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12.06.09

Smartest (and Dumbest) College Towns

With college bowl season kicking off last night, The Daily Beast crunched the numbers to determine a more prestigious champion: the smartest college town in America. Where does yours rank?

Charlottesville, Cambridge, Chapel Hill… the very idea of a college town conjures everything good and right about American brainpower. The best and brightest young minds learning from the wisest, in small cities where the No. 1 product is knowledge.

But just as the next few weeks will use football to teach an important lesson—only one team can ultimately win, though many can play with honor—we thought we’d try to quantify which of America’s college towns is in fact the smartest.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of America's Smartest (and Dumbest) College Towns

Note that this is a different exercise than merely measuring the smartest schools. While part of the brainpower in any city is the student body, and their fresh ideas, just as much lies in the permanent population—professors and administrators and locals drawn to the atmosphere. Without the town, there can be no gown, and vice versa.

“The relationship is not without tension, but both realize that they are bound together,” says Ann Arbor City Council member Christopher Taylor, who holds four degrees from the University of Michigan.

So the first question for this exercise: What is a college town? For us, it’s a place where the college or colleges define the community. Thus, cities like Austin and Columbus and Boston, which are well-known college hosts, but also large economic and political capitals, don’t make the cut. On the reverse end, we avoided extremely small towns like Hanover, New Hampshire, and Oxford, Mississippi, where the entire village feels like an extended campus. Too much gown, not enough town. Our population minimum: 25,000, using 2008 Census data.

After choosing 25 well-known college towns that meet our benchmarks, we ranked them, using four criteria.

  • Bachelor’s degrees per capita for the over-25 population: this measured the relative education of permanent residents.
  • Graduate degrees per capita for the over-25 population: similar to above, but more stratified.
  • Median SAT score for the town’s student population.
  • Voter turnout in the 2008 election: political engagement, whether left or right, has repeatedly correlated with higher intelligence; our one criteria that measures behavior, rather than achievement.

Each category was ranked and weighted equally, with more points given for the best and fewer points for the worst, and then tallied. The result is a ranking of 25 that has nothing to do with basketball or football. Just like college, while all of these towns are among the elite, we also handed out grades. And as with your strict history professor, we did so on a curve: the top 20 percent got As, the next 40 percent got Bs, the following 20 percent got Cs, and then the bottom fifth got Ds, with the exception of the very last town, which got an F.

So who is the smartest of the smart? And who needs to hit the books? Click here for the exclusive rankings.

Clark Merrefield was the chief researcher for this ranking.