their pockets.
However, one element that people perhaps sometimes overlook when considering which university to attend is the local cost of living – and it’s this that forms our focus right now.
The following college towns have been ranked according to their overall cost-of-living indexes. At the same time, due consideration has been given to the day-to-day expenses that contribute to this, including housing, food, healthcare, utilities and transport. Here, then, are the 30 college towns, big and small, with the lowest cost of living in the United States.
In order to be included in this article, each town or city first needed to qualify as a college town by dint of the fact that it has at least one college, university or other higher education institution with a confirmed address there. After an exhaustive online search for U.S. college towns, we compiled an initial shortlist of over 500 locations that fit with this criterion.
We then ranked the cities and towns in accordance with their cost-of-living index scores on the Sperling’s BestPlaces website. The website analyzes up-to-date information to generate a score based on a range of costs – housing, groceries, utilities, health, transportation and miscellaneous expenses – with each type of essential also getting its own individual score.
For the purpose of ordering the college towns, the lower each one’s overall cost-of-living index, the higher it was ranked on our list. In the case of tied entries – that is, places with identical overall scores – the college town with the lower housing index was ranked higher; and if entries were still tied, we calculated an average using the aforementioned specific cost types.
30. Waterloo, Iowa
Cost of Living Index: 80
While healthcare in Waterloo, Iowa is a little more expensive than it is on average nationwide, as of June 2014 just about every other essential is cheaper. The city boasts favorable prices for food and transportation, but where it really excels in the affordable living stakes is when it comes to utilities and especially accommodation. The 6,200 students at Waterloo’s Hawkeye Community College benefit from housing costs that are 48 percent lower than the U.S. average, while utilities – some of which are controlled by the city council – work out as some 14 percentage points less pricey. Waterloo is part of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area, and CNN Money describes the two cities – the latter of which is home to the University of Northern Iowa – as “joined at the hip.”
29. Terre Haute, Indiana
Cost of Living Index: 79.9
Terre Haute, Indiana has at least four options for higher education students. These local institutions include Harrison College, Ivy Tech Community College, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Indiana State University. As of June 2014, the cost of living in the area is just over a fifth lower than the national average, with the city scoring below the U.S. mean figures when it comes to everything from the price of groceries to transportation expenses. Housing, meanwhile, is particularly affordable, and the cost of utilities remains competitive as well. What’s more, while unemployment remains at 7.5 percent – a little over 1 percent higher than the nationwide average – job market activity has been on the increase of late.
28. Rochester, New York
Cost of Living Index: 79.9
As reported by the 2010 Census, Rochester is the third largest city in New York in terms of population, so it may come as a surprise to find it on a list of the cheapest places in which to live. Food and healthcare costs both hover around about the national averages, but it’s the city’s accommodation rates that really propel it into the arena of affordability. Just over half of Rochester’s inhabitants pay rent, such that should four students take on a place, their monthly outlay is likely to be almost $300 lower than the country’s average figure nationwide. This is welcome news for students at the riverside University of Rochester and the nearby Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, as well as learners based at the local campuses of The College at Brockport and Monroe Community College.
27. Akron, Ohio
Cost of Living Index: 79.9
Not far from picturesque Cuyahoga Valley National Park and enjoying a lively local cultural scene, Ohio, Akron is an ideal setting for outgoing students at The University of Akron. The same students – collectively numbering 25,865 as of fall 2014 – are also no doubt delighted by Akron’s surprisingly low housing costs: as of June 2014, rental rates on studio apartments are at least $163 cheaper than the national average, with four-bedroom residences approximately $445 less expensive. The cost of healthcare, meanwhile, is put at 7 percent below the U.S. average, while the city’s 346 available doctors per 100,000 people compares favorably with the typical national quota of 261.
26. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Cost of Living Index: 79.8
The chief reason that Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania has such an affordable cost of living, and has been included on this list, is its housing rates. As of June 2014, a Wilkes-Barre home goes for a typical price of just $51,600 – a staggering $118,500 below the national median of $170,100. Perhaps this is down to the city’s vibrant, and extensive, student communities. There are two universities located in Wilkes-Barre – King’s College and Wilkes University – and the city is also home to the regional campuses of Luzerne County Community College, The Commonwealth Medical College and the McCann School of Business & Technology. Pennsylvania State University’s Wilkes-Barre campus, meanwhile, is a little over 12 miles northwest of the city.
