What Are the Fastest-Growing College Towns in the U.S.?

Posted August 29, 2013 by

For millions of Americans, heading off to college represents a rite of passage and a grand adventure. College towns are vital, exciting places full of smart people and big ideas.

Some publications, like University Business, have speculated that the meteoric rise of online degree programs eventually could bring an end to the college town as we know it. But for now, the American college town remains a central hub of learning where the school reigns as a driver of economic activity and cultural pursuits.

If you want to see where the populations of college towns are exploding with students and non-students alike, you need to follow the sun: Warm, sunny areas in the South and West dominate our list of America’s Fastest-Growing College Towns, mirroring a shift in overall population trends.

“College towns are so appealing because they combine the charm and livability of a small city with the sophistication and amenities of a much larger metropolitan area,” said population researcher Bert Sperling, founder of BestPlaces.net. “Cities with colleges and universities are healthier financially, because the local school provides a stable economic base when recessions hit. In fact, enrollment often increases when the job market tightens.”

SpareFoot compared the 2000 and 2010 populations of college towns to rank the 20 fastest-growing college towns in America. We selected only those towns with a main campus of a public four-year university and a city population bigger than 20,000; we didn’t include cities like Atlanta and Boston because although they’re home to major universities, their economies are more diversified than those of traditional college towns.

Here’s our list of America’s Fastest-Growing College Towns.

1. Raleigh, NC
North Carolina State University (ncsu.edu)
2012 campus enrollment: 25,176
2000-10 population growth rate: 46.29 percent
2010 population: 403,892
2000 population: 276,093


With its skyline and its more than 400,000 residents, the state capital offers a big-city college experience. It’s a high-tech hub–forming part of the famous Research Triangle—and a cultural mecca that, according to TripAdvisor.com, has been dubbed the “Smithsonian of the South” thanks to its many museums. It also offers symphony, ballet and opera performances. Students yearning for a change of scenery can hop in the car to go sunbathing at Atlantic Beach or hiking in the famously foggy Great Smoky Mountains. Mick Kulikowski, a North Carolina State University spokesman, said: “People here love the fact that we have beaches two hours west and mountains two hours east.”

2. College Station, TX
Texas A&M University (tamu.edu)
2012 campus enrollment: 49,861
2000-10 population growth rate: 38.25 percent
2010 population: 93,857
2000 population: 74,267

college station

College Station—nicknamed “Aggieland”—literally grew up around Texas A&M University, founded in 1876 and now one of the largest research institutions in the U.S. Located in central Texas, College Station is home to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Aggies take pride in customs such as wearing the Aggie ring, fielding football “yell leaders” instead of cheerleaders and uttering the official university greeting, “Howdy!” Pattie Sears, tourism director for the Bryan/College Station Convention and Visitors Bureau, said: “People come here and fall in love with our traditions and values.”

3. Las Cruces, NM
New Mexico State University (nmsu.edu)
2012 campus enrollment: 18,024
2000-10 population growth rate: 31.44 percent
2010 population: 97,615
2000 population: 74,267


Set in front of a backdrop of blue skies, cacti and three mountain ranges, Las Cruces—which means “the crosses” in Spanish—sits in the heart of the Mesilla Valley agricultural region. The city dubs itself “Land of the Peppers” for the many varieties—chili, cayenne, jalapeño and bell—that grow there. In contrast to its agricultural roots, the area also serves as a military and aerospace hub. Las Cruces is home to the Army’s White Sands Missile Range and to Virgin Galactic, a company that sells $250,000 seats on suborbital space flights so anyone can “become an astronaut.”

4. Gainesville, FL
University of Florida (ufl.edu)
2012 campus enrollment: 32,598
2000-10 population growth rate: 30.29 percent
2010 population: 124,354
2000 population: 95,447

university of florida

The University of Florida, one of the 10 largest universities in the country, is situated in sunny Gainesville. The north-central Florida city boasts lush greenery, from live oaks draped with Spanish moss to palm trees and dogwoods that bloom in spring. Downtown serves as a cultural center, with a pedestrian mall, a farmers’ market and a professional theater. Nearby Paynes Prairie, a 21,000-acre national landmark, is home to alligators, bison and more than 270 species of birds. The city is within two hours of Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

5. San Marcos, TX
Texas State University (txstate.edu)
2012 campus population: 34,225
2000-10 population growth rate: 29.25 percent
2010 population: 44,894
2000 population: 34,733

texas state university

This central Texas city offers the best of two worlds: a bucolic feel with a population close to 50,000 and a location half an hour south of the cultural mecca of Austin. Nicknamed “San Marvelous” by locals, the city is crisscrossed by creeks and the San Marcos River, where outdoor enthusiasts canoe, tube and snorkel. Restored vintage glass-bottom boats offer tours with glimpses of sunfish, catfish and turtles, according to Aquarena Springs, a former water theme park now owned by the university.  Continue reading . . .

By Holly Case

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