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Which Top Public College Towns Have the Highest (and Lowest) Cost of Living?

Class of 2028, have y’all decided where to spend your next four years?! Ivy day was three weeks ago, when Ivy league schools and some other top universities announce admission results for regular decision, which also indicates that all schools should have released their admission results by then. Whether it was happiness or disappointment, the clock is ticking, and life must go on. College life is not only about studying and partying, but also the first time for many young adults to live on their own, whether in dorms or in apartments. Likewise, tuition is not the only concern that factors into college decision, cost of living matters as well.

To help ease the process, let’s look at COLI’s 2023 Annual Average data. We selected three items: apartment rent, total energy, and coffee to construct a college decision index. Apartment rent and energy bill are crucial as public universities typically do not have enough dorms to supply every student to live on-campus. Also, living on campus does not necessarily mean cheaper, so why not live off-campus with similar price but bigger space? Coffee, on the other hand, is absolutely needed to get through college!

According to 2024 US News Top Public Universities, the top 10 universities are listed in the chart below. Some universities are located within the metropolitan statistical area we collect, and some are not. Thus, we selected the closest cities that are within COLI’s collection region and ranked them according to the constructed index.

US News Ranking


COLI Index Score

Urban Area

and State

1 (tie)


Oakland, CA

1 (tie)


Los Angeles, CA



Detroit, MI



Chapel Hill, NC



Charlottesville, VA

6 (tie)


Sacramento, CA

6 (tie)


San Diego, CA

6 (tie)


Jacksonville, FL



Austin, TX

10 (tie)


Atlanta, GA

10 (tie)


Orange County, CA

This chart can only serve as a guidance as COLI did not collect prices for Davis, CA, Gainesville, FL and Anna Arbor, MI in 2023. UC Berkeley remains at the top of the list for cost of living, followed by other UC buddies. However, receiving high quality education does not necessarily imply higher living expenses. Three of the top five schools are relatively affordable compared to the national average. Plus, you get to experience seasonal changes (sometimes within a day) in those cities. While California is definitely not a cheap state to live in, you get sunny weather for over two thirds of the year in parts of the state, which saves you money from getting heavy winter jackets. Does that sound like a nice trade-off to you?