College Shopping

Take your student on a tour of five exemplary college towns in the Midwest

Students sitting on a ledge at college reading tablets.

photo by Tyler Olson – Fotolia

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.

Campus tours are considered a must-do in the increasingly complex college search process. In addition to the academic and dorm-life questions you’ll be asking, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a getaway destination and a place to live. Discover the local hang out spots on and off campus, so your young adult can imagine this as a “home base” for the next four (fingers crossed) years.

An aerial shot of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.
U of M campus overlooking Lake Superior

photo courtesy UM-Duluth


There’s arguably no better way to break up a study session than taking in a breathtaking view of Lake Superior. At the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, touting 244 acres overlooking the North Shore, your future Bulldog can do just that. Known for its prized athletics programs, particularly its Division I hockey teams, as well as its business, science, and education majors, UMD is a popular choice for students who want a mid-sized school with a spirited campus and access to both city life and natural surroundings. On your tour, make sure to stop by the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium, Tweed Museum of Art, and Weber Music Hall to see how students learn outside of the classroom.

In a more suburban area, the intimate grounds of The College of Saint Scholastica impress incoming students with the castle-like Tower Hall. The Catholic university is known for its healthcare majors and liberal arts foundation. The new Health Science Center with state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories is a good place to visit for future nurses, physician assistants, and physical or occupational therapists.

Grandma's Saloon and Grill in Duluth, Minnesota.
Grandma’s Saloon & Grill with a view of the Aerial Lift Bridge

photo courtesy Grandma’s Saloon & Grill

UMD and Saint Scholastica also make it easy and safe for students to explore the North Shore with unlimited rides on Duluth Transit Authority buses through the U-Pass program. Popular weekend activities include climbing up the highest point in Duluth, Enger Tower; building bonfires on the shore of Lake Superior; and hiking Gooseberry Falls and the Superior Hiking Trail.

Grab a bite between the two campuses at the student-favorites Crooked Pint Ale House and Burrito Union, where you’ll often find a lively crowd gathering after exams. Then head to downtown Duluth, where you can see ships passing through the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge and a cluster of bars and eateries along the waterfront at Canal Park. Here you’ll find the industrial-chic Canal Park Brewing Company, a favorite for its artisanal brews and pub food, and the famous Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, the frequent late-night haunt of many students in the area.

A stadium full of people at an NDSU Bison rally.
NDSU Bison Rally

photo courtesy Visit Fargo-Moorhead


Sharing the North Dakota-Minnesota border, Fargo and Moorhead are a college station with three major colleges within a 2-mile radius: Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia University, and North Dakota State University. The rural setting beyond the city and the liberal arts-based colleges create an interesting mix with NDSU known for its agricultural and science majors, while Concordia is home to one of the best choirs in the nation and the U of M-Moorhead actively supports performing arts. While touring NDSU, make sure to see the Babbling Brook, a large water feature that offers students a serene spot to study.

Thanks to the Tri-College agreement, students can register for courses at all three colleges, and many take the opportunity to get to know students from other schools through clubs, including the popular Tri-College Swing Dance club.

With nearly 30,000 college students living in the area, the liberal arts have greatly influenced the cities’ artsy vibe. The small-town community has a rich arts scene with many local theaters, art exhibits, comedy clubs, and concerts, most of which can be found on Main Street. Additionally, the area boasts safe neighborhoods with affordable housing and free bus rides for students with the MATBUS U-Pass.

While in town, check out the historic Fargo Theatre for an independent or foreign film, and view collections of American, Pre-Columbian, Asian, African, and Native American art at the Rourke Art Gallery and Museum. Bike on the Moorhead Viking Ship Park Trail along the banks of the Red River, dig in to locally-sourced dishes at Mezzaluna or enjoy the artisanal atmosphere at Rustica Eatery and Tavern, and get in on the college bar scene, with a trip to The Bison Turf, The Boiler Room, or The Old Broadway.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at night.
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

photo by Jim Brozek


Although Madison is Wisconsin’s capital, the University of Wisconsin Madison feels like the city’s driving force, with 43,820 students living in the 250,000-resident city. Wisconsin’s best-known college town has a reputation as an academic powerhouse with a freethinking, sports-worshipping, and fun-loving attitude. With more than 230 majors, students have their pick of studies, with biological sciences, engineering, and business being among the most popular programs.

