Middlebury vs Carleton vs. Macalester

After getting back all of my college decisions, I’ve narrowed down my final three to Macalester, Middlebury, and Carleton College. I’m not too sure what I want to study in college, but I know these 3 have different strengths. For me each school has a major pro: Carleton has best undergrad teaching and a very chill, unpretentious environment, Middlebury has the most prestige (especially for finance), the nicest campus and best language learning, and Macalester is giving me 20k a year in merit aid. Middlebury and Carleton would be comparable in price while Macalester would be 115k less. I’ve been really struggling with this decision and would appreciate any advice/insights.


Potential major and career? I am partial to Carleton, but not for an additional $115k. Can your family easily afford the cost without loans?

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I wouldn’t need to take out loans, but that’s still a very significant amount of money for me

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So to mangle a cliché, you can’t eat prestige. Where does the $115,000 come from? You can’t borrow it- will your parents pay it? That matters.

Then, are you strongly more of a city mouse or a country mouse? Middlebury has a beautiful campus- deep in the heart of nowhere. Macalaster is right in the middle of a city. Where do you want to spend 4 years of your life?

You mention Finance, a notoriously prestige-focused field - is that what you want to go into? If so, how much farther have you thought it through? For example, if it’s ‘I just want IB at Goldman in NYC- who needs a life I want the $$$!’ go for Middlebury. If it’s ‘I am interested in a banking career’- any of them will do just fine.

Being honest with yourself, on a sliding scale from preppy to quirky to nerdy, where does the needle stop for you?


I am from the Midwest, and I’ve also had several students attend Mac. They have universally loved it and gone on to excellent grad schools/careers. If money is a factor, I’d have no problem endorsing a Macalester education.


I need to cut and paste this for future use! :smiley:

I know 3 Fortune 500 CEOs personally. None went to a school as prestigious as any of these. You’ll be fine no matter where you go.

As for the money, you maintain decide that one besides Macalester is “worth it.” Just remember, the money has opportunity cost. It’s not just $115K, but that amount invested over time.

Congrats and good luck!


Yeah, my parents are willing to pay it, but it’s definitely still significant. I really like the feel of Middlebury and Carleton kind of being in the middle of nowhere. I’m really unsure of what I want to study which is a big reason I’m going to an LAC. I mentioned finance since I like money and numbers, but it’s not a set plan at all. I’m also very interested in grad school which is a big plus for Macalester as well. Overall, I’m having a very hard time balancing cost with prestige and overall experience.

It sounds like you like the urban feel of Macalester the least, so there’s that issue. If $115K isn’t a hardship for your parents, the fit argument would perhaps say Midd or Carleton.

But here’s a different thought, since you like finance. If $115K isn’t a hardship, you could go to Mac and ask your parents to gift you that money (over four years to avoid tax) and start investing as a hobby/extracurricular. If you do go to grad school, that money will continue to grow during that time, too, which will offset the lost earnings of not immediately entering the workforce.


I would eliminate prestige from the calculus. All three are good schools, but outside of us nerds on CC, no one will have heard of them. In fact, most don’t know Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, etc.


I would ignore the prestige factor, as all of them will provide a top notch liberal arts education. Macalester has a great reputation where it matters, and the attending students I know have ranged from a pretty straight-laced finance kid to an intellectual classics major to an LGBTQ social justice warrior. All have done well after graduation.
Another teacher in my district (a Carleton grad) sent his daughter to Macalester and she also had a wonderful experience.

If 115k isn’t pocket change for your family, I would seriously consider what that kind of capital can do when compounded over time.


these are great schools- you are lucky. Middlebury has the moist prestige and is the best known on the East Coast. And the campus is gorgeous, although my daughter thought it was way to quiet and wouldn’t apply.

Carleton and Macalaster are also excellent though and will not hold you back in any way.

unless you are seriously wealthy- go to Macalaster.


I know a fair amount about all three schools as S1 was recruited by them to play a sport. I LOVE Carleton… I would not say that Middlebury has a nicer campus, but having the mountains in the background and their own ski hill is a plus. Also agree that Midd is more a feeder to Wall street than Carleton. My kids used to go to classes every weekend to Mac as kids, so they have a love/hate relationship to it. They hated that we took them to school on the weekend, loved that I tended to buy them a Snuffy’s malt(the best!) as a bribe to keep them attending.
In short, I agree with your assessment of the schools and their strengths. Mac has a lesser academic profile than Carleton and Midd, but not so much that it really matters. If you excel at Mac, you can get into a nice grad school. What’s more, you will be able to afford to go to grad school, because of all the compounded money you will save.
Midd and Carleton are in wonderful, idyllic settings, but Mac is in a good part of town, and is really convenient(again, Snuffys- Coffee malt). When you go to a rigorous school, you will be spending a lot of time studying hard in a library, in a class, or sleeping. The surroundings tend to be of minor importance.


College is an opportunity. Your future success will be determined far more by what you do to take advantage of the opportunity than it will be by what the college does for you.

In the big picture, the differences among these 3 schools are minor. They are far more similar than they are different. The opportunity to save money at Macalester is not in the least a trade off to take something lesser. It’s not like saving money to go to State U and give up the opportunity presented by an LAC.

There are some very big advantages at Macalester that you haven’t mentioned:

  1. They want you! They think very highly of you. Macalester is committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need. As a result of the fact that their financial resources are committed to students in need, they give out very few merit scholarships. Less than 10% of the dollars which they distribute in grants are awarded as merit scholarships. You will go there with the opportunity to be one of the elite students at a selective LAC. That’s a big deal.

