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Western New York is one of the best places in the United States to attend college, a new ranking shows.

The Buffalo Niagara region ranks No. 4 among midsize U.S. metropolitan areas when considering college destinations, the experience outside the classroom and the quality of life for students, according to the American Institute for Economic Research.

The region moved up from No. 9 in 2010, the last time the institute released its “College Destinations Index.”

“Other groups rank colleges and universities,” said Steven R. Cunningham, director of research at the non-profit institute. “What we’re looking at is the environment of the entire region and how it might be conducive to an educational experience.”

The institute looked at 227 metro areas with student populations of 15,000 or more, then broke them down into four tiers – major metros, midsize metros, small cities and college towns.

Researchers then used federal data to rank the regions based on 12 criteria, including student concentration and diversity, degree attainment, arts and leisure, cost of living, earning potential and unemployment rate.

The numbers show a slight decline in student concentration around the Buffalo region, but the institute gave the area high marks for quality of life. There’s a large number of arts and entertainment venues per capita here.

The local cost of living – measured by the average rent for a two-bedroom unit – is good, and there’s a growing “creative class,” which includes science, engineering and research. While the job prospects may be unsettling, the median income and unemployment rate are stable. That’s part of the reason why the region moved up in the rankings.

Buffalo’s ranking as a college destination comes as no surprise to those in higher education around the region.

The region boasts 21 institutions of higher learning that enroll 110,000 students and employ 32,000 workers, said Steven J. Harvey, executive director of the Western New York Consortium of Higher Education.

Now, he said, the emphasis is on continuing to market the region to students and working with local companies to help retain graduates. “When you combine all of these different things and you start looking at the whole picture, Western New York is a very attractive location for students to come to,” Harvey said.

Among midsize metros, only San Jose, Calif., Austin, Texas, and Oklahoma City ranked higher than Buffalo. Rochester came in at No. 7.<INLINENOTE>; Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Raleigh, N.C., Richmond, Va., and Hartford, Conn. rounded out the Top 10.

Boston came in at No. 1 among major metros; Ann Arbor, Mich. ranked No. 1 among small metros and Ithaca was named the best college town.</INLINENOTE> The complete report is at www.aier.org.

email: jrey@buffnews.com