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Best Cities, States & Places

Retire to a College Town

Our top ten towns offer intellectual sizzle, cultural spice and plenty of team spirit.

Remember when you went off to college for the first time? You were excited, eager for challenges and psyched to try something new. Retire to a college town and you can re-create that horizon-broadening experience and sense of adventure.

See Our Slide Show: 10 Great College Towns to Retire to

In these ten towns, including our top choice, Oxford, Miss., the university generates intellectual and cultural sizzle for local residents and opens the door for retirees to take free or low-cost classes. College sports bring the entire community together (and sometimes impel retired alums to move back). On-campus attractions, such as concerts, lecture series and games, are open to all comers, not just undergraduates.

But universities aren’t the only reason these towns are great places to retire. Most are in states that are tax-friendly to retirees (the others are in states where the tax picture is mixed). They present a rich assortment of restaurants, generally reasonable home prices and access to good health care. As for size, they range from tiny Oxford (population 20,865) to midsize Lexington, Ky. (308,428), not counting college students. And most are close to or below the national average for the cost of living index (100).

Oxford, Miss.

College: University of Mississippi
Population: 20,865
Median home price: $210,000 (natl. median, $213,400)
Cost of living: Not available

University of Mississippi Wikimedia -- Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Here’s Oxford in three words: football, Faulkner and food.

Football: Conversations sooner or later turn to the Ole Miss Rebels and the elaborate tailgating ritual in the Grove, at the edge of campus, that precedes each home game. During the pregame partying, you might run into legendary Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning or his son Eli, who has a home in Oxford.

Faulkner: William Faulkner wrote his most famous novels and stories while living at Rowan Oak, a 29-acre estate now owned by Ole Miss. Faulkner’s influence and the presence of other writers, including John Grisham, as well as Square Books, the famous independent bookstore, have inspired an active arts scene. On Thursday nights, you can stop by Off Square Books, a few doors down from the main store, to hear the live broadcast of the radio show Thacker Mountain, which features author readings and bluegrass music.

Food: The Square—the heart of Oxford, anchored by the old Lafayette County courthouse—hums with activity when diners visit its dozen or so restaurants. Locals as well as visiting celebrities enjoy the southern cuisine at City Grocery, founded by chef John Currence (the shrimp and grits has been on the menu for 22 years). On a recent evening, you might have dined next to Morgan Freeman or Dolly Parton.

Eight years ago, Dave and Betsy Dyke moved from Great Falls, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb, to a home in the Grand Oaks development of Oxford, bordering on one of two local golf courses. Dave, 78, is a retired United Airlines pilot. Betsy, 71, attended Ole Miss. The Dykes found a welcoming group of fellow retirees through the Oxford Newcomers Club, as well as a range of activities, from book clubs to volunteer opportunities.

If you buy a home here, you might want to wait until after a losing Rebels season. The team’s record is one predictor of home prices, says real estate agent Steve Vassallo. Another predictor: proximity to the Square. A three-bedroom home within a few blocks can top $600,000, and a stately 19th-century house will fetch $1 million or more. But a two-bedroom condo just a seven-minute walk from the Square is on the market for $179,000. Three-bedroom homes within a five-minute drive of the Square sell for $200,000 to $500,000. Beyond the tidy downtown, new apartments will serve the expanding student population, now nearly 19,000. Traffic on game days slows to a crawl.

Mississippi is tax-friendly toward retirees: Property taxes are low (as are insurance and utilities), and retirement income is exempt from state taxes. More than 100 specialists are associated with the 217-bed Baptist Memorial Hospital–North Mississippi.

The university is a hub of culture as well as spectator sports. Broadway plays come to the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and one university course per semester is free to retirees. The town is actively recruiting tech companies and other businesses, but retirees who want to work part-time have to compete for scarce jobs. Some retirees share their experience through the incubator business network or do other volunteer work. Others apply for the program at Ole Miss that allows retirees to fill in for absent professors.

Oxford sits among rolling hills, unlike the flat terrain of the Delta or Gulf area. Summers are hot, but Oxford has four seasons and no hurricanes. Before settling there, be sure you know how to pronounce Lafayette, the county name: The accent is on the second syllable—so you render the name in a drawl that’s patient and unhurried.

-- Mark Solheim

Ann Arbor, Mich.

College: University of Michigan
Population: 117,025
Median home price: $226,500
Cost of living: 102.4

Ann Arbor, Mich. Courtesy of

What makes this college town so attractive that retirees will endure Michigan’s fierce winters?

