THE AMERICAN COLLEGE TOWNY
With their unusual densities of young people, highly educated workforces, com-
paratively cosmopolitan populations, dominant institutions of higher education, and char-
acteristic landscapes such as the campus, fraternity row, and college-oriented shopping district,
college towns represent a unique type of urban place. This study identifies several basic differ-
ences between college towns and other types of cities, considers why the college town is
largely an American phenomenon, distinguishes among types of college towns, and exam-
ines some of the characteristics that make them distinctive.
Keywords: college towns, higher
education, United States, urban geography.
literary critic Henry Seidel Canby once wrote, "Surely it is amazing that nei-
ther history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the
American college town, for surely it has had a character and a personality unlike
other towns" (1936,3). Nearly four decades later, Wilbur Zelinsky observed that the
social and cultural geography of college communities is "almost totally
(1973,136). Indeed, no major study of the college town has yet been published,
despite the prominent image such towns have in American culture and the impor-
tant role they have played in the lives of many Americans.'
In essence, the hundreds of college towns in the United States are an academic
archipelago: Similar to one another, they differ in several important ways from other
cities and the regions in which they are located. They are alike in their youthful and
comparatively diverse populations, their highly educated workforces, their relative
absence of heavy industry, and the presence in them of cultural opportunities more
typical of large cities. The attributes of the institutions located in college towns and
the people who live in them, furthermore, breed unusual landscapes-the campus,
fraternity row, the college-oriented shopping district (Figure I), the student ghetto,
This study fills a gap in the literature by presenting a concise portrait of the
college town in the United States. My goal is to demonstrate that the college town is
a unique type of urban place and thus deserves in-depth consideration by scholars
and others who are interested in the American experience.
This study considers as a college town any city where a college or university and the
cultures it creates exert a dominant influence over the character of the community.
This definition is deliberately imprecise because there is not a clear distinction be-
tween a college town and a city that is merely home to a college. They vary along a
The author thanks John Hudson, lo Lenardi, Peirce Lewis, John Lofland, Dave McBride, Bret Wallach, and Wilbur
Zelinksy, and the Graham Foundation, which provided funding.