A+ Family Vacation

Prospective Student Tour at UW-Madison. Photo By Jeff Miller – board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

It’s a scene playing out at college campuses across the country: a mismatched huddle of aiming-for-blasé teens and trying-not-to-be-embarrassing adults follows behind a grinning, gesticulating student guide who is managing to simultaneously walk backwards, wave to a passing roommate, and enthuse about “free” puppies brought in to reduce stress during finals week. Yes, campus tours are considered a “must do” in the increasingly complex college search process. And many local institutions of higher ed are noting increases in campus visits at all times of year, especially in the early summer months, when high school extracurriculars slow down. 

More college tours mean more visitors coming to town and looking for generation-bridging activities to help unwind once the day’s touring is complete. As emotionally fraught as these trips have the potential to be, they can also be a “last hurrah” for quality family time together. 

According to Kate Malczewski, an independent educational consultant and partner at Edina-based College Connectors, the tour-planning process offers a natural segue into a new phase of your parent-child relationship. “Allow your prospective student to lead the way by setting up all the tours and interviews,” she suggests. Also, when you’re on the tour or debriefing afterwards, let your student express opinions first before you speak up. And don’t forget to set time aside for exploring off campus. “It’s important to see the town, check out local restaurants, and do something your family enjoys, like taking a hike together,” Malczewski says.

Duluth’s Canal Park. Photo by Brett Groehler – University of Minnesota Duluth.

Duluth, Minnesota
What better way to break up a study session than taking in a breathtaking view of Lake Superior? Touring the underground connectors of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus or strolling the relatively intimate grounds of The College of Saint Scholastica might be considered a warm up for the Superior Hiking Trail. Find trail access right across the street from the student-favorite Burrito Union. Canal Park offers tourist-friendly shopping and dining, or, for more local color, cross the border to Superior, Wisconsin for $3 burgers at the lovably dive-y Anchor Bar. Don’t be surprised if a server asks your 17-year-old about adding a beer to that order—Wisconsin allows minors to drink if a parent is present. 

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Jim Brozek.

Madison, Wisconsin
Though Madison is Wisconsin’s capital, the University of Wisconsin Madison feels like the city’s driving force. Fuel up for a tour with a burger and cheese curds (when in Wisconsin…) at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry followed by an orange custard with chocolate chips at the on-campus Babcock Hall Dairy Store. Afterward, a parent might prefer a solitary stroll—backwards walking optional—at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens or the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, while a teen rents a fat tire–ride at Machinery Row Bicycles to zip out to Lake Mendota’s Picnic Point peninsula.

Northfield’s Contented Cow. Photo courtesy of the Contented Cow.

Northfield, Minnesota
Home to both St. Olaf College and Carleton College, this quaint burg is livelier than its size would suggest. When touring Carleton, be sure to check out the Dacie Moses House, which was donated to the school by a long-time employee. In the spirit of its hospitable namesake, the so-called “Cookie House” kitchen is always stocked with ingredients (and recipes) for chocolate chip cookie baking, and it’s open to students 24/7. Cut the sweetness with a coffee from Northfield’s social heart, Goodbye Blue Monday, or grab lunch at the Contented Cow, a pub housed in the town’s former jail, which offers patio views and live music.

What to Look For: There’s a big difference between a getaway destination and a place to live, so you’ll want to keep that in mind. In addition to the academic and dorm-life questions you’ll be asking on campus, you’ll also want your child to imagine this as “home base” for four (fingers crossed) years. What are the neighborhoods like? Are there markets? A nearby Target? Convenient bike paths? Accessible public transportation?

Hall of Shame

Fun for you, but a snooze-a-thon for your kid. Avoid, please.

Glensheen Historic Estate in Duluth
You think: What a fabulous glimpse into Minnesota’s historic past. Teen thinks: Does this pile of bricks have wi-fi? Can’t we go back to the Anchor Bar?

Northfield Yarn
Knitting is the new Snapchat—millennials just don’t know it yet. (Your hip hobbies are so out of date they’re coming back as “retro.”) Suggest dropping in for community stitch night, and your teen will shoot you a glare sharp as needles. 

Touristy posed photos
Planning to suggest your prospective North Dakota State University student swing by the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors’ Center to pose for a family shot in front of the famous Fargo woodchipper? The only thing worse would be featuring the picture in the family holiday card. Wait, we didn’t just give you an idea, did we?