25. Durant, Oklahoma
Cost of Living Index: 79.7
As of June 2014, the city of Durant, Oklahoma scores consistently below the national averages across all six of Sperling’s BestPlaces’ specific cost of living metrics, which include food, health, housing and transportation. This is good news for students of Southeastern Oklahoma State University – located in Durant – and indeed the city’s steadily increasing population, which as of 2014 stands at 16,014. Further encouraging figures come in the form of lower-than-average unemployment rates and a relatively short standard commute time of 18 minutes. Besides this, the 2014 typical sum faced when buying a home in Durant is $82,300, which is less than half the national median. And if that weren’t enough, the “Magnolia Capital of Oklahoma” is also home to the biggest peanut on the planet.
24. Beaumont, Texas
Cost of Living Index: 79.6
At least two higher education institutions are present in the college community of Beaumont, Texas. Lamar University has over 14,000 learners, while the Lamar Institute of Technology – at one time part of Lamar University – is home to more than 3,500 undergraduates. As of June 2014, the cost of living in Beaumont is less expensive than the national average almost across the board, but it’s the city’s lower healthcare, grocery, utilities and especially housing costs that ensure it offers excellent value for students. According to the same 2014 figures, a typical Beaumont home sets a buyer back just $80,900, which is 52 percent cheaper than the $170,100 U.S. median. It may be worth noting, however, that in April 2011 The New York Times published a “Where to Live to Avoid a Natural Disaster” list, and the Beaumont-Port Arthur area was ranked as the fifth most vulnerable place in the country.
23. Pittsburg, Kansas
Cost of Living Index: 79.6
There is real synergy between the city of Pittsburg, Kansas and Pittsburg State University, the predominant educational institution located in the city. Indeed, the university says as much on its website, highlighting the fact that the local population takes “real pride in supporting” its endeavors. With Fort Scott Community College and Labette Community College’s Cherokee Center both situated in the city as well, there’s certainly a student atmosphere in this spot of southeastern Kansas. Perhaps this partly accounts for Pittsburg’s modest living costs, which as of June 2014 include healthcare and utilities charges that are at least 10 percent lower than the national averages. Transport, meanwhile, is 5 percentage points cheaper on average, with accommodation a remarkable 52 percent less expensive.
22. Nelsonville, Ohio
Cost of Living Index: 79.6
With a 2014 population of just over 5,300, and a technical college catering to almost 5,000 students, Nelsonville, Ohio is surely the very definition of a college town. Located three minutes’ drive from the city center, Hocking College’s large 2,300-acre campus accommodates various associate degree programs – and fortunately those learners living off site won’t have to break the bank to afford their accommodation costs. As of June 2014, housing is typically 60 percent cheaper in Nelsonville than the nationwide average, which means four students living in a four-bedroom property could collectively save over $550 a month in rent. As of 2014, the costs of food, healthcare and utilities hover just below the national mean figures, while transportation overheads are bang on average.
21. Monticello, Arkansas
Cost of Living Index: 79.2
Utilities, healthcare, transportation and food are particularly affordable in Monticello; the costs of these day-to-day expenses in this corner of Arkansas are between 7 and 8 percent lower than they are on average across the U.S. Accommodation rates, meanwhile, are roughly half what someone would typically expect to pay nationwide. Almost 50 percent of the city’s population are tenants, with rent prices also well below national averages – welcome news for students attending the local higher education institution. The University of Arkansas at Monticello was born in 1909, and in 2013 it was the lone school in the state to earn a Tree Campus USA title; today, it boasts 1,433 trees across its grounds.
20. Glenville, West Virginia
Cost of Living Index: 79.2
Despite the town’s modest 2014 population of 2,053, the number of inhabitants in Glenville, West Virginia has increased by more than 17 percent since the turn of the millennium. This may be partly attributed to Glenville’s affordability, with 2014 housing rates standing at 56 percent lower than the U.S. average. Indeed, as of June 2014 food, healthcare and utilities all cost less than the national averages; only transport is a touch pricier. Moreover, adding to the town’s appeal is Glenville State College, which caters to 1,850 students on its 325-acre campus. And not only do the institution’s undergraduates benefit from affordable living costs, but the air they breathe is cleaner, too: in 2014 Glenville’s air quality scored 98.7 out of a possible 100, according to data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.
