I was born and raised in Columbia. I graduated HS in 1998 and the majority of my graduating class went to college or joined the military. The school system here is pretty decent. I would feel safe sending my kids (if I had them) to Howard County Public schools. There are private schools around here as well and they all have great reputations.
Columbia has alot of government workers living here due to the close proximity to Washington DC/NoVA/Baltimore. Thre are plenty of jobs, you may not want to do them (fast food, waitressing, sign spinning, cleaning, retail) but there are opportunities for those who don't have college. There is a great community college, HCC, that I graduated from with a Registered Nurse AA. Columbia is pretty liberal, but if you look hard you can find the Right wingers. There is a magnet for your car that says "Choose Civility" meaning that we as Howard Countians should think about others, make the right decisions, be courteous, etc. I personally have one that says "Choose Insanity, Live in HoCo." I always have to be different!
The Columbia Mall is top notch with great shopping. There's the usual Target, Walmart, Old Navy, and drug stores as well as the local grocery chains of Wegmans, Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter. The restaurants are pretty decent, the chains and the independents. There is plenty of things to do on the weekends especially for young kids/families. There
is always complaints that there isn't anything to for teenagers to do but I don't think teenagers know what they want to do in the first place! The mall and movies (2 theaters at that), lots of sports. TONS of sports and county run activities. Lacrosse and soccer are pretty important around here. There is also Merriweather Post Pavillion which is a concert venue that has history going back to the late 60's. Great place to see an outdoor show.
Housing is not cheap. I'm not going to lie, but its going to break your bank unless you make a decent salary or have roommates. My rent is $1400 for a 1 bedroom with a den near the mall. Its a nice complex; there are some areas that have section 8 housing that are really not safe. There's alot of car thefts/petty theft in these areas and it is a shame because James Rouse (the founder of Columbia's concept) didn't intend for it to be like that. If you want to buy a house, a condo will start at $150,000-300,000. A townhouse $190-400,000 and a single family home can run $250,000 to 700,000 with the median somewhere around 350-400,000. Property taxes are high from what I understand but we are a "rich county." Personally I don't think I want to pay that much for a house in Columbia when I can go to a different county in MD and pay less. But Columbia is accessible to major highways and is central between DC and Baltimore. Traffic is typical during rush hours, a little congestion but we are between 2 major cities with lots of highways so thats to be expected. And our roads are maintained well, no crumbling bridges or miles of potholes.
There is a strong Volunteer Fire Dept as well as Professional FF's as well as a great Police Department. They take good care of us and the community. There are community "laws" that make you follow the rules as far as stuff like you can't just paint your door pink and your house purple; you have to have the neighborhood approve it. There is a Columbia Association that runs the pools, gyms, and other stuff. We even have a few man-made lakes with trails to ride/walk/run on. Rumor has it we are getting a dog park next year; Columbia is very dog friendly.
This is definitely a decent place to raise kids if you can afford to buy here. Living here single has its perks but its pricey to rent apartments without roommates. Downtown Baltimore is better for the single life in my opinion.
And last but not least Howard County General Hospital...its a decent hospital. I worked there for 18 months and I would trust the doctors and nurses with my loved ones and myself. There is an abundance of top notch doctors in the area; they are also affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Other great hospitals and medical facilities are close by in Baltimore.
For older folks or retired folks this is probably not the best area unless you have alot of money. Its very pricey for 55 and Up housing/nursing homes/assisted living. They are good facilities but if you don't have $7k a month for one person, you won't be able to retire and live near here.
So if you take anything from this rambling of mine its that Columbia is aesthetically pleasing, well mannered, and hard working people. The local government is pretty liberal but that is Maryland overall.
Columbia, MD has all of the ingredients to make an excellent place to live or visit however it doesn't quite utilize them in a way that makes it successful! I was slightly impressed with Columbia when I passed through in May of 2009 but I can't say I'd ever move there!
The downtown Columbia area is nice and consists of many fancy businesses, shopping and restaurants which give it is a semi-modern feel. I suppose the first problem I had with Columbia is that there really arent' many things to do! There aren't really any special attractions! Visitors can go enjoy a nice day in the park since Columbia does have some wonderful outdoor areas.
In addition the local shopping is pretty decent, plenty of shops and an outstanding mall that offers plenty of selection and even decent dining! Outside of the mall there are also plenty of good places to get high quality food or just a quick and delicious meal! Columbia is in the process of redeveloping downtown and I look forward to see how it might turn out! For now I would recommend Columbia as a day-stop; great to visit the mall and eat.