The Ramen Index: Best Cities for College Students to Thrive on a Budget

For generations, college student budgets have meant scoring free pizza from campus clubs and amassing a tree-lawn chic assortment of furniture at the end of finals week.

The Ramen Index: Best Cities for College Students to Thrive on a Budget

With inflation at a 40-year high and public college costs nearly tripling over the last 20 years, more college students than ever are thinking about how they’ll pinch pennies before they even arrive on campus — and which cities are the most economical to call home for the next four (or more) years.

We wanted to help.

To combat rising national prices, we looked for the cities with the best combination of low costs on and off-campus. After all, it doesn’t matter if tuition is cheap when you can’t afford rent and few jobs are waiting for new grads. 

We wanted to find out where students can immerse themselves in a vibrant student scene, pay for it, collect their degrees, and start buying the kind of cereal that comes in a box, not a bag. And we found that in some cities, that Gen X dream is still going strong.

Here are the best places to thrive on a ramen budget and still get the most out of your college experience.

Big Takeaways

  • #1 Manhattan, Kansas is the best city to thrive on a ramen budget. The Little Apple combines low rent and tuition costs with a bar-lined, walkable downtown ideal for students.

  • You’ve got friends in #3 State College, Pennsylvania, where 46% of the population is in their 20s, and 78% are single and ready to mingle.

  • University of Berkeley students are walking to class. Though the Golden State is not known for affordability, Berkeley makes #18 on the list for its impressive walk + bike score, meaning what students save on Golden State gas prices they can put toward the higher cost of living.

  • Your wallet loves Wisconsin. It’s the overall budget-friendliest state, with 4 cities landing in the top 25. Next in line: Michigan and Illinois, with 3 cities apiece. 

  • The most affordable city in the top 25 is Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with a trifecta of low rent, cost of living, and tuition rates.

How We Found the Best Cities for Broke Students

To determine which cities are best to stretch the dollars that students have left after renting their textbooks, we analyzed over 1,000 American cities with the following criteria:

Where do Young Singles Reign Supreme? 

It’s easier to get by on a budget when everyone in town is in the same boat. Our demographic score ranks cities with a high concentration of 20-somethings and the percent that’s single (never married), so students have plenty of opportunities to host a free game night, meet people, and socialize without the pressure to spend.

  1. Which Cities Boast All-Around Affordability?

We scored cities according to the average tuition of every college in the city, plus the cost of living index and the median monthly rent, to keep a lid on all the costs that could tank your bank account before the semester runs out.

  1. Where Can Students Find a Good Time and a Great Future?

Eating, living, and studying are the basics. But student life should include some extras, like a post-game beer at the local bar, a weekend stroll to the market, and a challenging internship that gets your foot in the door. We looked at the density of bars in the area, the city’s walk and bike score, and the city’s unemployment rate for an overall “fun and opportunity” rating.

Read more about our methodology.

The Overall Winners: It’s Time to Sing ‘On, Wisconsin’

While there are standouts across the U.S., the midwest is best at combining student vibes with affordable prices and employment opportunities — 14 of the top 25 are in midwestern states. Wisconsin has four top contenders, while Michigan and Illinois each have three. 

With Michigan’s 93 colleges, Wisconsin’s 85, and Illinois’ whopping 184, it’s no wonder these educational powerhouses have lots of experience accommodating students into their towns and rental economies. They’re all known for their raucous Big Ten sports fans, but their large research schools also bring waves of innovation and industry to the region, where newly minted grads can find lucrative future careers.

While the regional pattern of affordable college towns extends to many states, Manhattan, Kansas, the hometown of Kansas State University, brings home the win. Lawrence, Kansas comes in second.

Manhattan has already been named one of the most livable college towns, and resident Wildcats aren’t hurting for affordable entertainment here. They can pick up a free green bike, cruise the Aggieville shopping district, or hit the hiking trails at Konza Prairie. After burning all those calories, they can splurge on a Fruity Pebbles doughnut to remind themselves what eating in college is all about.

Regardless of region, many top contenders are college towns — cities where the demographics skew young and breweries seem to outnumber retirees. 

At the bottom of the list, towns like #23 Logan, UT host student populations that dwarf the size of their cities, making them standout sports for student traditions even when they don’t dominate other categories. In Logan, you can angle for a kiss under the Aggie “A” on “A Day.” 

In #24 Oshkosh, WI, you can check out some chilly ice sculpting at the University of Wisconsin’s winter carnival. In #25, Cleveland, TN, Christian Lee University students can grab some barbeque and listen to bluegrass bands every summer to immerse themselves in their new local culture.

