Ithaca ranks as best college town for third year in a row

National ranking site Livability highlights resources, culture


In October, Livability, the online website famous for its annual rankings of best places to live, announced the release of its 2019 10 Best College Towns in America list, and Ithaca was at the top for the third year in a row.

“Those who do live here are well aware of the wonderful things about this community and this region, so I think that what this kind of news does is help make people who are outside of this region and outside the state and elsewhere aware of the wonderful things that are happening in our communities,” said David Maley, director of public relations at Ithaca College.

Susan Riley, deputy director of community relations at Cornell University, echoed that sentiment.

“Ithaca often gets cited for being a great college town,” Riley said. “The quality of life here is strong. Even though the city and surrounding area is small, there is always something to do.”

The best college town list, now in its ninth year, is produced in partnership with ABODO Apartments, an off-campus and young professional apartment search engine, according to a recent press release. The rankings focused on quality of life, local economy and diversity, featuring institutions from large to small, public to private.

Winona Dimeo-Ediger, editor-in-chief for Livability, said the site looks beyond the college campuses to create a full-picture view of what it’s like to live and study in that city.

“Colleges and college campuses are really important and can definitely be a microcosm of a place, but I think they’re really just one piece of the puzzle that make these places really special,” she said. “It’s really more about how the community at large interacts with and supports and is supported by the college and how that makes it a great place to live for everybody, not just students.”

Ithaca has been at the top slot on the list for the past three years, and Jennifer Tavares, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, said Livability’s ranking is a great way to show potential visitors what a great place Ithaca is to be.

“It’s something we can try to leverage and share more broadly,” Tavares said. “A lot of people are drawn to communities that also have colleges because they know … that all those other things from an economic perspective and from a community and quality of life perspective are also going to be enriched by having the colleges there.”

Getting to the top of the list is no easy task. The process of creating the list uses a lot of data, which Livability explained in its October announcement.

“To determine the 10 best college towns in the country, Livability first found all U.S. cities with a population between 20,000 and 350,000 and at least one college campus,” according to the press release. “We formed this list by cross-referencing 2019 city population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, with data from the U.S. Department of Education on all college campuses in the U.S. by city.”

From the resulting 223 cities, each was ranked based on four weighted factors: the ratio of the city’s median salary to its September 2019 median one-bedroom rent (30%), the percentage of the population that is aged 20 to 29 (30%), the number of jobs in the education sector per 1,000 jobs in the city (20%) and the ratio of the median salary in the city to the nation for education jobs (20%).

ADOBO collects this data and provides the resulting rankings, so Livability doesn’t receive a report on how cities graded in the categories.

Dimeo-Ediger said that, in her experience researching and talking to people from Ithaca, it’s clear that there are a few big sellers that put Ithaca on top: the natural resources, the quality of education in the city and the culture created by collaboration between the colleges and between the colleges and the rest of the city.

When it comes to natural resources, Dimeo-Ediger said she’s never seen anything quite like Ithaca. Parks, waterfalls and green spaces abound and are all easily accessible to students and other Ithacans.

“You guys are special in this regard just in terms of the integration of those natural resources and amenities with the urban life thing, like the way that there are waterfalls in the middle of town and the way that it’s really, really easy to take advantage of all the really cool natural amenities that you have,” she said.

Collaboration between Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College was cited by all those interviewed as another big reason Ithaca ranked highly. The three institutions often work together on academic programs and events, and that helps create a nice blend of culture in the area, Maley said.

“We all have different primary audiences and primary student bodies,” Maley said. “It’s wonderful that we can complement one another in the kinds of offerings that we have and the kinds of people that we attract, and as a whole, that helps make this community greater and more livable.”

Deb Mohlenhoff, director of community outreach and engagement at TC3, said this collaboration can also be attributed to college leadership across the board.

“What is really cool about our institutions is we all have brand-new presidents, and they all happen to be female, and two of them are women of color,” she said. “What has been really great is to see not only their friendship with each other develop … [but also] the three of them having that relationship with each other has made our colleges a lot more open to really creative collaboration and partnership.”

On top of that, the colleges in the area often interact with local, non-college institutions, helping to create that full-package aspect Livability cited in its description of Ithaca, Dimeo-Ediger said.

One thing that doesn’t factor into the rating is cost, so even though private institutions like IC and Cornell drive up the average cost of attending college in the city, Livability is more focused on the environment and lifestyle created by the colleges in the city.

Tavares and others all said they’re looking forward to the future, continuing to create a city that is vibrant both on and off campus by furthering collaboration and coordination between the colleges and the rest of the city.

“When you really take a step back and look at all of that together, what you see is a community that has a lot of pride,” Tavares said. “You see a community that wants to capture new opportunities and new investments, and you see a community that believes in its future.”


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