Blog 🍎 School 16th January 2023

Campus or City University: Help Your Students Choose

Profile image of James Leach
James Leach

James is senior content marketing manager at BridgeU. He writes and directs content for BridgeU's university partners and our community of international schools

Whether students choose a campus or city university will shape almost every aspect of their higher education experience. Helping them make informed decisions that are right for them is crucial, and we’re here to help!

Whether you’re helping your final-years choose between offers or helping younger students curate a list of universities to apply to, choosing between a campus or a city university can be a tough call.

It might not be as important as, say, the subjects on offer or the internship opportunities, that doesn’t mean a university’s location won’t have an important impact on a student’s chance of success.

From the weather to the social scene – and let’s not forget about networking opportunities – the environment a student studies in can have a direct impact on how successful they are at university.

And whilst some students don’t need any help deciding whether they’d be happier in downtown NYC or in a cosy college campus somewhere leafy, for others, the choice can be a complicated one.

What do you do with a student who had made up her mind to study in a city, only to spot her dream course at a campus university? Or the final-year who receives only one offer from a safety or insurance choice in a setting he’s not too keen on?

With the help of university staff across many different institutions, we’ve investigated what it’s really like to study at city and campus universities and have compared the pros and cons of each.

Free Resource: Campus and University Research Worksheets

Ideal for both younger and older students, they’ll guide your students through all the key considerations, including academic fit, campus culture, accommodation, travel considerations, and health and wellbeing.

Campus and city universities defined

A good starting point as you compare universities with students is whether the university actually has a traditional campus.

Because the two options offer decidedly different experiences, it’s worth defining and comparing them with your students. So that’s exactly what we’ll do!

Campus universities

Campus universities exist all over the world, and may be familiar to many students from their quintessential depictions in Hollywood movies.

Essentially, it means that all of the institution’s buildings are located on one single site. That typically includes accommodation, teaching facilities, entertainment and leisure services, and athletic facilities.

And this concentrated area of university buildings is usually fairly exclusive; there aren’t often many other businesses operating within the (sometimes imaginary) walls.

While there may be some privately owned cafes, for example, students won’t be brushing shoulders with busy commuters or overwhelmed by a huge range of shops to peruse.

In a webinar we held on the topic for BridgeU students, ​​Tom Malcolm, the Regional Officer for UK International and Europe at Lancaster University, offered a great definition.

You can see him talk more at length about campus universities and why they’re great, but he summed it up snappily when he said: “The best way to describe it is that it’s like a student town.”

Examples of campus universities include IE University, Segovia, Spain, Lancaster University, UK, Bennington College, USA and Columbia University, USA.

Although there are many factors at play when it comes to deciding on a university, the academic side is always going to be a biggie.

City universities

Some students might be jumping for joy at the thought of attending a campus university. But there are likely some others who won’t think it’s the best fit for them.

If that’s the case, they might be more suited to a city university. Insead of having delineated campuses, these universities are spread throughout cities. Their faculties, lecture halls and other amenities are integrated amongst other buildings and businesses.

Often, there’ll still be large clusters of university buildings, as well as a student union and other student-led amenities. Students will probably even see references to a ‘campus’ on city universities’ websites, so they will need to be vigilant!

But although there is typically some sort of campus, city universities are very much a part of the city they’re in, and students get to mingle more closely and frequently with locals.

You can hear about a great example of this from Kellie Moran, who works as Assistant Director of International Admission at Pace University and was kind enough to join another of our student events.

Pace University is in one of the biggest and liveliest cities in the world – New York. But, as she says, it still has a city ‘campus’ of sorts – its buildings are all located within a 5 block radius.

She sums it up nicely for us: “Outside of having that small campus feel inside the city, you also have access to everything that the city has to offer.”

Examples of city universities include Pace University, New York, USA, London Metropolitan University, UK and ICN Business School, Paris, France.

Campus universities: which is right for each student?

With a firmer grasp of the campus vs city university distinction, students can start to think about whether they’re right for them.

Of course, an essential part of helping students to choose is weighing up their relative pros and cons.

Next, we’ll think about some of the factors that different students might be prioritising and compare how campus and city universities perform for each.


Winner: campus universities

If convenience and simplicity are top of your students’ lifestyle wishlist, then the question of campus or city university is quite simple – campuses are generally the more convenient option.

Having everything on their doorstep makes life much easier for students. If they dread long journeys (or early mornings!), they’ll love the thought of having all their classes a brisk walk away.

In fact, as Tom explains in the clip above, they’ll have pretty much everything within reaching distance!