Finally, we thought #18 Berkeley, CA, was a noteworthy outlier. After all, this west coast giant may not seem like a cost-busting contender. After all, it’s part of the San Francisco-Berkeley-Oakland metropolitan area, notoriously the most expensive in the country. In Berkeley, student housing is in high demand, and pricy, off-campus rentals are the norm. But the city tops every other college locale for its stellar walk & bike score, which offers some wiggle room for students looking to offload their car, gas, and insurance costs in exchange for a California lifestyle.

Wallet-Friendly Winners

If the weight of your piggy bank is your top concern, head down to Mississippi’s Hub City, #21 Hattiesburg, the top-25 city with the highest overall affordability score. The home of the Mississippi State University Golden Eagles outshines 24 of the top 25 cities for tuition affordability, with an average college tuition of $3394.17. 

After writing that enrollment check, paying for food and other essentials won’t break the bank in this southern gem either. Living costs in Hattiesburg are around 15% below the national average, and an apartment will set you back $808 monthly. That’s a bargain even when compared to other list-toppers (#18 Berkeley students find the same accommodations cost $1,767 per month). 

Looking for the lowest tuition? Students in #2 Lawrence, Kansas pay an average of just $1,669.00 for their classes each year (Compare that to the highest tuition in the top 25, #5 Blacksburg, VA, where classes come with a $23,321.00 annual price tag). 

They’ve Got Spirit, Yes They Do

Students should have a fantastic college experience no matter what their bank accounts look like, so we considered the things in a city’s environment that build fun and community. From plenty of young singles and bars to a walkable city with lots of jobs, we wanted to know where the good life was available to all.

A prime example is #3 State College, Pennsylvania, where the nearly 46,000 students make for the highest ratio of single 20-somethings in the nation. Find a date at the tailgating parties that precede Nittany Lions’ games, while grabbing cheap slices at Canyon Pizza, or by sharing bargain pitchers at the Phyrst. State College’s vast Greek presence also means tons of social opportunities both on and off-campus.

Other towns near the top of the list are also demographic student meccas, with #4 Provo, UT, #5 Blacksburg, VA, #7 Gainesville, FL, #13 Bloomington, IN, and #14 Carbondale, IL all using their mighty student populations to turn downtown neighborhoods into student villages. All these cities are alive with everything from affordable food cart grub to parades, pub crawls, and even that guy from your calc class in a bear costume. 

#9 Ann Arbor, Michigan and #12 College Station, TX are also bursting with enough community spirit to fill a stadium. The University of Michigan and Texas A&M make up large portions of the surrounding towns, so hanging out in a sea of school colors on game day is the norm, and plenty of nearby restaurants and bars cater to college crowds. Bonus: if you’re really broke in College Station, the Blue Baker restaurant will give you a free meal if you come dressed head to toe in blue.

For those looking for some year-round sunshine, #7 Gainesville, Florida is home to the University of Florida. Show off your Gator pride at home games at “The Swamp” and head to a local hangout for live music. With balmy nights and lots of nearby recreation, you’ll find a great college atmosphere to soak up that doesn’t cost a dime.

The Full Package? It’s Your Personal Best Place

College is what you make of it. So while some of the best college towns in America can offer up a smorgasbord of festivals and sports events on the cheap, you won’t enjoy them if you’re too busy sleeping in the library. Everyone’s experience is unique, and your interests should drive your decision, regardless of your budget. 

You could find yourself learning to sculpt ice or check out a great tailgating party on game day — or you could wind up longing for a care package full of Pop-Tarts and checking out the reservoirs of vending machines (just in case). If you’re a broke college student, you’ll probably discover you’re doing all those things. It’s just part of the experience.

Some towns have more resources for broke college students (and better buy-nothing groups). But if you make the best decisions for yourself, you’ll thrive no matter where you land.


Methodology

We analyzed 1,000 top cities in the U.S. across 3 key categories and 8 key factors.

Cities & Population (2021 Estimates). Census

Student Demographics

● Percent of the population in their 20s (2021 Estimates). Census

● Percent of the population never married (2021 Estimates). Census

Affordability

● Cost of living index. AdvisorSmith

● Average college tuition. Kaggle, various

● Median rent vs national ratio. Zillow

Fun & Opportunity

● Density of bars. Google Maps

● Unemployment rate. US Bureau of Labor Statistics

● Walk and bike score. Walkscore

Scoring 

We scored each factor with an equal-weighted score (where 10 is the highest score). We then averaged the factor scores within each of the three categories listed above to find each individual category score. Then, we normalized the category score so that the highest-scoring MSA within each category received a high score of 10 (the highest score). 

The final score was calculated by averaging the score of the 3 categories, then normalized to produce the final score and ranking.