“You can live in a city any other time,” said the tour guide who led me and a small army of parents and prospective students around the campus of UMass-Amherst. She had chosen the home state university in a college town over Boston University or Northeastern University, and probably saved herself and her parents over $100,000 towards a liberal arts degree. 

The prospect of spending four years in Amherst, a very nice college town that’s not far from Hartford or Boston, gets more attractive when you venture off campus into the community. I have been to Amherst a few times in my work life. I like the downtown. It’s very livable with many affordable places to eat with nice parks and little pedestrian congestion. But I had never visited the state university for more than a meeting. This was one time that I found the campus less impressive than the surrounding community. Other times it’s the reverse with a state university though there are places such as Chapel Hill, Madison, Oxford (OH) and State College (PA) where town and campus blend nicely together. 

Had I gone to UMass-Amherst as a father ferrying a son or daughter around to campuses from home in New Jersey, I might have walked around the campus and thought: “What’s wrong with Rutgers? This isn’t any nicer.”

But had I listened to the tour guide, who encouraged our group to go into town, I might have nodded after a nice walk and lunch or dinner there. I would have sold a school short, based on the appearance of its campus. Amherst, Massachusetts is a nicer college town than New Brunswick, New Jersey. It has a nice selection of eating, drinking and shopping options, and is quite pedestrian and transit friendly.  

Whenever you have a choice of schools, consider the college town as well as the campus. That’s especially true when large state universities are on your list. While UMass-Amherst is the rare state school that can house the majority of its undergraduates, most accommodate far less.

Even some of the most selective state universities such as UC-Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Michigan, Penn State-University Park and the University of Wisconsin-Madison do not house more than a third of them. They cannot assure housing after the freshman year. If you know in advance that your son or daughter could be moving off campus as early as their sophomore year, you will also want to know if housing is affordable, close enough to campus  and the downtown and located in a neighborhood where you and s/he will feel comfortable signing a lease. 

Housing is not the only consideration. A nice college town offers different opportunities for different students. Tastes and budgets for food and clothes are not the same for everyone. Most college students have not turned 21. You might want to know if there are entertainment options that do not include alcohol. If religion is important in child’s life, check out the churches,  too. Too often I see college communities that have no relationship to the college in town. They offer neither shopping nor dining and entertainment options that attract college students. I have also learned that students who are not used to being in an isolated college town can get bored and restless quickly. 

It’s easy to run into a happy tour guide when you visit a college campus. I’ve yet to visit a college that didn’t have them. As you listen to your guide tell you what makes him or her happy about their school, ask your son or daughter to think about what will make them happy. For some a beautiful campus will be important when the education is also within your budget. For others the community will be important, especially when it’s a large city or a college town that supports a large school. But don’t sell a college short until you consider both. 

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