Location, Location, Location: Locating the difference between the rural, urban, and college town undergraduate experience


The three-word phrase, “location, location, location” has traditionally been employed as a real estate adage.  While prospective college students don’t really have to worry about real estate tips, they should pay attention to that tried and true mantra when picking a college.

A university’s physical location is often perceived as a secondary concern in relation to other deciding factors. Prospective college students usually consider the following a necessity when figuring out where to attend:

a. The school offers majors and academic opportunities that they are interested in.
b. They are able to actually afford the school.
c. Their application was actually accepted (sorry, 93% of Harvard hopefuls).  

There are some heretical naysayers1 out there who claim the location of your school doesn’t matter because at least you are out of your parents’ house.  Truth be told, feeling comfortable with the location of your university is a matter of importance.  It may not be as important as “a”, “b,” or “c”, but it should definitely be factored into the equation.2  Consider it a variable that that has tie-breaker potential.

But what exactly do we mean by “location,” and how does that affect one’s undergraduate experience? Colleges are generally located in three distinct types of settings: rural areas, college towns, and urban centers. While there is no objective hierarchy between the three settings, the kind of experience that one would find in each is in fact something to pay attention to. Each setting provides benefits to help enhance your undergraduate experience, and so it is necessary to assess what kind of location works best for you. 

The Urbane Urban Experience

Going to school in a city provides endless opportunities to explore and take advantage of diverse surroundings.  In cities, traditional college culture (dorm life, frat parties, and football games) coexists with the external urban settings. Students have to be up to the challenge of using the city to make the most  of their undergraduate experience. Take Lisa Tauber, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania   (class of 2007). As Tauber explains, “it was important to have a culture outside and in addition to what is considered the college culture.”  Using the city of Philadelphia as a base, Lisa interned at two newspapers. An aspiring music journalist, Lisa interviewed and wrote about the major bands that came through Philadelphia. As a Manhattan native, The Streets of Philadelphia seemed like a natural choice for Tauber. “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Tauber proudly attests. 

Ruling the Rural

Contrary to what the urban dwellers might have you believe, rural campus life does not mean a lack of activities. At rural colleges, the campus itself functions as the focal point for the academic, social, and extracurricular scene. The tight-knit community that forms on many rural campuses is what appealed to Virginia Beach native Evan Lambert about Dartmouth College (class of 2011). Evan sees the insular campus community as a positive: “it is an opportunity to become closer with other students. You are forced to stay within the campus and it gives you a closer group of friends.” Because rural campuses do not have the luxury of a city in close proximity, the student body tries to bring entertainment to campus. As Lambert explains, “the programming board and student council have a lot of activities for students to do on campus.”

Townies in a College Town

Many students feel as if going to school in a college town provides a happy medium because it offers both a strong sense of community and external opportunities.  In a college town, one can usually find coffee shops, book stores, cheap eats, student-centric bars, and football gameday celebrations. According to UC Berkeley senior Lauren Stern (class of 2008), Berkeley’s charm has enhanced her college experience. Stern likes that Berkeley offers a concentrated social scene, where “all of the Greek and co-op life is mostly in one place. The fact that Berkeley is not a commuter school allows for more socializing with peers on the weekends.” Simultaneously, Berkeley provides its undergraduates with a window to the outside world. As Stern explains, “the city of Berkeley has a lot of volunteer programs for helping the homeless community, and everything is relatively close or easily accessible by public transportation.”  For Stern, a native of the Los Angeles suburbs, finding that healthy balance has reassured her that going to school in a college town was the right choice: “I wouldn’t have it any other way!”

When you visit prospective schools, try to get a feel for their specific surroundings. Figuring out the right “location, location, location” in which to attend college is a matter of the utmost importance, but you still have to actively make an effort to take advantage of the area’s distinct opportunities. No one has become an urban legend, a college-town celebrity, or a big man on the rural campus by sitting in his dorm room all day playing Xbox for hours on end. 


1 For the record, those “heretical naysayers” are traditionally freshmen that party all-too-hard their first year, but wind up retracting that statement when they realize that they attended the wrong school in the wrong location by sophomore year. 

2 With all this talk of factoring, take a moment and think about the best year of your life. Now imagine living that year over again, only this time you are living in a place that you despise. There is a good chance that your golden year would not have been so wonderful in this new location.  And college, as you have heard time and again, has the potential to be the best four years of your life; why put that opportunity in jeopardy by picking a school in a location that doesn’t suit you?

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