When it comes to paying for college, tuition isn’t the only thing worth considering. One must also factor in housing, food, transportation, and entertainment, things a college or university cannot always provide. Fortunately, for those attending school in Michigan, there are plenty of affordable college towns for students to live in and enjoy.
Methodology for Michigan College Towns
To come up with the most affordable college towns in Michigan for 2020, our editors used Wikipedia to make a list of every college town in Michigan, then used Sperling’s Best Places to rank them on general affordability. To figure out which college towns are most affordable, we looked at costs for housing, food, healthcare, transportation, and utilities, and compared them to the national average. We also considered features like amenities, crime rates, public transportation, and overall quality of life before narrowing our list down to the 20 most affordable college towns in Michigan for 2020.
Ranking Your Best Michigan College Town Options
Cost of Living: 23.6% lower than the national average; 20.3% lower than the state average
Known as “Scotland, USA,” the small town of Alma is a long way from the big city, but for most students there, that’s the draw. Besides the college, the heart of Alma is its laid-back downtown, where students can find anything they’ll need by way of restaurants, coffee shops, and other amenities. Just as appealing is Alma’s low crime rate, making it a safe place for people of all ages to enjoy the outdoors and town at their own pace.
2. Sault Ste. Marie
Lake Superior State University, Sault College
Cost of Living: 22.9% lower than the national average; 19.6% lower than the state average
Located in the Upper Peninsula, Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie) is the oldest city in Michigan, and home to Lake Superior State University and Sault College. Residents living here aren’t likely to be bored. Soo, as it’s affectionately nicknamed, is named for the archaic French word meaning “waterfall,” and indeed, the water is a large part of life here. The Soo Locks, numerous inland lakes, and Lake Superior beaches make for all kinds of fun outdoor activities. For students of age, four casinos are located nearby, as are two interesting museums about the river and its important history.
3. Big Rapids
Ferris State University
Cost of Living: 18.8% lower than the national average; 15.5% lower than the state average
Home to Ferris State University, Big Rapids is a college town through and through. Like so many other places in Michigan, Big Rapids has plenty to offer residents who love the outdoors. The Muskegon River is a popular hangout during the warmer months. People tailgate, socialize, and go tubing along the flowing water. Other places to spend time outdoors include parks, Chippewa Lake, Rogers Dam, or the Haymarsh Lake State Game Area. The latter is Big Rapids’ preferred spot for deer hunting and target shooting.
Cost of Living: 18.1% lower than the national average; 14.8% lower than the state average
Despite Albion’s appearance on a number of lists touting the “worst college towns in America,” an Albion College newspaper article fiercely claims that the quality of the so-called “college town” has no effect on the Albion experience. And while it’s true the town itself may not cater to its student population the way other towns might, it’s also true that the college more than makes up for it in campus events and other social functions. And Albion is certainly affordable. A two-bedroom rental in Albion can be found for an average of $720—nearly half of the national average, while groceries, healthcare, and entertainment are all cheaper than the norm as well.
Cost of Living: 17.8% lower than the national average; 14.5% lower than the state average
The small rural town of Hillsdale is greatly focused around its historic college, Hillsdale College. Students living on campus are within easy walking distance to downtown where they’ll find charming cafes and shops like Jilly Beans and Checker Records. Pretty parks, and even a lake, make for nice off-campus places to take a walk. The road out of town leads to a movie theater and the nearby town of Jonesville, a favorite among students for its tasty restaurants.
Adrian College, Siena Heights University
Cost of Living: 17% lower than the national average; 13.7% lower than the state average
Adrian, home to Adrian College and Siena Heights University, may be a small town, but its lively student population manages to find plenty of affordable things to do. A plethora of favorite local restaurants serve students both food and fun, while a movie theater and the college’s top-ranked hockey team provide cheap, fun entertainment.
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Nazareth College
Cost of Living: 16.9% lower than the national average; 13.6% lower than the state average
Home to three colleges (and Derek Jeter), Kalamazoo is one of the most affordable places to live in all of Michigan. In and around the city are stunning places to spend time outdoors, including Kalamazoo College’s beautiful 180-acre arboretum, where residents both permanent and student enjoy jogging or walking the dog. The Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market takes place during the summer months, and makes for an affordable place to buy farm-fresh produce. In terms of entertainment, the unique Air Zoo is an air museum that anyone would find interesting, while the local minor league hockey team can always be counted on to add some competitive fun to game day.
8. Berrien Springs
Cost of Living: 16% lower than the national average; 12.7% lower than the state average
Berrien Springs is a quiet, charming, small town and home to Andrews University. The University is associated with the Seventh-day Adventists, and as such, the town caters to those with Seventh-day leanings through a number of churches and a popular health foods store. Otherwise, Berrien Springs offers residents an impressive number of amenities. Bars, restaurants, a library, and a riverfront park can all be found in town, while just outside of town are wineries and the beaches of Lake Michigan.
Saginaw Valley State University
Cost of Living: 15.4% lower than the national average; 12.1% lower than the state average
The temporary rise in crime and unemployment that plagued Saginaw in recent years has begun to decline.The town remains an affordable place for students of Saginaw Valley State to attend university. Students living off campus can find housing that costs a whopping 52% percent less than the national average, with costs for food, healthcare, utilities, and entertainment also coming in below the national norm, according to Sperling’s Best Places. Speaking of entertainment, the university has plenty to offer students, while those who just need to get away can easy reach Midland or Bay City, the other two towns making up the Tri-City area.
10. Mount Pleasant
Central Michigan University
Cost of Living: 15.2% lower than the national average; 11.9% lower than the state average
Mount Pleasant, the home of Central Michigan University, is located right in the middle of the Lower Peninsula. Such a location is ideal for those who enjoy nature and the outdoors. There are plenty of lakes, rivers, and forests in and around Mount Pleasant for students to enjoy (and keep to a strict entertainment budget!). Speaking of rivers, a favorite activity among both permanent and student residents is tubing or kayaking down the Chippewa, a river which flows past and connects five of Mount Pleasant’s parks.
Cost of Living: 12.4% lower than the national average; 91.% lower than the state average
Tiny Olivet is located in southwest Michigan and is home to Olivet College, a private school. The whole town takes up a mere one-square mile plot of land, though don’t let that fool you. The tree-lined streets are filled with locally owned shops and restaurants, while the surrounding lands provide all of the outdoor activities for which Michigan is so well known. The town even hosts a number of events each year, including its Firemen’s Festival.
Cost of Living: 11.7% lower than the national average; 8.4% lower than the state average
As part of Michigan’s Tri-Cities area (which also includes Saginaw and Bay City), the town of Midland is a quiet one. Fortunately, it’s near enough to other bigger towns that finding something to do is easy if one is willing to drive. Still, Midland is ideal for those on a budget, as rent prices are far below average, and trails, parklands, and even lakes are plentiful.
Michigan Technological University
Cost of Living: 11.6% lower than the national average; 8.1% lower than the state average
Home to Michigan Technological University, the small town of Houghton has been named on a number of “Best Of” lists thanks to its low crime rate, beautiful setting, and long list of amenities. Students living here have myriad low-cost recreational opportunities to enjoy, from relaxing along the waterfront to hiking one of the many local trails. Students also have access to the town’s impressive offerings, from restaurants to public utilities.
14. Grand Rapids
Calvin College, Davenport University, Aquinas College, Cornerstone University, Kendall College of Art and Design, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grace Bible College, Kuyper College
Cost of Living: 7.3% lower than the national average; 4% lower than the state average
Grand Rapids has a permanent population of just under 200,000 people, but with 15 colleges and universities within its city limits, it’s no wonder Grand Rapids is known for its college town lifestyle. Multiple theaters and performing arts centers mean there is always affordable entertainment happening. Places like the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park make for a nice setting to study or socialize on a budget. Cultural restaurants are plenty, and the walkable city means less money students have to pay for things like transportation.
15. Spring Arbor
Spring Arbor University
Cost of Living: 6.4% lower than the national average; 3.1% lower than the state average
Spring Arbor, home to Spring Arbor University, may not be your average college town, but its affordable cost of living and quiet small-town atmosphere make it an appealing place for many. Described by residents as a “beautiful place to live,” Spring Arbor boasts a number of parks and outdoor spaces, including Falling Waters Trail, an active church community, and a town population that appreciates and supports the University.
Northern Michigan University
Cost of Living: 6% lower than the national average; 2.7% lower than the state average
There’s always something to do in Marquette! Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Marquette is a haven for outdoor lovers. Located in or near town are:
- 11 hiking trails
- 11 waterfalls
- 10 miles of city bike paths
- 96 miles of cross-country ski trails
- more than 500 miles of snowmobile trails
With so many outdoor activities, no wonder costs like healthcare and entertainment are lower than average here. Marquette is also home to a number of shops, restaurants, and theaters, plus dozens of concerts and other events throughout the year.
17. East Lansing
Michigan State University
Cost of Living: 3.6% lower than the national average; .3% lower than the state average
Home to Michigan State University, East Lansing is a great place to live! The town’s population doubles when school is in session, so many students surely contribute to East Lansing’s fun college atmosphere. The town hosts a full calendar of festivals and other annual events. Amenities include theaters, museums, and lots of shopping. Recent years have even seen East Lansing become a sort of hub for tech companies and research, which may explain why its permanent population has been steadily increasing.
Hope College, Western Theological Seminary
Cost of Living: 3% lower than the national average; .3% higher than the state average
Holland, Michigan is a beautiful town with a proud Dutch heritage, vibrant college scene, and a cost of living that’s 6% lower than the national average. No wonder it’s been listed as one of the best small towns in America time and time again. Holland’s charming downtown is practically postcard-perfect. Lined with restaurants and cafes, bookstores and art galleries, downtown Holland is a favorite hangout for both students and locals alike. The town is most famous, however, for its annual Tulip Time Festival. People come from far and wide to celebrate Dutch culture and all things tulips.
Eastern Michigan University
Cost of Living: 3.6% higher than the national average; 6.9% higher than the state average
Once a vibrant town powered by a Ford plant, Ypsilanti has slowed down into a college town powered by students at Eastern Michigan University. Lovingly referred to as “Ypsi,” the town boasts a great selection of entertainment, including a well-regarded library, plus an impressive number of mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. The town is also a convenient location from both Detroit and Ann Arbor, so big nights out are an easy feat.
Grand Valley State University
Cost of Living: 4.1% higher than the national average; 7.4% higher than the state average
New to our ranking of the most affordable college towns in Michigan for 2020 is Allendale. Home to Grand Valley State University, Allendale is a young person’s town. Indeed, according to Sperling’s Best Places, the average age of Allendale’s residents is 21. As part of the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland region, Allendale offers its residents easy access to restaurants, entertainment, and any number of other amenities.
So which Michigan college towns are the most expensive? Those would be:
- Livonia (7.6% higher than the state average)
- Rochester Hills (26.2% higher than the national average)
- Ann Arbor (27.1% higher than the national average).
By GCD Staff
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