The most important thing to me, behind tuition, is geography. Tjordanova shared some thoughts about Cornell's setting:
Ithaca can be boring if you are coming from a large city, and a car is fairly essential for grocery shopping and traveling anywhere beyond the Commons, which is the downtown pedestrian area. The commons doesn't usually have too much activity, but it does host some great festivals such as the Apple Harvest Festival in the fall, and the Chili Festival in the winter. They also hold contra-dancing (which is like country/line dancing) during the summer. There is also a farmers' market, and the famous vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant is located near the commons. So basically, this is a great place if you are vegetarian (like I am). If you can't already tell, most people in Ithaca are progressive and far-left leaning.
Ithaca is also great for people who love nature and the outdoors, it's quite beautiful, and there are many opportunities to go hiking or swim in the gorges (when it's warm of course). Also, there is a regular daily bus to NYC, and the trip is about 4-5 hours in one direction. (Although, depending on what company you use, a ticket costs about $50 or as much as $90 during peak times). Many students do long weekends in New York City, and a few of my friends had their thesis projects based there. So if you want to do research in NYC, it is doable. There is also a daily bus to Syracuse, where there is the second largest mall in the U.S.... but I only went once during my 5 years there. Syracuse isn't that interesting either, I mostly went there for the airport (flying to Ithaca is very expensive!).
Ithaca does have an excellent College Town right next to Cornell, where there are many bars and restaurants, and most people from campus hang out there. There are trivia nights, happy hours, places to play pool, bagel places, Indian food, sushi, bubble tea, even a small dance club (though most people have house parties). Also, while Ithaca is fairly small (I think about 30,000 people), a large portion of that is college students (13,000 +). It is nice to be surrounded by so many people of similar age as you, it makes it easier to make friends. On campus there is this place called the Big Red Barn, where they host happy hours just for graduate students.
Although Ithaca is a little out-of-the-way, Cornell still attracts many famous people. We have had both Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert give shows, Maya Angelou was my convocation speaker, I went to a talks by famous architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Richard Meier, and I am sure many world renowned scientists work and give lectures there. There is also an Indie/Underground music scene, that brings acts such as the Arcade Fire, before they were famous. There are also many student groups on campus as well, ranging from human rights and environmental groups to unicycling groups to a capella groups. Basically, the activities at Cornell and Collegetown make up for the lack of stuff to do in Ithaca.
Anyone else who has visited or lived there is encouraged to share!