In 2000, Montana State University in Bozeman enrolled 11,760 students. This fall, the student population is breaking enrollment records with 15,717 total students on campus. However, that net increase of 3,957 students doesn’t explain what’s happening in Bozeman.
This stunning valley that once supported miners and cattle ranchers heading west has grown by almost 30,000 people since 2000, more than doubling its population as Montana itself grows faster than nearly every other state in the U.S.
The trend comes at a time of overall decline in college enrollments and concern over the fate of many college towns in America. Yet we found that some towns are thriving and growing. At its current rate, Bozeman is set to add nearly the equivalent of another student body to its population by 2030 as the city plays host to 72,307 residents.
College towns have always been appealing places to live, thanks to the educational opportunities to festivals, parades, lectures, and cultural offerings. And even before the COVID-19 retirement boom sent many seniors (the other kind) to these cultural oases, the moves had begun.
While some college towns worry about their future, check out these thriving towns. By either becoming an oasis in their regions or capitalizing on regional prosperity to grow, these college towns have found the secret recipe to success.
#1 Bozeman, MT, is the fastest-growing U.S. college town. With a compound annual growth rate of 3.19%, its population could top 135,000 residents by 2050.
Prosperity among three cities in the Texas Hill Country is creating buzz — but the original Research Triangle area of North Carolina is giving it a run for its money, showing strong growth.
The South is rising again: three of the top 10 fastest-growing towns are in Texas, with towns in North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi also making the top ten.
Small cities dominate large growth: the country’s only large city on our top-25 list, Austin, still comes in at under one million residents.
Big Sky, Big Population Gains in Bozeman
Unless you’re looking to whisper to horses, fly fish in the river that runs through it, or ski big sky country, Bozeman may not be on your radar. But its outdoor charms have captured the attention of plenty of outdoor adventurers, former city-dwellers, and retirees. It’s added up to significant population increases over the past 20 years, with more to come.
Amidst the exodus from the nation’s cities, Bozeman is emerging as a winner.
Of course, it is. A liveable city that’s a common base camp for nearby Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman comes with its own vibrant joie de vivre. It’s got a farmer’s market, fossil hikes, free theater productions in the park, and a litany of lectures from visiting scholars.
While it doesn’t represent the biggest population increase of any college town from 2000 to 2023, it does represent the largest jump from its original population.
In 2000, Bozeman was roughly the size of Monterey, California, or Juneau, Alaska. But by 2050, the city may look more like Hollywood, Florida (at least as far as population is concerned).
Texas and North Carolina Regional Power Fuels College Town Growth
States like Montana are seeing an influx of newcomers drawn to the cultural oases that college towns provide. New residents seem to identify hot regions where they want to live, and the area’s college towns prosper, regardless of the university itself and its enrollment growth.
Take Texas’ Hill Country: with San Marcos, Austin, and College Station all in the top 25, these collegiate strongholds benefit from an influx of new residents eager to enjoy a good football game and an existing mix of music, culture, and young energy.
On the highway between Austin and San Antonio, San Marcos lies adjacent to many fast-growing cities like New Braunfels extending from urban centers into what was once the Texas backcountry. San Marcos was named one of the “Best Places to Raise Your Kids” in 2010 and one of the “Best Places to Retire” in 2015. Other accolades like the “Most Romantic Main Street in America” and the “Second Best River for Tubing” prove it’s on the radar of people who have long forgotten their SAT scores.
Even if you’re not an Aggie, Bobcat, or Longhorn, you’ll find plenty to do in the booming college towns in this triangle. But North Carolina did it first: the original “Research Triangle” of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill still has some of the most considerable growth numbers among college towns. Together, #10 Raleigh and #14 Durham have added more than 282,000 people to their towns since 2000.
Southern Hospitality and Smaller Cities Win Big
The top 25 fastest-growing college towns have four showings from Texas and four from North Carolina. Almost half, 12 of the top 25, are in the South (including Texas). And all 25 boast populations under a million residents.
As America trends, so do college towns.
After all, the Ivory Tower set apart from the rest of the culture, was always a myth. Instead, most college towns that are the fastest growing are set in popular states and regions that are also popular. While one town in Indiana, one in Connecticut, and one in Wisconsin scored in the top 25, no other college towns in the Midwest or Northeast made the list.
With mild weather and thriving economies, it’s not #7 Cullowhee, NC, or #2 Oxford, MS, that’s on people’s minds—it’s a region that’s in high-growth mode as the country’s priorities shift Southward toward small towns with more amenities.
Other fast-growing college towns that fit this mold find their small size and high quality of life have made them recent “winners” in the growth lottery. Residents in #1 Bozeman, MT, have called the recent population explosion a “tsunami.” #3 Cedar City, UT, is running out of water fast. But with its Shakespeare Festival and proximity to Utah’s most incredible natural wonders, like Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, new residents keep coming.
Ranking all 150 College Towns
Looking at all 150 college towns considered for this study, we definitely see a continuation of national trends, showing regions in the Rust Belt and North East continuing to decline in population, while Southern and Western towns continue to grow.
A Hail Mary for Notre Dame and Other Outliers?
Although most cities on our list were superstars in declining states or beneficiaries of regional growth, one example stands out for not fitting the mold.
Almost coming in #1 on our list is tiny Notre Dame, Indiana. Because its metro area of South Bend is in decline, it’s an anomaly that doesn’t truly live up to the growth within its zip code limits. But what’s happening here is crucial since it points to the spark of the potential of other college towns in down-on-their-luck regions.
Once the home of presidential candidate and former mayor Pete Buttigieg, South Bend has become a lightning rod for the problems and promise of the Midwest. But an enclave within the city is bucking the trend. First, its primary university thrives as it increases enrollment, offsetting the declines in industry that mark the rust belt and bringing in new businesses with resources like Notre Dame’s 80,000-square-foot startup incubator and “collision space.”
In regions without much growth, college towns with successful, expanding colleges can serve as beacons for economic activity, luring new residents and creating new economic oases. That’s been true for Princeton and could apply to outliers in our analysis like Notre Dame.
While regional growth slows, all college towns can potentially maintain greater success than the surrounding areas because of their academic prowess and the benefits they contribute to the local community.
Growing College Towns Benefit Students
Bozeman and other winning college towns are riding a wave of remote work and retirement that’s allowed small cities with tons of amenities to top new residents’ lists of amazing places to live.
The trend is so strong that in Texas, an educational mega-region is emerging, spurred on by an overall population boom that spread to the area’s college towns.
One thing’s for sure: all these college towns have found ways to grow and thrive beyond simply adding more students.
And that means more burger joints, theaters, music venues, startup incubators, and opportunities for incoming students. So if you’re looking for a vibrant town to call home for four years, you can’t do much better than these fast-growing college towns.
We analyzed 150 U.S. cities with at least one major public or private university, comparing their U.S. census population in 2000, 2010, 2020, and 2023.
We calculated the percentage and compound annual growth rates (CAGR) from raw population change to determine which cities are growing the fastest. The final list ranked college towns by their CAGR, with the highest rate towns taking the top prizes.
132 of the 151 total towns had a positive growth rate, but the totals ranged from 3.19% for #1 Bozeman to -2.15% (for Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine).
Princeton, NJ had the top growth rate, but that was because of a 2013 merger of the Princeton Borough and Township.