The location of a school can have a big impact on your experience as a student. It’s important to be aware of your preferences and make sure you choose a college that lines up with what will make you happiest.
In this article, I’ll give you some details on the characteristics of rural, urban, and suburban college environments so that you can decide which one sounds like the best fit for you.
What Is a Rural College Environment Like?
Rural colleges are colleges that are located in the country, often with access to wilderness areas and farms. Generally, a college is considered rural if its campus is in a town with a population of less than 25,000 people. These schools can provide great outdoor learning opportunities in fields like environmental science and agriculture.
I attended Dartmouth College, which I would consider a rural school given its remote location in the small town of Hanover, NH. While there, I took a class called “Food and Power.” We got to go on a field trip to the organic farm that’s associated with the college and eat some delicious fresh asparagus. (Seriously, I didn’t know it was possible for asparagus to taste that good.) Students also had the opportunity to work on the farm and learn more about how food was grown, an experience that wouldn't be accessible in a city environment.
Usually at rural colleges there will still be a small town of some kind nearby so you can buy basic necessities that aren’t available on campus. Rural colleges tend to be far from any major city centers, although some do provide busing for students to cities that are within a reasonable distance (e.g. a couple of hours away). Rural college campuses are often very self-contained, meaning that not many students will live off campus because there aren’t enough options!
Most events will happen on campus since there are very few opportunities to go out to clubs or shows off-campus. For this reason, rural colleges will often bring free concerts and performances to their students. These can be pretty cool, and this state of affairs also means that you’ll spend a lot less money on going out with your friends. The scenery and activities available can vary immensely depending on where a rural college is located. Some are near mountains with great skiing and hiking and some might be near lakes or nice biking trails.
Examples of rural colleges include:
- Middlebury College
- Bucknell University
- Carleton College
Bucknell University in either the spring or fall. I can't tell which it is. All I know is that those trees are showing a LOT of branch.
Is a Rural College the Right Choice for You?
Rural colleges are great for students who love the outdoors and want to be a part of a tight-knit community. If you prefer to go for a hike or hang out with your friends in a quieter setting rather than spend a night out on the town, a rural college may be right up your alley. Rural colleges are ideal for those who prefer a friendly, relaxed atmosphere where they will mainly be interacting with other college students. If the idea of living on campus for most or all of your time in college and sticking to the same few reliable options for entertainment and food doesn’t bother you, then you’ll probably like the atmosphere at a rural college.
One drawback of this type of environment is that there might not be as many job or internship opportunities available in the immediate vicinity. However, this can also leave you more open to the possibility of traveling somewhere new and exciting for a summer internship or job rather than sticking around in the same area. Rural colleges will do their best to provide on-campus job opportunities for students who are interested.
Another thing to keep in mind is the transportation situation at rural colleges. If you don't have a car, it's going to be difficult for you to get off campus. This can feel a little bit claustrophobic at times. Many schools do provide busing or access to local transportation systems, but it's much less convenient to get around without a car at a rural college. If you don't have a car, you will probably end up knowing someone with a car, though; it's typically not a huge issue unless you're set on driving home every weekend.
What Is an Urban College Environment Like?
Urban colleges are located in large cities (typically with populations of 200,000 or more). The layouts of urban college campuses can vary immensely; some are more self-contained in their own little bubbles, and some are spread throughout the city. If a campus is more spread out, the college often offers specialized public transportation shuttles for students or will provide students with passes to use on the city’s public transportation systems. Urban college campuses are extremely variable depending on the city and neighborhood where they are located, so you'll need to visit the school and do some research before making too many assumptions about what the environment is actually like.
In many cases, urban campuses will offer off-campus learning opportunities in the form of internships and classes that allow students to interact with the surrounding community. Since urban campuses have such a close proximity to so many company headquarters and job opportunities, they can be great places to start your internship search and get your foot in the door career-wise.
