How to Choose Between Urban, Suburban and Rural Colleges

Location is one of the many important factors prospective students have to weigh when choosing where to go to college. This decision isn’t just about how far they’ll be from home — it’s also about the educational setting.

In an annual survey, U.S. News asks colleges to self-report their settings: urban, city, suburban or rural. Each setting can offer profound learning and cultural experiences, but that doesn’t mean each location would be a natural fit for every student. Some may find themselves overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of big city life, while others long for more activities than they might experience on a secluded rural campus.

Setting is another component of finding the right college fit. Like school size and social life, setting is a trade-off that students have to consider. Read on for expert advice on choosing the right campus setting.

Why College Setting Matters

Location is generally important to the college decision. In fact, in survey responses from more than 95,000 first-time, full-time freshmen entering nearly 150 colleges in 2019, most of these students — nearly 85% — chose a college that was within 500 miles of their home, and more than half enrolled in a school within 100 miles of home, according to The American Freshman Survey administered by the University of California–Los Angeles‘ Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute.

But setting also matters because it has the potential to shape the college experience.

[See: 10 Tips to Make Your Final College Choice.]

“It’s important you feel comfortable at a college of your choice and the setting of a college could impact what your comfort level is,” Eric Nichols, vice president of enrollment management at Loyola University Maryland, wrote in an email. “Do you want to live in a big city, just be adjacent to (a) city while having a residential campus experience? Or are you comfortable with a small college town that is tucked away from a metropolitan area?”

He adds that students often spend more time on campus than they initially expect, so it’s important to feel comfortable not only within the confines of a college itself but also the broader community overall.

“One of the most important things is to have a clear sense of what it is that you want out of your college experience, and see if the setting provides what you need,” says Meredith Woo, president of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of International College Counselors, encourages students to think about the challenges of traveling back and forth for breaks and holidays and how important that time at home is to them. Students should also consider setting when thinking about opportunities beyond the classroom, she says.

“Another factor to think about is opportunities for work experience and internships during the school year,” Adler wrote in an email. “The choices are slimmer in a small city as compared to New York City, Washington D.C., or Los Angeles, for example.”

Finding the Right College Setting

Prospective students generally have to settle for trade-offs when choosing a college.

For instance, National Liberal Arts Colleges are generally known for their tightknit communities, but big-time college athletics and Greek life are often in limited supply. By contrast, National Universities are much more likely to have major sports programs and social life driven by fraternities and sororities, but also tend to have a much larger student body.

[See: 10 Colleges With the Most Undergraduate Students.]

Woo encourages prospective students to ask themselves three questions when considering the setting of a school: “What is the educational value of a particular setting? How does the setting enrich your social life? Is there a way in which, if you’re so inclined, to be involved with the community beyond the gates of the campus?”

She adds that urban environments often have more to offer in terms of entertainment options but may come with other considerations, such as the safety of the area and how willing a student is to tolerate a higher risk of danger in exchange for greater access to off-campus assets like museums, concerts and a vibrant night life. These considerations are also important for parents and should be part of the discussion when making a decision.

Woo encourages students to make a checklist of pros and cons, starting with what they want and what a setting has. Using such a list can offer a balanced view of what each setting has and lacks.

Adler notes that the setting may also matter in terms of what a student wishes to study and the activities he or she wishes to pursue outside of class. She notes that students interested in fields like environmental science may see those opportunities in abundance in a more rural setting. In that same vein, those interested in easy access to outdoor activities may find them lacking in urban colleges located in the heart of a surging metropolis.

On the flip side, urban, city and suburban colleges are likely to offer a greater range of cultural activities. Adler encourages students to consider what on-campus activities are offered and how students plan to spend their time outside of class, noting that “urban campuses typically have less of an on-campus community.”

Explore Settings Before Jumping to Conclusions

Just because a college is located in a certain city or area doesn’t mean the campus itself is a direct reflection of that geographic space. Colleges are like cities unto themselves, and what’s happening in the broader area may not necessarily be the experience on campus that students live out on a daily basis. Nichols encourages prospective students to see a college for themselves rather than letting a description of the setting determine their view.

“For example, a school may be located in a city but the actual location of the campus itself may be on the edge of town and the setting may feel more like a residential suburban neighborhood,” Nichols says. “Not all big city schools have campuses that spill into the downtown area. It’s another reminder to always take the time to visit the schools you are most interested (in) rather than make assumptions based on location.”

[Read: How Your Hometown Could Affect Your College Admissions Chances.]

Though a college setting can give students a loose idea of what to expect, there are often unexpected twists. Take Loyola University Maryland. While located in Baltimore, the college has an arboretum on 80 acres that was recently recognized as having the largest trees in the state, which may not fit student preconceptions of an urban area.

Likewise, Sweet Briar College is listed as suburban, but a casual observer could easily mistake the bucolic campus as rural, spread across nearly 3,000 acres dotted with wildflowers and framed by scenic mountains.

“In terms of access to urban civilization, yes, we are suburban, but in terms of the kind of natural surroundings and agricultural land, we live with the feel of a rural area,” Woo says.

Given how a college may not fit neatly into one geographic category, prospective students should take the time to visit campus rather than write off a school based on assumptions, experts say. Similarly, students should expect an adjustment when moving from one environment to another.