Intellectual engagement is one big draw. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—one of a number of university-based noncredit educational programs for adults 50 and older—offers lectures, classes and study groups on philosophy, religion, history and the arts. The institute is located in the University of Michigan’s Turner Senior Resource Center, which offers a variety of wellness and fitness programs. The three-week Ann Arbor Summer Festival showcases more than 100 events, including dance, local bands, comedy and outdoor movies.

Ann Arbor is home to dozens of restaurants, from Caribbean to vegetarian to Tex-Mex. Transplanted New Yorkers will feel right at home sampling the bagels and pastrami at Zingerman’s Deli, an Ann Arbor institution since 1982.

Ann Arbor’s health care facilities attract people from across the U.S. and around the world. The University of Michigan Health System is one of the largest hospitals in Michigan and offers a broad range of specialties, including geriatrics.

All those assets help make Ann Arbor one of the more expensive communities in Michigan. Retirees can find more affordable options if they’re willing to live at least five miles outside the popular downtown area, says Frank Moore, a certified financial planner who has lived in Ann Arbor for 35 years and plans to retire there. Michigan has a mixed tax picture: Social Security benefits aren’t taxed, but residents born after 1945 may have to pay state taxes on some of their pension income.

For retirees who want to escape the cold winter months (or the crowds headed to the Big House during U of M football games), Detroit Metro Airport is only 25 miles away.

Asheville, N.C.

College: University of North Carolina–Asheville
Population: 87,236
Median home price: $215,000
Cost of living: 105.7

Asheville, N.C. Courtesy of

UNC-Asheville is a small campus of about 3,700 students, but it has an outsize influence on retirees. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers more than 300 courses a year, usually in six- to eight-week terms. One of the institute’s most popular programs, says director Catherine Frank, is its Creative Retirement Exploration Weekend, designed for working people who are considering relocating when they retire. Many of those who attend the weekend end up moving to Asheville, Frank says.

It’s not hard to see why. In addition to the extensive educational offerings through the Osher Institute, Asheville has a world-class symphony, a vibrant local arts scene, and lots of breweries and restaurants. There are quirky pleasures, too. Every Friday during the warm-weather months, locals bring their drums to Pritchard Park to participate in a drum circle, an Asheville tradition since 2001. The event attracts a surprisingly large number of seniors, Frank says. “When you go out to a concert or drum circle or restaurant, you see a wide range of ages,” she says.

In North Carolina, Social Security benefits are exempt from state taxes, but some other types of retirement income are taxable. Homeowners age 65 and older may qualify for a homestead exemption of $25,000 or 50% of the home’s appraised value, whichever is greater. Asheville’s extensive health care network dates to the late 1800s, when wealthy northerners such as industrialist George Washington Vanderbilt came for the healing benefits of mountain air and never left. His home, Biltmore Estate, is open to visitors.

Athens, Ga.

College: University of Georgia
Population: 119,980
Median home price: $137,000
Cost of living: Not available

Athens, Ga. Thinkstock

Les and Bobbi Shindleman have lived in Atlanta and Chicago, so they’re used to city life. But since moving to Athens last year, they’ve never been bored.

Bobbi, 67, teaches a class in knitting and crocheting at the University of Georgia. Les, 68, a retired management consultant, teaches seminars at the university’s business school. Both are active in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program at UGA, which offers classes and lectures on everything from tai chi to Civil War history. At night, the couple attend concerts and plays and check out local farm-to-table restaurants. “The food in Athens is phenomenal,” Bobbi says.

Athens is also the center of a lively and diverse music scene. Locals hoping to catch the next R.E.M.—which, along with the B-52s and Widespread Panic, got its start in Athens—can check out up-and-coming bands at the 40 Watt Club or the Georgia Theatre.

Athens offers a variety of housing, from older homes in historic neighborhoods to new condos downtown. Georgia is tax-friendly for retirees: Social Security benefits, along with up to $35,000 in most other types of retirement income, are exempt from state taxes. Residents have access to health care through the Athens Regional Medical Center or St. Mary’s Health Care System. Atlanta, 70 miles away, offers a more extensive hospital network (along with an international airport).

Boise, Idaho

College: Boise State University
Population: 214,237
Median home price: $209,450
Cost of living: 95.3

Boise, Idaho Thinkstock

Boise’s 25-mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway and proximity to scenic hiking trails make this city a magnet for active adults, including retirees. But the intellectual challenges keep residents on their toes as well. At Boise State, the Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts features symphony concerts, dance and Broadway musicals. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers college-level classes on everything from Photoshop to philosophy.

Annual cultural events include the Gene Harris Jazz Festival and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Reflecting a large Basque population, whose ancestors (from the region encompassing north-central Spain and southwestern France) came to Idaho as sheep herders, Boise has a number of restaurants that serve traditional Basque food. (Try the solomo sandwiches—marinated pork loin and pimiento on bread—at Bar Gernika Basque Pub and Eatery.) It’s also the home of the only Basque museum in the U.S.

Boise State’s football and basketball teams attract the kind of community support that larger cities reserve for professional sports. The city is also home to the Boise Hawks, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs.

Idaho is a tax-friendly state: Social Security benefits aren’t taxed, and residents age 65 and older are eligible for a deduction of up to $45,234 for other retirement benefits. Boise has four distinct seasons, but its location on a high desert plain keeps winters mild and humidity low. The city is served by two major medical centers and several smaller hospitals.

Charlottesville, Va.

College: University of Virginia
Population: 44,349
Median home price: $244,250
Cost of living: 102.4

Charlottesville, Va. Wikimedia -- Alex Proimos

If you think orange is the new black, you’ll fit right in with the rest of the folks in Charlottesville. Orange and dark blue officially represent the University of Virginia and unofficially influence the dress code of the locals—down to the orange-and-blue rep ties still seen at Cavaliers football games.

The hometown university’s appeal to retirees goes well beyond fashion. Residents 60 and older can take noncredit classes tuition-free at UVa and other area schools, including Piedmont Community College. Continuing your education puts you in good company: An impressive 48% of Charlottesville residents age 25 and up hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

For cultural stimulation, attend the annual Virginia Festival of the Book in the spring and the Virginia Film Festival in the fall. Music lovers can catch free Fridays After Five concerts at the Downtown Mall from April to September. Oenophiles won’t have to venture far to sniff, swirl and sip worthy vintages. Try Trump Winery (yes, that Trump) or Barboursville Vineyards, which is located 18 miles northeast of Charlottesville.

Charlottesville is situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so options for hiking, biking and paddling abound. If you prefer working out in the great indoors, apply for membership to the tony Boar’s Head Sports Club.

Housing in Charlottesville can be pricey. Retirees with a budget under $500,000 might like Lake Monticello, 25 minutes southeast of town. Homes in upscale country-club communities such as Glenmore can easily top $1 million. Homeowners 65 and older can apply for relief from real estate taxes.

Overall, Virginia’s tax-friendliness toward retirees is mixed. Virginia doesn’t tax Social Security benefits. Other retirement income is taxable, but seniors 65 and older can deduct up to $12,000, subject to certain income limits. The state doesn’t levy an estate tax.

-- Mike DeSenne

Fort Collins, Colo.

College: Colorado State University
Population: 152,061
Median home price: $280,000
Cost of living: Not available

Fort Collins, Colo. Wikimedia -- Tim Hurst

With more than 30,000 Colorado State students, Fort Collins is a city teeming with young adults. But the characteristics that make it attractive to twentysomethings are luring retirees, too. The city is blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, offering plenty of opportunities for residents to enjoy its more than 600 acres of parks and 20 miles of walking and biking trails. For more adventurous outings, residents can hike in the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park.

Retirees who enjoy urban pursuits head to Fort Collins’s lively downtown, home to coffee shops, outdoor cafés, brew pubs and live-performance venues. On the third Friday of every month, the city hosts a Foodie Walk in its historic pedestrian center so residents can sample local culinary specialties (a recent theme for the walk was barbecue).

The median home price of $280,000 is above the national median ($201,700) but lower than the price of homes in other parts of Colorado (in nearby Boulder, the median home price is $418,700). Colorado is a tax-friendly state for retirees: Residents 55 and older get a generous retirement-income exclusion from state taxes and may qualify for a homestead exemption of up to 50% of property value.

Poudre Valley Hospital, a 270-bed community regional medical center, is located in Fort Collins. Denver, which offers a broader range of medical options, is about an hour’s drive away.

Gainesville, Fla.

College: University of Florida
Population: 127,488
Median home price: $169,287
Cost of living: 99.1

University of Florida Auditorium and Century Tower Thinkstock

Gainesville is smack in the middle of the state, which means it’s 75 miles from the ocean. But during hurricane season, that’s not such a bad place to be. And the home of the University of Florida offers many benefits for retirees looking to escape the cold and the high cost of living up north.

In addition to Florida Gators football and basketball, the city offers 13 museums and galleries and a thriving downtown. Residents age 60 and older can enroll in courses at the University of Florida at no cost on a space-available basis. In addition, the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Oak Hammock, a retirement community affiliated with the University of Florida, offers an extensive roster of courses, many of them taught by university professors. (Seniors don’t have to live in the community to participate.) One of the most popular courses, says Walter Kalaf, an Oak Hammock resident who has served on the curriculum committee, covers the conditions that led up to World War II.

Florida is one of the most tax-friendly states in the country for retirees. There is no state income tax, and permanent residents are eligible for a homestead exemption of up to $50,000. Seniors may qualify for an additional exemption.

Gainesville was founded as a health care resort. Now, medical care is available through the university’s Shands Hospital and the North Florida Regional Medical Center.

Lexington, Ky.

College: University of Kentucky
Population: 308,428
Median home price: $145,000
Cost of living: 89.6

Kentucky Horse Park Courtesy of -- Jeff Rodgers

There’s more to the Bluegrass State than bourbon, basketball and beautiful horses, although all three play a major role in the Lexington region.

Home to the University of Kentucky, along with Transylvania University and several other higher-education institutions, Lexington ranks 12th in the nation among cities its size for the percentage of residents with a college degree. “The intellectual level of the town is high,” says Darby Turner, a Lexington native and partner with the law firm Bingham Greenebaum Doll. UK attracts talent to the city and helps produce an educated workforce, he says. The university offers two free programs for older adults: the Donovan Fellowship and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The horse industry plays a major role in bringing people from around the world to Lexington, giving the city an international flavor. Keeneland Race Course has thoroughbred racing in April and October and four annual thoroughbred sales that attract buyers from nearly every state and 50 countries.

Surrounded by horse farms on rolling countryside, the city has more than 100 parks, six public golf courses and a 734-acre nature preserve with more than ten miles of hiking trails. With two ballet companies, an orchestra, a minor-league baseball team, a performing arts center, weekly big band and jazz concerts in the summer, and gallery hops throughout the year, there’s no shortage of things to do. You might even be able to score tickets to watch the NCAA championship men’s basketball team play.

Health care is easily accessible: The area has 13 hospitals and 249 physicians’ offices. Although Lexington offers many of the amenities of a large city, the cost of living is below the national average, as is the median home price. Kentucky is a tax-friendly state for retirees: It exempts Social Security benefits from income taxes and offers homeowners 65 and older a tax exemption for part of the value of their property.

-- Cameron Huddleston

State College, Pa.

College: Pennsylvania State University
Population: 41,757
Median home price: $270,250
Cost of living: Not available

State College, Pa. Wikimedia -- Justkillingtime

This town may not be close to any major cities or the beach, but it’s popular with retirees who like the lively downtown, the cultural activities and, of course, Penn State football.

Kathleen Collins, 63, and her husband, Skip, 65, have owned a condo just outside State College since 2004, and they divide their time between Washington, D.C., and Happy Valley. Kathleen, a semi-retired lawyer and Penn State alum, teaches a course in banking regulation at the university’s law school during the fall semester. Kathleen appreciates State College’s beautiful setting. With mountains and trout streams, “it’s so dissimilar to city life.”

But rural doesn’t mean dull. The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State features chamber music concerts, ballet and Broadway shows. The Palmer Museum of Art, part of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, is home to 11 art galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden; admission is free. Residents age 60 and older can take undergraduate courses at Penn State free on a space-available basis.

In addition to bars and pizza joints for the college crowd, State College offers a variety of locally owned and high-end restaurants, along with three microbreweries and a 24-hour Wegmans.

At $270,250, the median home price is above the median for the U.S. and Pennsylvania. There are several retirement communities in the area, including The Village at Penn State, which provides free transportation to football games and other university events.

Pennsylvania is a tax-friendly state for retirees. Social Security benefits, public and private pensions, and distributions from retirement accounts are tax-free. Health care is available through the well-regarded Mount Nittany Medical Center. The Penn State University Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is located about an hour and 45 minutes away, in Hershey, Pa.