Why Boulder and Fort Collins Took a Dive in Best College Towns Rankings

Additional photos and more below.
Additional photos and more below. File photo by Brandon Marshall
When it comes to rankings of the best college towns and cities in America, we've come to expect that Boulder and Fort Collins will wind up near the top.

Note that Boulder finished first in two separate 2014 surveys — one by SmartAsset, the other courtesy of Best College Reviews — with Fort Collins winding up in tenth and fourteenth place, respectively.

So it comes as something of a shock to discover that in WalletHub's new report about "2016's Best and Worst College Towns & Cities in America," neither Boulder nor Fort Collins reached the top forty — and they landed only a little higher than Denver, which seldom shows up at all on studies of the best college communities.

A list of the hundred highest scorers can be found on page two of this post.

click to enlarge Downtown Boulder. - YOUTUBE FILE PHOTO
Downtown Boulder.
YouTube file photo
Granted, all three Colorado places did better in their respective sub-categories. Denver came in eleventh among large cities (defined as places with populations of 300,000 or more), while Fort Collins was the ninth-best midsized college city (populations of between 125,000 and 300,000). But Boulder only managed to get to number 33 in the small (under 125,000) city division, behind such places as West Lafayette, Indiana, Iowa City, Iowa, Provo, Utah and Laramie, Wyoming.

To find out the reasons that Boulder and Fort Collins had such mediocre performances and Denver's was better than anticipated, we reached out to WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez.

According to Gonzalez, Boulder was downgraded significantly in the WalletHub report because of how expensive it is.

"Boulder ranked below average for the WalletFitness category due to its higher cost of living for young people, with a COL index of 128.14, which ranked 356th for this specific metric," Gonzalez notes via e-mail. "The city also has a fairly high cost of housing, with an average of $1,240 to rent a two-bedroom apartment per month."

click to enlarge Pedaling in Fort Collins. - YOUTUBE FILE PHOTO
Pedaling in Fort Collins.
YouTube file photo
These weren't the only drags on Boulder, Gonzalez adds: "Housing costs, food costs and earning potential for bachelor's degree holders are also factors that influenced Boulder's overall ranking."

In previous surveys, the bankroll size required to live comfortably in Boulder was typically offset by other considerations, including the city's much-lauded social environment. But even by this standard, Boulder fell shorter than expected in the eyes of the WalletHub crew despite some prominent attributes.

"Boulder ranked thirteenth for the social-environment category, with the highest number of cafes and breweries per capita," Gonzalez allows. "The city also has a high number of nightlife options, shopping centers and attractions."

As for Fort Collins, Gonzalez reveals that it "ranked highest in the Academic & Economic Opportunities category, 60th. The city has a high percentage of part-time jobs at 50 percent and a low unemployment rate at 3.2 percent."

click to enlarge Denver. - YOUTUBE FILE PHOTO
YouTube file photo
Meanwhile, Denver "ranked the highest in the social-environment category, 55th, with a high number of nightlife options, cafes, breweries and attractions," Gonzalez points out.

To fill out the rest of the details, WalletHub provided us with data sets for Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver in a slew of categories. Below, we've shared fifteen of them: housing costs, adjusted cost of living for young people, average monthly fitness-club fee, percentage of rental units, cost of higher education, number of students per 100,000 residents, percentage of the population between the ages of eighteen and 35, number of nightlife options per 100,000 residents, number of cafes per 100,000 residents, number of breweries per 100,000 residents, number of sports clubs per 100,000 residents, number of festivals per capita, the earning potential for college graduates, the unemployment rate and the communities' brain drain.

Taken as a whole, this information produces portraits of Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver as college towns — ones that the folks at WalletHub feel aren't as outstanding as have other survey-takers in the past.

Continue to see where Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver finished among the top 100 college towns or cities and data for each in fifteen categories.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts