At an intersection with Main Street in rural Alfred, New York, sits the sole traffic stop light. In this small town of 4,500, there are more colleges than stop lights.
“You can drive right through and miss it,” said Mark Danes, vice president of marketing and communications at Alfred University.
Alfred University is one of two colleges in town, the other is Alfred State, part of the State University of New York system. Now, the town has earned a most unlikely distinction: named the "Collegiest town in America" in a data project by the Washington Post in January, as students make up 85% of the town’s population.
Alfred is a small town where everyone knows your name.
“I go running every morning around the campus area and over 70% of the people I encounter either in the village or campus says hello,” said Mark Zupan, president of the private Alfred University.
When people think of a college town, Boston invariably comes to mind. After all, there are more than 30 higher education institutions from Ivy League to community college in the vicinity. But the data team at the Washington Post noted that even with the removal of a college or two in Boston, there would still be pricey real estate along the Charles River.
Not so in Alfred where the two colleges are the life of the rural town.
It's that intimate experience that sets Alfred apart, Zupan said.
He often travels for his work and when he meets people who graduated from the college. They share stories of how professors or staff that took interest in them and changed their life trajectories, Zupan explained.
Set amid rolling hills, Alfred evokes natural beauty. The closest decent-sized city is a 20 minute drive to Bath, New York. The two colleges are across from each other, separated by a Main Street.
What is there to do in Alfred if you’re a student?
“We party,” said Alfred State sophomore Jennifer Meo, 22.
There’s not much in the small town, but you forge close friendships with your classmates, she said.
Meo transferred from the Ivy League Cornell University in Ithaca to study architecture at Alfred State and enjoys the camaraderie of her new college. She is from the small town of Oneonta in New York and understands the rural aspects of living.
“During the summer and winter, everyone just pops off,” Meo said of Alfred, leaving the town desolate.
Danes recently moved to Alfred and enjoys life there.
“The people are just so hospitable,” he said. “It’s a calm place to live.”
The future of rural college towns
Rural New York and Ohio are prime locations for college towns as there are small towns that entirely revolve around those colleges, according to data. The No. 2 overall college town is Prairie View, Texas, which is home to Prairie View A&M. The student body there makes up 72% of the population of 6,200, according to the Washington Post. It is also the number one Black college town in the country.
The pandemic shutdown was a challenging time for the Alfred colleges, Zupan said. But it brought the community together.
“We are meeting regularly to identify the best next strategic steps to strengthen our village,” Zupan said.
Mary Chao is a New York City-based Specialty Reporter at Scripps News. Email Mary.Chao@Scripps.com.