Are all LACs the same?

D25 wants to know if all LACs are the same. lol We visited St Olaf, Carleton, and Macalester. While she could tell some differences, she wants to know if there is a big way in which the academics and experiences differ.

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I visited a number of LACs with my D (not the ones on your list) and felt that they each had a distinct vibe – both in terms of student body (ex. some she felt were too preppy, others too artsy) and academics (she was interested in STEM fields and certain LACs we visited felt stronger in those disciplines than others). As a result, some schools she gravitated towards and others she dismissed from her application list.

Certain things such as smaller classes, the ability to develop relationships with professors etc. can likely be found at almost any LAC.


I think she might see differences more easily if she doesn’t check out 3 schools all within the same basic community, lol. Unless she is only considering schools in Minnesota?

We’ve visited over 40 LACs across all three children (very geographically diverse from coast to coast without ignoring ‘fly over country’ during our searches), we’ve found LACs to be quite different from one another; some have common cores, some have more open curriculums, some are research focused, some more ‘pre-professional’ in vibe. Some campuses felt really expansive, others oppressively small and cramped. Some LACs with incredibly strong athletic spirit (and competition), some where sports don’t even seem to rate as an after thought.

With three children all interested in LACs, but none of them overlapping in where they were interested in applying, I feel pretty comfortable saying there are a lot of differences. If they were ‘the same’ - we wouldn’t have needed to see so many, and all three kids would have been happy to go to any of them.

All that being said, if your child doesn’t like LACs, she doesn’t like them. My kids didn’t like larger schools, and it didn’t matter how amazing the school was - they just didn’t click with them. But I wouldn’t say all those larger schools were the same.


She wants to go to a LAC. I can see the differences, but I think she would notice them more during the school year.


Summer visits can be challenging to get a handle on the vibe of schools. Hopefully, she’ll be able to visit more during the school year? If not, we did find websites to be helpful in getting a better idea of vibe, especially if the school had a virtual tour. We’ve looked at well over an 100 schools across the three kids online - have watched way more than our fair share of virtual tours.

Some of the virtual tours were intentionally hilarious, some were dry as dust, some made my kids and I both wonder if the person/people who put the tour together hated the school. What is emphasized and what isn’t during those virtual tours can be enlightening.

At first, my kids had a hard time seeing the differences but when they started actively analyzing what is and isn’t on different virtual tours, how websites are set up differently, how easy it is to navigate and how easy it is to find clear information - differences became clearer and clearer.


We visited Dennison, Haverford, Swarthmore, and W&L. We’ve walked a few more such as Bowdoin, Sewanee. All are different - the experience would be like the difference between Michigan to Oklahoma to Pitt, etc.

But I agree with the person that your radius has to be beyond.

Also - each will be run by different people and have different processes, dining hall setups, dorms and more.

Good luck to your student.

Edit - just read your note on school year visit. Exactly. That’s similar for large schools. You can see aesthetics, the info sessions which are all the same - but not the feel and energy.


Not sure geographic distance matters a lot. We visited Skidmore and Union, two fine LACs very close in proximity to one another, and the vibes were very different. One my D could definitely see herself attending and the other came right off her application list.

Agree that visits when school is in session would be more valuable.


Harvey Mudd College and The Evergreen State College are both considered LACs, but are unlikely to be seen as the same by most people.


Did you visit when there were students on campus? I feel like that is what distinguishes colleges from one another. St. Olaf is more Midwestern, whiter, preppier. Carleton is mousier, more intellectual. Mac is more hipster international cosmopolitan.


All will share characteristics - small classes, undergraduate-focused professors…
These 3 have common points: Midwestern, laid back vibe, liberal, no Greek life, no big sports. However if class was in session you may have noticed a more intellectual/alternative vibe at Carleton, music&science at St Olaf, political activity at Mac.
Now if you compared them to Colgate or Bucknell they’d seem quite different, then Skidmkre or Bates, and again if you looked at Sewanee or W&L.


Are all theme parks, shopping malls, and high schools the same? No.

I assume you are looking for points for your child to consider. It seems you have visited LACs in the summer. I personally think it’s best to avoid visiting colleges when no students are on campus, because it’s a bit like seeing a zoo with no animals. Many colleges will be back in session by mid to late August, so perhaps consider a visit or two when students are around. That’s will be a good way for her to see that all LACs are not the same.

One LAC doesn’t necessarily feel the same as another. My child didn’t like Bowdoin at all and never considered applying. She liked Bates and attended. A lot of people put those schools in the same bucket, along with other NESCACs. It’s all about what appeals to your student.


Just tossing in that some LACs make a point of being more different than others. Like, Hampshire College was created by the other four colleges in the Five Colleges consortium and is intentionally designed to be a more non-traditional college. That’s not to say more traditional LACs don’t have notable differences too, but my point is there are some colleges really looking to be very distinct.