It has everything you could need as a student. All your accommodation is here… your lecture halls, your study facilities, libraries, learning zones… a range of social facilities [and] a huge sports centre.
Tom Malcom: Regional Officer for UK International and Europe, Lancaster University

Runner up: city universities

Although campuses definitely win overall, some convenience points actually go to cities.

For example, travelling to and within cities is often simpler. They generally have good international airports which make it easier for students to get back home.

They’re also well connected within the country, so students can plan lots of adventures beyond their city during weekends or breaks.

Plus, cities generally have great public transport, so even getting to lectures or exploring the city’s cultural and leisure offerings can be really straightforward.

Professional opportunities

Winner: city universities

Even beyond the bounds of the campus or city university debate, this can be a huge factor for lots of students – particularly those going to university to enhance their professional standing, as well as any for whom budget is a concern.

And here, cities are taking the lead. That’s because they’re filled with both internships and part-time jobs (of course dependent on the student visa stipulations of each country).

Elisa spoke of the dazzling opportunities for students in Paris, for example, who regularly secure internships at huge-name companies like Nestle, Chanel, Swarovski and IKEA.

Martina Hamanaka Serizawa, International Officer for Latin America and Europe at London Metropolitan University, also told us about the availability of work for students in London: “Part-time work is very common in London, because they understand that there are 120,000 international students – plus the other students – who won’t be able to work full-time.”


Winner: campus universities

In-keeping with budgeting and income is the question of affordability. It’s important to point out that we’re not awarding this one based on tuition fees. You’ll know how much they vary between and even within countries!

But having all of their amenities in one place (and often run by or in partnership with the university/students’ union) as is the case on campuses can lighten the demand on students’ wallets.

Firstly, it greatly reduces travel costs. Students don’t need to pay for public transport to commute to classes, or face hefty taxi fares to return from nighttime socialising.

What’s more, student-owned restaurants, bars, cafes and even gyms often have cheaper prices than their privately-owned counterparts.

Runner up: campus universities

Of course, students who choose campus universities aren’t foregoing professional or economic opportunities!

As Tom was keen to stress in the webinar, there are still lots of great on-campus jobs for students (which can actually often be simpler, as some student visas state that international students can only work on-campus, at least initially).

Plus, campus universities also place a strong emphasis on students’ professional development. Students will almost always have some sort of careers service that can help them develop key employability skills and find internships and jobs.

Being on campus is… a good option for students who need to operate on a budget.

Tom Malcom: Regional Officer for UK International and Europe, Lancaster University

Runner up: city universities

Again, cities might be more expensive on the whole, but there are some excellent pros worth mentioning, many of which Martina pointed out.

For example, cities offer great free activities including world-class museums and fascinating cultural attractions.

Plus, many businesses in student cities grant generous student discounts – including on travel.

Nevertheless, it’s important students remember that big city life generally comes with extra expenses. Not only can bars, restaurants and other leisure activities come with a bigger price tag, but students also have to factor in frequent subway, bus, train or taxi rides.


Winner: city universities

If students thirsting for variety are wondering whether to choose a campus or city university, you can definitely offer some pretty clear guidance. Variety is quite an easy win for city universities, which provide everything a big city has to offer.

Unlike the more contained campus universities, all manner of organisations, businesses, markets, shops, bars, museums and more can flourish in cities. Students will have no shortage of new activities to try out!

Martina told us all about this: “London, as a city, is already full of opportunities. You’re going to have museums, galleries, pubs, restaurants… from Michelin starred to street food, and from all over the world.”

And it’s not all urban, either! Lots of cities have worked hard to preserve and create plenty of green space, meaning students can enjoy the best of both worlds at lots of city universities.

Runner up: campus universities

Although there’s definitely less variety of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, shops and attractions within a campus, students can still cultivate a varied experience.

For example, they could participate in a huge array of extracurricular activities and do something different with a different group of people every night of the week!

Tom also offered some insight here, stressing that campus students often have to be more proactive than those who are city-based. Hear his tips for making sure campus life is just as exciting as a big city in the clip below.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop students from venturing beyond the bounds of the campus. But while in some cases, there’s a city nearby, for others it could require a longer journey and sometimes even access to a car.


Winner: campus universities

This is definitely a close one in the ‘campus or city university’ debate, but it’s an important one, too! One of the major concerns a lot of students have as they leave home for the first time is understandably for their safety.

Of course, nowhere can guarantee zero crime, misbehaviour or risk, but campuses tend to offer an extra layer of security.

Generally speaking, campuses have their own private security teams, and often surveillance technology to act as a deterrent and identify wrongdoers.

Plus, because it’s a smaller and more united community, there’s often a sense that people are looking out for one another, rather than keeping to themselves as can happen in large cities.

