My first experience with Amtrak was when I was at the University of Illinois and taking trains to/from Chicago (either CONO or Illini) as there was or is Amtrak service where I grew up. I imagine U of I students contribute a lot to ridership/revenue towards the trains that serve Champaign/Urbana and there are several other "college towns" which I am sure Amtrak gets a lot of R & R from including Charlottesville, VA (University of Virginia) and Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan). Illinois and Michigan have the added benefit of being within 2-3 hours of a major metropolitan area which many college students come from.
On the other hand, there are plenty of major college towns that are not served or used to be served by Amtrak (I say this because Gainesville, FL/University of Florida and College Station, TX/Texas A&M came to my mind earlier today as huge college towns without Amtrak service and there is to me the biggest missing college town from the Amtrak map in Columbus). State College, PA (Penn State) is other large college town not served by Amtrak as is Tallahassee, FL (Florida State) which is also relevant because it was on the old SL East and presumably would be on the new Gulf Coast route. In addition to the usual major markets Amtrak doesn't serve like Las Vegas or Nashville (technically they are also college towns with UNLV and Vanderbilt), college towns should be another target for future growth.
I thought maybe more Thruway bus deals would help (I am not aware of any official Thruway bus serving State College) but I don't know how popular a thruway bus to a train would be for that short a distance (why take a Thruway from Penn State to Lewistown to connect with the Pennsylvanian to Philly/Harrisburg instead of just taking a bus to Philly/Harrisburg?) Maybe there would be some Thruway buses that would make sense though (like the Gainesville to Jacksonville one for travel north of Florida). I'm sure the Thruways to Madison, WI (University of Wisconsin) are really popular. The only Thruway I am aware of serving Columbus, OH is the one to Pittsburgh for which the connecting times are absolutely horrible.
Maybe Amtrak and colleges should work together. Amtrak could put "University of Illinois" after "Champaign/Urbana" in the Illini/CONO schedules and/or even have Amtrak ads inside the campuses. Since Amtrak's Thruway Bus stops on the University of Wisconsin's campus I am guessing their students are more aware of Amtrak than the University of Illinois's students (the station is about six blocks west of the Illini Union). I didn't immediately learn about Amtrak in my freshman year and I made regular trips to/from the Chicago suburbs (I usually used buses that went to/from my dorm). Maybe if I had found out about Amtrak in my freshman year I would have taken Amtrak earlier. If Amtrak and the universities work together imagine how much ridership would increase at stations in college towns (and in the case of U of I get some cars off of I-57 during peak travel periods). Speaking of peak travel periods, does Amtrak run extra peak service to college towns during the beginning and end of semesters or during/after semester breaks? I would think that would be a great idea if they can fill the trains.
Remember by targeting growth in service to college towns not only do you fill trains but you attract college kids who could be riding Amtrak 20-30 years later (just like the guy typing this). I'm sure most of your first train experiences whether it was college, military, or other was either when you were typical undergraduate college age (18-22) or even younger. It's a lot harder to sell people in their 30's-40's on trains for the first time than the younger generation.