On your tours, a lot of them will tout similar strengths (close relationships with professors, small classes, the ability to join faculty research projects, etc.). But these are the strengths of LACs in general. After having toured a few, you learn to look for the distinguishing characteristics – are there particular areas of academic strength? How many students double major? How many go abroad? What kinds of opportunities are there for service learning or community engagement? How flexible are core requirements? Is the vibe preppy/artsy/athletic/activist/outdoorsy? Is there anything distinctive about how they handle housing? Is the LAC part of a consortium that would open up more academic and social opportunities? These are some of the distinctions you might start to observe, especially if you can visit when there are students present. Geography is also a factor – you start to see more differences if you look at campuses in different regions.

If you visit enough schools, you’ll get accustomed to looking for differences and tuning out the commonalities. My D23 is interested in environmental studies and journalism, so she was looking specifically at campuses that had access to natural areas for field work, and that had strong school newspapers (she didn’t want a journalism major). She eliminated schools that didn’t have both, as well as schools for which the core curriculum would be too extensive, or that seemed to be adopting a more pre-professional curriculum.


We toured Williams, Wesleyan and Vassar. Seemingly similar but very different vibes and experiences. S24 is probably going to apply ED to Williams and will not apply to the other two after visiting.


They may or not be all that different, depending on how important non-academic factors are to you. When I was 18 y/o I was just happy to be away from home and among reasonably happy people my own age. In retrospect, I would have been equally at home at Williams, Wesleyan University or Vassar even though each is different in their own way. Why? Because all the while I was unpacking my bags and arranging my schedule and meeting new people, I was likewise taking in new information and adjusting my perspectives accordingly. In other words, I was a typical teenager and learning how to fit in.


With my older daughter, we visited several LACs back in 2019, mostly in the Midwest: Kenyon and Oberlin in the spring (students were on campus); Knox, Grinnell, Macalester, St. Olaf, and Carleton in the summer (plus Barnard the same summer during a NYC visit). We found all those Midwestern LACs to be more similar than different, and our daughter could see herself in any of them. Carleton fell off her list because it seemed the least artsy of them (and our guide wasn’t super enthusiastic about the school; granted, it was the last of 5 colleges we visited on that trip, and we were tired; I know it’s an excellent school, but in the end it wouldn’t have worked out anyway because we needed merit aid).

Barnard was unique, of course, being a woman’s college, in NYC, and affiliated with Columbia. Our daughter loved it, but it would be too expensive for us, so she didn’t apply (she was fine with it). She got into all those 6 she’d applied to, with merit, and it was a pretty tough decision precisely because they were relatively similar. It came down to little things, like the amount of aid (the difference wasn’t huge), distance from home, the depth of course offerings in her (then) area of interest, a high school friend going to the same LAC, etc. This is not to say they are all identical, of course, but our impression was that the differences wouldn’t be substantial. I think this was partly because of the type of colleges she had pre-selected: Midwest, liberal, with strong theater/music/creative writing, no or minimal Greek life, etc. Otherwise, I agree, all LACs aren’t the same, far from that.


My daughter visited a number of LACs, but didn’t apply to several, or decided against them after accepted student visits.

Yes, “experience” will of course vary widely based on setting (urban, suburban, rural), and specific location, how collaborative it feels, (un)importance of Greek life, whether some tend to “lean” towards certain areas of study (based on the major that “everyone” we ran into was pursuing, or facilities we saw during tour), etc.

Another thing my daughter was trying to find out about colleges, was how “general education” was implemented - whether there was a rigid set of core courses/material that every student had to complete - or whether it was a broad distribution requirement. And (being undecided) the details about choosing a major and/or potentially switching majors.

At the end, there must have been sufficient differences (in addition to just the subjective “vibes”) for her to pick a few out of several.


LACs are all the same in the way state flagships are all the same, which is to say, in some ways, like size and typical majors, but otherwise, they are genuinely different.

As smaller schools, they tend to have a dominant culture or vibe. Most have many students who are outside that, but you’ll find schools that are artier, sportier, more outdoorsy, more bohemian, more preppy, etc. While most will offer majors in history or physics, some have some areas that are less common (botany) or particularly strong (classics or FL, for example. ) They have different approaches to time away from campus, with some only allowing their own programs while others leverage 3rd party programs to provide greater choice. Some have short terms (such as a Jan Plan), some have semesters, trimesters, and one-course at a time. There are differences around cores, distribution requirements, and what is required within specific majors. They have different clubs and options for weekend entertainment. The latter tend to be similar in certainly geographies.

But still, if you want to have a little fun, you can award points to each tour guide or info session speaker who references blue lights for security, writing centers, study abroad, campus speaker series, or senior suites, etc. There are similarities because these are the things that most LAC students want.


I definitely know they aren’t all the same. I’m sure visiting with students there would help her some. She is going to see Haverford and Bryn Mawr in around a month, but unfortunately during move-in weekend.

Personally I love Macalester for her. It seems to be more diverse (I know every school mentions their diversity in their info session). It also seems like it could be more LGBTQ friendly and possibly a better fit for a kid with purple hair. lol Right now she is thinking environmental studies for a major.


Okay, based on the purple hair comment and liking Macalester, I suspect you’ll like BMC. I would also look at Bard, Skidmore, Grinnell, Bates, Oberlin, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence. They are closer together on the vibe spectrum!