19. Williamsburg, Kentucky
Cost of Living Index: 79.1
Williamsburg bills itself as the “Gateway to the Cumberlands,” positioned as it is on the Cumberland River, close to Cumberland Falls and the Cumberland Falls State Park. Conveniently, the Kentucky city is also home to the University of the Cumberlands, which is situated in its center and has in excess of 40 programs on its curriculum. What’s more, despite the college town’s proximity to so many natural attractions, Williamsburg’s cost of living is below the U.S. average in all categories – particularly housing, which is well over 50 percent cheaper than the norm. Also adding to the city’s appeal is its short typical 12-minute commute – less than half the time the average American spends traveling to work.
18. Henderson, Tennessee
Cost of Living Index: 79.1
Freed-Hardeman University is the local higher education institution in Henderson, Tennessee. The school is closely associated with the Church of Christ, and its enrollment of almost 2,000 students is equivalent to nearly a third of Henderson’s total population of 6,263, as of 2014. As for affordability, the city’s modest cost of living can be attributed to especially low housing rates, not to mention healthcare charges that are some 12 percent less than the U.S. national average. It’s also interesting to note that Henderson achieved a perfect score of 100 for its Superfund sites. The statistic is provided by the Environmental Protection Agency in regards to hazardous waste locations in a particular community and the expenses allocated for their cleanup.
17. Waco, Texas
Cost of Living Index: 78.8
Waco, Texas was established in 1849, and it’s fair to say that the city’s 165-year history has been somewhat eventful. The popular soft drink Dr Pepper was born here in 1885, but less savory events have included a devastating tornado that struck in 1953, and the infamous 51-day Waco siege of 1993, which gripped TV viewers around the world. Perhaps such goings-on account to some extent for the low cost of living here, with healthcare, groceries and especially housing all considerably cheaper in Waco than the U.S. averages in those categories. The city also plays host to no fewer than three post-secondary schools: Baylor University, McLennan Community College and the Texas State Technical College.
16. Kingsville, Texas
Cost of Living Index: 78.8
The City Commission of Kingsville in Texas endeavors to provide all its citizens with a “reasonable cost of living.” And if the city’s appearance on this list is anything to go by, then the commission appears to be doing its job. Unsurprisingly, it’s housing rates that keep down day-to-day living expenditure in Kingsville: the median price of a home here is just $73,000, which is approaching $100,000 cheaper than the U.S. norm. Interestingly, one further intention of the aforementioned local government body is a prolonged affiliation with Texas A&M University-Kingsville – a major institution in the city and one that accommodates a standalone pharmacy college within its grounds. Coastal Bend College, meanwhile, also has a home in Kingsville.
15. Columbia, Kentucky
Cost of Living Index: 78.7
Lindsey Wilson College is a four-year higher education institution nestled in the small city of Columbia, Kentucky that is associated with the Kentucky Conference of The United Methodist Church. In the 2013-14 school year, the college signed up over 2,600 students, the majority of whom were Kentucky-based – and it’s a statistic that sits well with Columbia’s family-friendly feel. Moreover, the city government strives for a “fiscally sound” environment for its 4,461 inhabitants – as of 2014 population figures – which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the living costs here are lower than they are on average across the U.S. At 54 percent below the national average, the cost of accommodation is particularly good value, although this may reflect residents’ significantly lower typical income thresholds.
14. Alva, Oklahoma
Cost of Living Index: 78.5
Alva, Oklahoma is home to just fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, as of 2014; and when it comes to jobs and earnings for those people, family incomes in general aren’t too far below the norm, while the unemployment rate is an encouragingly low 2.3 percent. The overall cost of living, meanwhile, is more than 20 percent less here than it is on average nationwide. This is partly thanks to as a rule more affordable food, transport, utilities and healthcare costs. However, with a typical associated outlay of 55 percent below the U.S. average, it’s housing that’s particularly good value. Perhaps this can be partially attributed to the presence of the Charles E. Johnson Correctional Center, the local minimum-security prison. In any case, such accommodation rates are good news for students of Northwestern Oklahoma State University and the Northwestern Technical Center, both of which are based in Alva.
13. Reading, Pennsylvania
Cost of Living Index: 78.2
According to 2014 figures, Reading has 87,926 denizens, making it one of Pennsylvania’s largest cities in terms of population. With such numbers, it’s small wonder that the place is home to no less than four post-secondary schools in Albright College, the Reading Area Community College, Alvernia University and the PACE Institute. What is possibly surprising to learn, however, is that the costs of groceries and other day-to-day expenses such as clothing and entertainment are a little above the national averages, while utilities are significantly dearer. So why does Reading appear on this list? The answer is housing, which is a full 70 percent less expensive than the U.S. norm. Furthermore, the typical sum faced when buying a home here is just $50,400 – an incredible $119,700 lower than the median cost elsewhere in America.