  2. Your scholarship is guaranteed for 4 years. Don’t take this lightly. Many scholarships at other schools can only be continued for 4 years IF you maintain a minimum gpa. No such pressure at Mac. You can have a bad semester for any number of reasons as many of us had and your funds won’t be threatened. This frees you up to take risks, do things that are hard, commit time to demanding extracurricular learning opportunities without worry.

  3. Macalester is in a major city (St. Paul + Minneapolis). A state capital. This is a rare opportunity. As rare as hen’s teeth. Doesn’t exist among the NESCAC LAC’s. The nice campus at Middlebury will get old pretty quickly, even insular, but you will not run out of things to do in 4 years in Minneapolis/St. Paul. You will have plenty of time to spend in the country or a small town outside of the academic year. Take a job at a summer camp in the woods. Plan an excursion in the summer to canoe Minnesota’s fabled Boundary Waters. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Do an internship at another college that is located in a small town. Vary your college experiences. Bottom line is that you can get what Carleton and Middlebury offer at many other schools. There are very few colleges where you can get what Macalester offers. It is a special place.

  4. Prestige? I was once part of an interviewing committee for a top job in our organization in New England. The questions for one of our candidates began with the standard, “Tell us about yourself.” He started with, “I graduated from Macalester College, which we like to think of as ‘the Harvard of the Midwest’.” We Yankees chuckled. After the interview, I looked up Macalester and thought, “He has a point. Good school.” He proved to be one of the brightest people on our staff, was a real leader, and became a close friend. BTW, he also had Harvard on his resume, a master’s, which is certainly one way to enhance prestige. Prestige is what you make of it.

Good luck with your choice.


Are you going to re-visit days?

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All else equal, there is not an adequate difference in quality, in my opinion, to justify paying $115000 more for Midd and Carleton. Macalester is a fine school.

That being said, you have to weigh that $115000 against the importance of the “fit” variables you have mentioned. We can’t really answer that for you.

Yes, Mac is in a big city. It is urban, though parks are nearby. But if you want a rural college experience, you will not get that at Mac. Is that blemish worth the money?

If you knew that you wanted to go into Big Finance, Middlebury would give you the easiest route to it, and maybe the extra $115000 would be worth it. But if you are undecided – I don’t see it. So you just have to decide if the fit variables are worth the extra money.


Macalester has a Latina woman president. Pretty impressive. Her credentials include bachelor’s from Brown, master’s from Berkeley, doctorate from Texas. Was previously VP at Case Western Reserve before coming over to Macalester 2 years ago.


You’ve received some great perspectives in this thread with one glaring exception.

FWIW, I wouldn’t assume that Carleton has better teaching or that Middlebury is more prestigious. I would not take those as stipulated facts.

Middlebury does have a more well worn path to Wall Street, so I think @57special 's advice there is spot on. Likewise, if you told me that languages was your passion, then I’d say take a hard look at Midd.

But outside of that, Carlton and Middlebury are a toss-up … both very highly regarded and classic LACs. Mac is too, but maybe a smidge lower on the scale of factors that go into establishing the pecking order. I, too, would think long and hard before dropping the $115k assuming you like Mac. Agree with others … if you’re headed to grad school, Mac will get you everything that the other two will get you.

Three really nice choices. Congratulations. You could really flip a coin on these (other than the $115k).

Good luck.


Posted on Reddit re: Carleton vs. Mac

Same same different. Full-disclosure: I went to Mac. I did spend a few weekends at Carleton, have a lot of friends who went there, and even dated a Carletonian.

Carleton is of course higher ranked - it competes more with schools like Colby, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Middlebury. (I’m not sure that will change one’s lot in life in terms of grad school or career prospects, which are great with both degrees.)

Its kindred spirit university is Dartmouth - rural, bucolic.

Very intellectual, studious student body. Particular strength in Humanities and the traditional liberal arts. Leans Progressive, but not in an extreme way. Weekends are spent in small dorm gatherings and coffee chats. The administration is focused on engendering school pride. Students tend to be upper middle class/wealthier.

You can cross-register with St. Olaf.


Mac is not diametrically opposite - they are more similar than different - but is on a different frequency. It competes with Grinnell, Oberlin, Smith, Wesleyan.

Its kindred spirit university is Brown. Macalester is in the city - a lovely, safe, leafy neighborhood with bookstores and coffee shops - but decidedly urban. (On the weekends, a bus from Northfield drops Carls and Oles off on the Mac campus.) Students are more Progressive than at Carleton.

The campus is more compact, buzzier, more “plugged in” due to its location. Weekends are mostly spent on campus, but students also go out for Ethiopian food, thrift store shopping, and to concerts in Minneapolis.

Still intellectual, but a bit more focused on application - internships and activism. Lots of students intern and classes take advantage of the city. Mac is a bit more international in spirit and much more socioeconomically diverse.

You can cross-register at 4 schools through the ACTC (incl a business school), MCAD (arts school), and the University of Minnesota, which offers classes in basically every subject, from Ojibwe to Icelandic.

I would obviously choose Mac - personally not sure you can justify $115k to go to the others.


For an opinion on Middlebury in the context of comments on other liberal arts colleges, see post #7: Struggling with D21's List. ED & ED2: Amherst, Hamilton, Wellesley, Vassar.

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I look at it this way: Is that $115,000 going to be put away for a rainy day or is it just going to get spent on other stuff? Four years at what looks to me as your second-choice school can lead to resentment unless that sticker-price discount (which was based on your individual “merit”) is earmarked in some way for your future. Just sayin…

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