Fuel up with a burger and cheese curds (when in Wisconsin…) at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry or grab a brat and take a photo with the iconic monkey statues at State Street Brats—a rite of passage for incoming students. On your tour, make sure to stop by Camp Randall, where thousands of students cheer on the Badgers football team and host elaborate tailgating parties.

Afterward, head to the city’s social heart, State Street, where you’ll find countless shops, bars, and eateries that lead to the Wisconsin State Capitol, where you can climb up grand staircases to the observation deck and get a view of the entire city. Another favorite pastime on the Capitol Square is buying fresh produce, cheese, and flowers at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings from June through October.

Parents might enjoy a solitary stroll at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens or the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, while your teen rents a fat-tire ride at Machinery Row Bicycles to zip out to Picnic Point peninsula. During the school year, Lake Mendota is hot spot for students to hang out, especially during the warmer months. Active students can get out on the water with kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rentals, while others enjoying laying out in the sun and listening to live music at the Memorial Union Terrace. Before the end of your visit, don’t forget to get a lick of Babcock Dairy ice cream, concocted by the school’s food-science students.

An aerial view of St. Olaf College.
St. Olaf College courtyard

photo by Daniel Edwins a.k.a. Webmoof of English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons


Home to both St. Olaf College and Carleton College, this quaint town is livelier than its size would suggest. Both colleges are private, liberal arts-based schools with unique curriculums, such as St. Olaf’s Rube Goldberg program and Carleton’s genre study on comics, that are well-suited for adventurous and academically-minded learners.

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 for chocolate chip cookie baking, and it’s open to students 24/7. Another spot you won’t want to miss is the 800-acre Cowling Arboretum, a favorite study and hang out area for students.

The St. Olaf campus showcases its Scandinavian pride with the striking Old Main building that resembles a Norwegian castle. The college is known for its study abroad programs and sustainable practices, including a student-run organic farm and wetland restoration field research.

Walk through the historic downtown Northfield for an eclectic mix of mom and pop shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Not too far down the road, students can find larger stores like Cub Foods and Target for their bulk shopping trips. 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 offering patio views and live music. When it comes to local watering holes, you can often find students grabbing drinks at Imminent Brewing, Froggy Bottoms Pub, and Tanzenwald Brewing Co.

People at the Munsinger/Clemens Gardens in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Munsinger/Clemens Gardens

photo by ty miller

St. Cloud

St. Cloud may have the largest population in central Minnesota, but it still very much defined by St. Cloud State University, Minnesota’s third-largest public university. The 100-acre campus sits between downtown St. Cloud and the Beaver Islands, a 2-mile stretch of the Mississippi River formed by a labyrinth of 30 islands, providing all the entertainment and natural surroundings your student could want. And you don’t have to go far for good art–head over to the Kiehle Visual Arts Center located on campus for art exhibitions that challenge, inform, and educate their audience about a diverse range of artists, cultures, and artistic practices.

If you’re scoping out peaceful study spots, don’t miss the spectacular floral displays at Munsinger/Clemens Gardens, which are also located on the banks of the Mississippi. After touring the campus, relax with a coffee and pastry at the student-favorite Central Perk.

For a bite to eat, check out the Star of India, an Indian restaurant with authentic and time-tested recipes, or head to St. Germain Street in downtown St. Cloud for a well of eateries and bars. Jules’ Bistro offers a cozy atmosphere and delicious soups, sandwiches, drinks, and sweets. While house parties are all the rage here, The Press Bar and Parlor, Red Carpet Nightclub, and Cowboy Jack’s are hotspots for St. Cloud students to mingle with the neighboring university students from Saint John’s University and College of Saint Benedict.

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