“Adjusting takes time,” Adler says. “Moving somewhere new and truly feeling comfortable in a new environment takes time. Whether a student makes a big jump from urban to rural, or if they’re staying in their home city, feeling out-of-sync for some time during the first year of college is completely normal.”

She encourages students to get involved with activities and student organizations, build their own community, try new things and develop a peer group to support them through college.

“If a student is having a rough time, they should not be afraid to reach out to someone they trust, such as an advisor, professor or peer,” Adler says. “In college, no one should feel alone. And if a student is truly unhappy and feeling out-of-place, there is always the option to transfer.”

Below is a breakdown of the top-ranked National Universities for each setting: urban, city, suburban and rural. The data below comes from information submitted by schools as part of a U.S. News survey of more than 1,800 schools. Unranked schools, which did not meet certain criteria required by U.S. News to be numerically ranked, were not considered for this report.

Top Urban Colleges

SCHOOL NAME (STATE) U.S. News rank Acceptance rate (fall 2019) Private tuition (2020-21) In-state tuition (2020-21) Out-of-state tuition (2020-21) 4-year graduation rate
Harvard University (MA) 2 5% $54,002 N/A N/A 85%
Columbia University (NY) 3 5% $64,380 N/A N/A 87%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4 (tie) 7% $53,818 N/A N/A 87%
University of Chicago 6 (tie) 6% $59,298 N/A N/A 90%
University of Pennsylvania 8 8% $60,042 N/A N/A 86%
Johns Hopkins University (MD) 9 (tie) 10% $57,010 N/A N/A 88%
Vanderbilt University (TN) 14 (tie) 9% $54,158 N/A N/A 90%
Rice University (TX) 16 (tie) 9% $51,107 N/A N/A 84%
Washington University in St. Louis 16 (tie) 14% $57,386 N/A N/A 89%
University of California–Los Angeles 20 12% N/A $13,226 $42,980 79%

Top City Colleges

SCHOOL NAME (STATE) U.S. News rank Acceptance rate (Fall 2019) Private tuition (2020-21) In-state tuition (2020-21) Out-of-state tuition (2020-21) 4-year graduation rate
Yale University (CT) 4 (tie) 6% $57,700 N/A N/A 88%
Brown University (RI) 14 (tie) 7% $60,696 N/A N/A 83%
University of Notre Dame (IN) 19 16% $57,699 N/A N/A 91%
Emory University (GA) 21 16% $53,868 N/A N/A 82%
University of California–Berkeley 22 17% N/A $14,226 $43,980 76%
University of Michigan–Ann Arbor 24 (tie) 23% N/A $15,948 $52,266 80%
University of California–Davis 39 (tie) 39% N/A $14,653 $44,407 63%
University of Wisconsin–Madison 42 (tie) 54% N/A $10,741 $38,629 63%
University of Georgia 47 (tie) 46% N/A $12,080 $31,120 66%
University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign 47 (tie) 59% N/A $16,862 $34,312 70%

Top Suburban Colleges

SCHOOL NAME (STATE) U.S. News rank Acceptance rate (Fall 2019) Private tuition (2020-21) In-state tuition (2020-21) Out-of-state tuition (2020-21) 4-year graduation rate
Princeton University (NJ) 1 6% $53,890 N/A N/A 90%
Stanford University (CA) 6 (tie) 4% $56,169 N/A N/A 73%
California Institute of Technology 9 (tie) 6% $56,862 N/A N/A 84%
Northwestern University (IL) 9 (tie) 9% $58,701 N/A N/A 84%
Duke University (NC) 12 8% $60,488 N/A N/A 88%
University of Virginia 26 (tie) 24% N/A $18,878 $52,957 89%
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill 28 (tie) 23% N/A $9,021 $36,200 84%
Wake Forest University (NC) 28 (tie) 30% $57,760 N/A N/A 84%
Tufts University (MA) 30 (tie) 15% $60,862 N/A N/A 88%
University of California–Santa Barbara 30 (tie) 30% N/A $14,391 $44,145 70%
University of Florida 30 (tie) 37% N/A $6,380 $28,658 67%

Top Rural Colleges

SCHOOL NAME (STATE) U.S. News rank Acceptance rate (Fall 2019) Private tuition (2020-21) In-state tuition (2020-21) Out-of-state tuition (2020-21) 4-year graduation rate
Dartmouth College (NH) 13 8% $59,458 N/A N/A 87%
Cornell University (NY) 18 11% $59,316 N/A N/A 87%
University of Connecticut 63 (tie) 49% N/A $17,834 $40,502 73%
University of California–Merced 97 (tie) 72% N/A $13,538 $43,292 45%
Miami University–Oxford (OH) 103 (tie) 80% N/A $15,330 $34,727 71%
Clarkson University (NY) 124 (tie) 75% $52,724 N/A N/A 63%
Michigan Technological University 153 (tie) 74% N/A $16,436 $36,738 30%
University of Mississippi 160 (tie) 88% N/A $8,818 $25,090 46%
University of Idaho 170 (tie) 78% N/A $8,304 $27,540 35%
University of Rhode Island 170 (tie) 75% N/A $15,004 $32,578 52%

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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