Runner up: city universities

All of that is not to say that cities are inherently dangerous, or that city universities are more blasé about their students’ safety. They, too, tend to have ‘campus’ security present in and around university buildings.

Plus, students benefit from having safety in numbers, and the presence of all the efforts that governments themselves put into keeping cities safe.

Ease of meeting people

Winner: campus universities

Because of the close-knit communities that tend to exist on campuses, it can often be easier for new students to meet each other and spend lots of time together.

Making dinner plans is much simpler when students all live within walking distance of the restaurant, and students are even likely to bump into each other by accident when everything is in one place!

Runner up: city universities

Again, we’re not for a moment suggesting students will struggle to make new friends at a city university! Simply that it can take a bit more proactivity, and a slightly different approach.

Because students aren’t constantly in close proximity to one another, making plans takes more organisation, and impromptu or accidental meetings are much less likely.

Martina offered some helpful tips for new students who might be struggling to make connections in a city, which you can hear more of below. But in short, she said the main thing to keep in mind is that students might have to take a bit more initiative and not shy away from reaching out and suggesting plans.

But students aren’t left entirely to fend for themselves! Most city universities understand new students’ apprehensions, and have plenty of support and societies to help.

For example, Martina talked about international orientation week, campus tours, tours of London and a welcome week run by the student union.

International students can also get in touch with the university who’ll pair them up with a student from their home country to make sure there’s a familiar face when they arrive!


Winner: city universities

It’s worth prefacing this win by saying that we definitely don’t mean the student population itself – there’s no clear pattern of a campus or city university being more multicultural in its student population. Both city and campus universities can attract students from all over the world.

But in terms of the wider setting, cities tend to contain large expat and immigrant communities which allow a wealth of cultures to flourish – it’s something Martina alluded to even in her round-up of restaurants.

It certainly makes for a dynamic and vibrant experience for anyone living in a multicultural city, but for international students, it often has an additional benefit: it can be an opportunity for them to get a slice of home (sometimes literally if we think back to the culinary offerings!), or even find an expat community from their country of residence.

Elisa Leon, who is the International Promotion Officer at ICN Business School, spoke about this beautifully. “There’s a lot of different expat communities living in Paris…. There’s always a place for you in a city like Paris,” she said during one of our webinars.

Hear more about how international students can adapt to life in the big city in the next clip!

Runner up: campus universities

Admittedly, campuses are home to fewer non-student communities. But within the campus itself, many universities do foster real multiculturality.

Students can often find international student societies, many of which have subsections of particular nationalities and cultures, so students can form a community with people of a similar background to their own as well as mixing with fellow students from around the globe.

School spirit

Winner: campus universities

This one is a bit of a clearer victory for campuses. They’re definitely the better bet for students who are looking for the quintessential communal experience often portrayed in pop culture.

If coffees on the quad and Friday nights at the big sports game sound like their ideal, the campus option is probably going to win.

Runner up: city universities

Still, many city universities have plenty of school spirit! There’s no particular difference between the two in terms of the activity level or quality of extracurricular societies, so students should be able to form strong communities wherever they choose.

That being said, because of the incredible variety of activities on offer in cities, it’s less likely that there’ll be lots of university-wide events that most of the student body (and faculty!) all attend.

Ease of transition

Winner: campus universities

For students who are really nervous about the huge change that starting university can bring, campus universities might be a slightly less stark contrast to what they’re used to.

After all, campus universities do emulate the school environment to some extent, and provide a more close-knit community. Students also have lots of support right on their doorstep to help with any nerves or questions.

Runner up: city universities

Although cities take the runner up spot this time, it’s worth noting that for some students, an easy transition is quite the opposite of what they want! They might be looking for a big, exciting change and lots of newfound freedom.

But for others, particularly students who have come from a quieter town or village and a relatively small school, the crowds, pace, variety and anonymity can feel overwhelming. It’s also a huge amount of independence and responsibility to take on all at once.

Nevertheless, students shouldn’t be put off too quickly. Universities have amazing support systems in place, particularly for international students. Many even have services specifically dedicated to helping students with the transition; for everything from opening a bank account to understanding local pop culture.

Other key factors when choosing a university setting

While the city v campus debate is one of the biggest when it comes to choosing a university, there are plenty of other factors.

If your students are looking to narrow down their university options further, they should use in-person university visits, virtual open days and independent research to look into some other areas.

To find out some of the ones we think are most important, make sure you check out the second part of our guidance on helping students to choose a campus!

And in the meantime, be sure to download our free campus research worksheets. They’ll help students compare campuses logically and thoughtfully, using essential criteria to create a comprehensive ranking table of their top choices.

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