Urban colleges will provide you with access to many off-campus entertainment options including museums, bars, clubs, concerts, movies, plays, and more. They also tend to attract a more diverse student body.
Examples of urban colleges include:
- New York University
- Northeastern University
Is an Urban College the Right Choice for You?
If you’re all about being in an exciting setting with lots of events and diverse people, an urban college might be the place for you. Since students from a variety of different backgrounds tend to be drawn to schools in big cities, urban colleges usually have a less homogeneous student body than rural colleges. Urban colleges are good environments for outgoing students who like to explore and interact with all different types of people and cultures. There will always be something going on in the surrounding city, and you’ll be able to access pretty much any activity that interests you because of the breadth of experiences available. It’s likely that there will also be other college campuses nearby, so you might have more opportunities to meet and interact with students from other colleges.
Overall, it's much easier to get around at urban colleges because you'll usually have access to a robust public transportation system. People will be able to visit you even if they don't have cars because of your central location. If you do have a car, you may run into some issues at an urban college because cars often become largely unnecessary, and it can be expensive to park.
If you’re hoping to live off campus and get more of a taste of adult life in college, an urban college might be a good choice. You’ll have tons of choices for where you want to live as an upperclassman. Keep in mind, however, that you could still run into cost issues, especially in larger cities (looking at you, New York). High housing prices can limit your choices and make dorm life a more realistic option. At an urban college, you also won’t be stuck with the school’s dining options or the limited number of restaurants that might be available at a college in a small town.
If there’s a certain city that is a hot spot for a career field that interests you, you might consider attending an urban college in the area to do some networking. It's easier to make connections when you can meet up with potential employers face to face.
What Is a Suburban College Environment Like?
A suburban college is a college that’s located somewhere between the rural and urban college environment. These colleges may be in small cities, large towns, or residential areas near large cities with populations that number between 25,000 and 200,000. Suburban colleges will offer some of the qualities of both urban and rural schools depending on their proximity to cities and the layout of their campuses.
Suburban college campuses tend to be self-contained like rural colleges, fostering a sense of community amongst students. However, students at suburban colleges will have more options for activities off campus in the surrounding area. Suburban campuses often provide students with access to both outdoor activities similar to those found at rural colleges and urban entertainment options such as the museums, concerts, and clubs mentioned above.
In many cases, suburban colleges have strong ties to the towns in which they are located, meaning student discounts at local venues as well as more job and internship opportunities. Local transportation is often provided to students for easy access to activities in the area, but it may be less directly accessible than at urban schools. It can be useful to have a car at a suburban college, but it's usually not necessary for getting off campus.
Examples of suburban colleges include:
- Pomona College
- University of Virginia
- Tufts University
Pomona College, where you can't be sad unless you don't ever look outside.
Is a Suburban College the Right Choice for You?
If different aspects of both rural and urban colleges appeal to you, then the suburban college life might be a good fit. You may like being in the city to a certain degree, but you want to be able to get away that atmosphere sometimes and enjoy nature. Suburban colleges will give you many choices for how you want to spend your time outside of class.
If you want to get off campus you can, but you can also choose to stay within the college bubble if that’s what makes you feel more comfortable. Depending on location, suburban colleges may offer more access to off-campus housing options for students. If you’re interested in living off-campus without being in the middle of a big, intimidating city, a suburban college could be a great choice.
Location and environment are very important factors to consider when choosing a college. Depending on your personality, you might be happier at a rural, urban, or suburban school. Rural campuses are great for students who want to experience the outdoors far from the hustle and bustle of city life and be a part of a very independent college community. Urban campuses might be a better fit for students who love to go out on the town, experience a wide variety of cultural events, and meet lots of new people outside of those who attend their same school. Suburban campuses present a mixture of both environments; if aspects of both rural and suburban colleges appeal to you, a suburban college might be the way to go.
Remember that this is just one factor that you should think about in your college search! Read my guide on how to choose a college to help you start brainstorming your preferences and researching schools.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.