12. Oakland City, Indiana
Cost of Living Index: 78.1
Oakland City is a small Indiana community whose population, as of 2014, stands at just 2,587 – a figure that has actually decreased since the turn of the millennium. Still, despite its modest size, Oakland City remains a college town: it’s the home of the 34-acre principal campus of Oakland City University, an institution that was established by General Baptists in the late 19th century. What’s more, students attending the school can benefit from an affordable cost of living – with utilities, transport and particularly food and healthcare in the community all coming in at below their national averages. Accommodation, meanwhile, is 60 percent cheaper than it is typically across the U.S. As an aside, the lower-than-average utilities costs are perhaps surprising given recent wholesale improvements to Oakland City’s century-old water system – changes that were initiated with financial assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture.
11. Plainview, Texas
Cost of Living Index: 77.9
Wayland Baptist University has its primary campus in Plainview, where it caters to more than 1,000 students. The school has taught from the Texas city for over 100 years, making it the granddaddy of universities in the High Plains region. As of 2014, Plainview itself has a population totaling 22,098, with those inhabitants enjoying a low cost of living in large part thanks to notably affordable food prices and, in particular, housing costs that are some 59 percent cheaper than the national average. On the other hand, the city has a higher-than-average unemployment rate of 9.1 percent and a not especially healthy outlook on the job market front. Not all bad news, though. And interestingly, among Plainview’s biggest claims to fame is its previous use as a location in 1992 Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith.
10. Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Cost of Living Index: 77.7
The reason Johnstown features so highly on this list is mainly down to its exceptionally affordable housing. While the cost of essentials such as food and healthcare hover around the national averages – with transport and especially utilities rates actually above the norm – general accommodation figures here are an astonishing 74 percent below the U.S. average. One remarkable statistic is the Pennsylvania city’s $43,900 typical home price, which is $126,200 cheaper than the median cost of such a property nationwide. Renters, meanwhile, can take on a four-bedroom residence for $629 less per month than would be expected elsewhere. This is no doubt appealing to budget-conscious students at three of Johnstown’s main tertiary educational institutions – the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College and the Cambria-Rowe Business College.
9. Toledo, Ohio
Cost of Living Index: 76.9
In 2010 one resident described Toledo as “the cheapest place I’ve lived,” citing the Ohio city’s entertainment offerings as a major feature of local life. While such aspects do indeed contribute to Toledo’s competitive cost-of-living score – and healthcare charges are a bit more below average again – it’s housing that really keeps outgoings down for the 287,487 inhabitants, as of 2014: accommodation costs are typically almost 70 percent lower than the national average. What’s more, this is good news for the local student population, with The University of Toledo, Davis College, Mercy College of Ohio and Herzing University all to be found within Toledo’s city limits. Somewhat quirkily, in 2012 Toledo was ranked eighth on the 50-strong list of “America’s Manliest Cities.”
8. Langston, Oklahoma
Cost of Living Index: 76.8
Langston University – the only traditionally African American college in Oklahoma – is to be found in the tiny town of its name. The school had just over 2,000 students enrolled for the 2014-15 academic year, which is around 600 people more than the total population of Langston itself, as per 2014 figures. The college town’s relatively remote location may explain why transport here is a touch dearer than the U.S. average, although other essentials in the cost of living index are notably cheaper. The standout is housing, which is a remarkable 64 percent less expensive than it is typically nationwide. Besides this, it’s worth mentioning that utilities and groceries are also very modestly priced here, coming in at 10 and 8.4 percent, respectively, below the national averages.
7. Muncie, Indiana
Cost of Living Index: 76.6
Arguably Muncie’s big claim to fame is Garfield, the comic-strip cat that calls this Indiana city home. But there’s more to Muncie than a cartoonist’s feline: Ball State University and an Ivy Tech Community College campus are both located here, and the city also happens to boast a particularly attractive cost of living. Grocery prices, for instance, are over 7.3 percent lower than the national average, while healthcare is 10 percent cheaper than it typically is elsewhere. Utilities, meanwhile, come in at 15 percent less than they are on average nationwide, and housing costs are a full 59 percentage points below the norm – so it’s little surprise that Muncie features on this list. Moreover, the place certainly draws attention, with sociologists and other academics having long treated it as a “barometer” for measuring social trends across the country.
