11 Best Student Cities in the US | Top Universities

11 Best Student Cities in the US

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Sabrina Collier

Updated Nov 25, 2022



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Click here to view the latest version of this article, based on the results of the QS Best Student Cities 2018. 

Although no US cities quite made it into the top 10 of the latest QS Best Student Cities index, the country does boast the highest number of entries overall. An impressive 11 US cities are listed among the top 75 cities for students, a testament to the country’s large number of excellent universities and exciting locations.

As you may expect, the best US cities for students tend to score well in indicators relating to university rankings and employer activity – but not so well when it comes to affordability. However, the relatively high costs do little to deter the thousands of new international students the US welcomes each year.

Below are the 11 best student cities in the US – all offering at least two internationally ranked universities, plus a unique study abroad experience (click on each city name for more details).

1. Boston


If you want to be surrounded by the world’s best and brightest students and academics, then you can’t really do much better than Boston – especially if you include the nearby student-centered town of Cambridge, MA. The latter is the location of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, ranked first and second in the world in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16. Boston is also home to another five universities which rank in the top 400, and this high concentration of leading universities propels it to joint 13th place in the QS Best Student Cities index. Employers are undoubtedly aware of Boston’s prestige, with the city earning the second best score in the index for ‘employer activity’. The Boston area is also well known for arts and culture, particularly when it comes to contemporary classical music. It’s not all serious academia and highbrow culture though: the city is also renowned for its pubs and bars, as well as its fondness for sports.

2. New York

New York

As well as ‘The Big Apple’ and ‘The City That Never Sleeps’, New York City, ranked 20th in the Best Student Cities index, is sometimes called the ‘Capital of the World’. Few other cities conjure up as many instant associations, be it the skyscrapers that serve as towering monuments to the city’s financial power, the legendary music and fashion scenes, the bright lights and glitz of Broadway or the famous delis and delicious street food. There’s no shortage of top universities in New York either, including Columbia University (ranked 22nd in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16) and New York University (53rd), as well as nine others which are ranked within the top 800 in the world. New York therefore places 5th in the ‘university rankings’ category of the Best Student Cities index, just beating Boston, which is 6th. New York achieves the best ranking out of all of the best US cities for students in the desirability category, offering a high (albeit pricey) quality of life.

 3. San Francisco

San Francisco

Lying adjacent to California's famed tech innovation hub Silicon Valley, San Francisco is another iconic US city, within striking distance of two of the world's most prestigious universities, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, currently ranked joint 3rd and 26th in the world respectively. One of the world's leading 10 financial centers, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to hundreds of innovative companies, particularly in the technology sector. This, combined with the high caliber of its institutions, gives San Francisco one of the strongest scores in the ‘employer activity’ category of the QS Best Student Cities index. Although tuition fees are high, San Francisco is more affordable in terms of living costs than the likes of New York, and ranks at joint 27th overall.

4. Chicago


Next in our list of the best cities in the US for students is ‘The Windy City’ (although it’s not the only one.) A fast-paced, high-rise economic hub, Chicago is also a city that famously knows how to let its hair down. Ranked as the 30th best student city in the world this year, Chicago remains well known as the site of an explosion of blues and jazz music during the 20th century, which earned it a reputation as the northern US's answer to New Orleans. The city is also home to two of the world’s most esteemed universities, the University of Chicago (ranked 10th in the world), and Northwestern University (32nd), plus two more universities within the global top 500. Again, these reputable institutions also mean Chicago earns a strong score for ‘employer activity’.

5. Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Sunshine is guaranteed pretty much year round in our next best student city in the US, which ranks at 42nd overall. Los Angeles remains largely defined by the creative industries on which its wealth is founded: music, television, and – most of all – film. Other things that might leap to mind when you think of the city are the bright Californian sun, beaches, and the perpetual pursuit of the body beautiful – after all, this is the home of “Muscle Beach”. If you’d rather be exercising your mind than your body, there are plenty of prestigious universities in Los Angeles, including the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 27th in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16.

6. Washington DC

Washington DC

It won’t be a surprise to see the federal capital ranking as one of the best cities in the US to be a student – this year ranked 45th in the QS Best Student Cities overall. Studying in Washington DC means being right at the heart of US history and politics – the White House, Supreme Court and national monuments and memorials are all located here. Washington DC’s position as a leading student city is helped by the five universities based in and close to the city that feature in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16, the highest ranked of which is University of Maryland, College Park at joint 126th in the world.

7. Philadelphia


Home of Ivy League member the University of Pennsylvania (18th in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16), as well as the esteemed Drexel University and Temple University, Philadelphia certainly holds its own as an international study destination. Ranking as the 48th best student city in the index, Philadelphia has a rich past, having played a key role throughout US history and politics – for instance, it was here that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Beyond the tourist trail, the ‘city of brotherly love’ (a nickname based on the Greek meaning of ‘Philadelphia’), is a multifaceted modern metropolis, becoming well known for its sport and fine cuisine.

=8. Pittsburgh


Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in the US state of Pennsylvania (after Philadelphia), retains its place in the QS Best Student Cities this year, sharing 58th place with Atlanta. Pittsburgh compensates for the high tuition fees seen at universities across the US by offering a strong quality of living, diverse student population, and a chance to study at a world-renowned university. Two universities in Pittsburgh are featured within the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, led by the well-known Carnegie Mellon University in joint 62nd place, which of course means another high score for employer activity.

=8. Atlanta


A new entry in the Best Student Cities index this year at joint 58th, Atlanta is the capital and largest city of the US state of Georgia, and is known as the ‘city in a forest’ due to its abundance of trees. Located in the south east of the US, Atlanta’s progressive attitude during the US Civil Rights Movement earned it another nickname – ‘the city too busy to hate’. Of the top universities in Atlanta, the highest ranked in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16 is Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), a university with very high research activity and close ties to the industrial world.

10. Baltimore


Located in the north-east of the US, Baltimore is ranked 71st in the Best Student Cities index and is the largest city in the state of Maryland. Known for being a major seaport, Baltimore is affectionately referred to as ‘Charm City’ and the ‘Land of Pleasant Living’, amongst other nicknames – and in recent years has become well-known as the setting for popular TV series The Wire. With a rich history, the city exhibits examples from each era of architecture over more than two centuries, including the Washington Monument. Among the top universities in Baltimore is Johns Hopkins University, which is ranked 16th in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16, and is famed as one of the best medical schools in the world. Just outside the city center is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is also ranked at international level.

11. San Diego

San Diego

The last (but not least) in our list of the best cities in the US for students is another Californian option, located on the south-west coast, close to the border with Mexico. With attractive beaches and numerous tourist attractions, San Diego has been given the nickname ‘America's Finest City’. Ranking at 72nd as another new entry in the Best Student Cities index this year, it’s also often featured in lists of the safest cities in the US, and like Los Angeles, is known for having excellent weather all year round. There are many universities and private colleges in San Diego, three of which rank within the top 800 in the QS World University Rankings® 2015/16. The presence of the University of California, San Diego and other research institutions has helped to fuel biotechnology growth in the city.

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