6. Itta Bena, Mississippi
Cost of Living Index: 76.4
Mississippi Valley State University is located in the small community of Itta Bena. Moreover, fortunately for its students, this Mississippi city scores below the national averages in all of Sperling’s BestPlaces’ cost-of-living categories aside from utilities – and these are only 4 percent more expensive than the mean rates elsewhere. Itta Bena’s best value essential is housing, as accommodation costs here are 63 percent lower than the U.S. average. Tenants sharing a four-bedroom property, for example, can expect to pay monthly rent of just $832 – $658 less than the typical figure nationwide. Furthermore, while as of 2014 only some 2,115 people live in Itta Bena, the city has quite a distinguished past, for it was
here that “King of the Blues” B.B. King was born.
5. Richmond, Indiana
Cost of Living Index: 76.2
Richmond’s 2014 population of 36,836 shares the Indiana city with at least four post-secondary educational institutions: Earlham College, Indiana University East and campuses of Purdue University College of Technology and Ivy Tech Community College. Prospective students will be happy to learn that the overall cost of living here is 24 percent lower than the national average, with food and accommodation prices providing especially good value. The cost of housing is 53 percent below what it typically is across the U.S., while grocery bills are 19.9 percentage points less expensive on average. Moreover, despite transportation and healthcare rates hovering around about the norm, utilities bills are also notably cheaper – to the tune of 11 percent.
4. Marion, Indiana
Cost of Living Index: 76.2
Taking into account both online and in-person learners, Indiana Wesleyan University is the most sizable private institution of its kind in Indiana. Moreover, it just so happens to be located in Marion – the joint-fourth most affordable college town on this list. The impressively low cost of living here is far below the norm – indeed, every day-to-day essential is invariably cheaper than what somebody would typically pay for the same elsewhere. Housing costs, for instance, are more than 60 percent lower than the U.S. average, while utilities bills are 12 percentage points less expensive. Beyond affordability, Marion’s appeal lies at least partly in its heritage: iconic movie star James Dean was born here, as was Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis.
3. Peru, Nebraska
Cost of Living Index: 75.8
The overall cost of living in Peru – the Nebraska city, not the South American republic – is almost a quarter lower than the U.S. nationwide average. That said, as of 2014, there are only 984 permanent inhabitants to enjoy such affordable living. The median cost of buying a home here is just $56,900 – over $113,000 less than the national average – while accommodation rates generally are 66 percent below what is typical elsewhere across the country. Interestingly, in spite of its tiny population, the city is home to the surprisingly large Peru State College, Nebraska’s oldest such post-secondary educational institution. Located on 104-acre grounds, the school caters to approximately 2,500 students.
2. Buffalo, New York
Cost of Living Index: 74
With over 260,000 inhabitants as of 2014, Buffalo is the second biggest city in New York State, in terms of population. What’s more, with some eight colleges and universities located here, it’s also something of a tertiary education hub. Among its schools is the University at Buffalo, whose campus is the largest in the state – and the institution is in addition the city’s fourth biggest employer. In view of so much going on, it may come as a surprise to learn that Buffalo is the second most affordable college town in America. Healthcare costs here are 11 percent lower than the national average, while assorted day-to-day expenses such as clothes and entertainment are similarly good value. Furthermore, the median expenditure when buying a home in Buffalo is just $54,600, and there’s 5.4 percent to be saved on food bills compared to the norm.
1. Memphis, Tennessee
Cost of Living Index: 73.4
As of June 2014, all 651,050 inhabitants of Memphis enjoy a cost of living that’s well over a quarter lower than the U.S. national average. The Tennessee city scores well across all of Sperling’s BestPlaces’ metrics. That said, special mentions should be given to utilities – which come in at 16 percent below the norm – and housing, which is an eye-popping 61 percent less expensive than accommodation typically costs elsewhere. Indeed, the median sum faced when buying a home here is just $65,800 – more than $100,000 cheaper than the national average. Again, this could be good news for students. Among the city’s some eleven higher education institutions is The University of Memphis, which in spring 2014 enrolled almost 20,000 learners. Memphis’ attractions, meanwhile, include Graceland, the famous former home of Elvis Presley.