St. Olaf vs Dickinson College for LGBTQ, social justice advocate, average excellent student

Hi! I’ve not posted before but have learned so much from all of you over the last several months. That said, my D22 is having a difficult time making a final decision, so we’d love any and all input. Her current top choices are St. Olaf College and Dickinson College (a couple of other very top choices on waitlists, but assuming those likely won’t move to be safe).

Would love feedback on either of these two schools, positive or negative. Especially curious about the current culture at Dickinson (I’ve heard mixed things on student satisfaction), opportunities for getting off campus without a car (a big part of the draw of Dickinson is being in range of other East Cost/New England cities and outdoor opportunities), engagement of students ON campus, food at Dickinson (food at St. Olaf is excellent), and transportation from Dickinson/Carlisle to, say, D.C. or Philadelphia for flights. Thanks!


Hi. I can’t speak to Dickinson, but know about St. Olaf because many friends and relatives went there. St. Olaf is a terrific school, and students are usually really happy unless they wanted to be in a city and did not want a small town experience in the first place. Minneapolis is far enough away (45 min) that realistically most people stay in Northfield for fun. I went to Carleton (also in Northfield) and maybe did something in Mpls only 1-2x/year. In terms of the education, it has a nurturing collaborative vibe, but can also be as rigorous as you want it to be. I know a couple of tippy-top students who turned down T10-T20 schools to go to St. Olaf, and had an outstanding experience and snagged prestigious internships and now are headed to elite grad schools. If your kid has a social justice vibe, they will definitely meet their people there, but it is not as universally liberal and political as a place like Macalester is, for example. If your kid is LGBT, they will be accepted and supported, but it does not have what I would call a big or thriving queer scene (not like Vassar or Bard etc.) It has terrific programs in a wide range of subjects from math to music.


Thanks! St. Olaf is definitely a fantastic school and I’m sure she’ll love it if she chooses it. It’s great to hear that strong internships and grad schools are happening, for sure; I know internships especially are something she’s hoping to do.

I encouraged her to apply to Macalaster but I think it just felt too close to home. Northfield feels at least a little farther away.

Thanks again for your response! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

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Mom of dickinson student here. Dickinson is what you make it. My child has had great experiences as an athlete involved in clubs and is doing work with a professor next semester. Other kids are less happy. It’s not a big party school but there are some parties available. There is a social events board called MOB that runs events all the time. Food is a big issue this year because they are terribly understaffed, so that is a downside. Access to other cities is possible and kids enjoy it- trains from Harrisburg to Philly and NYC. Dickinson runs a shuttle at breaks to Harrisburg train station and airport, so you can transfer from there to other major cities with ease. Beautiful hiking in the area (outing club on campus is great for this and they even have outing club special interest housing available) and Carlisle is a gem of a town. So many cute shops and restaurants. Hth


Thank you so much! Good to hear about the accessibility of getting to other cities (although it’s also good to hear there are plenty of things to do on campus and with hiking, which she’d definitely enjoy).

Do you know if Dickinson runs shuttles anywhere else, or just to Harrisburg? I’m assuming just the latter and probably just at breaks?

Has this year been an outlier as far as the dining issues, or is it pretty typical? I’ve heard the staffing shortage is in part because of compensation? I also saw that freshmen doing work/study MUST work in dining services as opposed to most of the other available job options, and that work/study wages are fairly low compared to what she’d make at St. Olaf (likely a difference in state minimum wage).

What does your student think of the housing options (for all four years)? Any feedback on the experience of his/her non-athlete peers at Dickinson?

Thanks again!

@lovemycrazylife Yes, just Harrisburg. For breaks Dickinson runs shuttle to Harrisburg and then uses a service called Breakshuttle to provide service to NYC, Hartford and Boston.

My child is a sophomore so hard to say about dining because of remote learning last year, but she has heard it used to be better. They had a third location called the Quarry and shut it down during the pandemic. Staffing is an issue partly because of compensation (PA state wage is awful) and supposedly the vaccine requirement, all rumors though. The lines in the cafeteria have been frustrating for my child this year but she enjoys eating there with friends. Union Station (snar) also has good takeout options with online ordering for pickup.

Housing isn’t the best freshmen year and will be worse next year because they are closing one of the primary freshmen dorms for a major renovation. By sophomore year almost everyone lives in a suite with either a private bathroom or common area - very nice. Or, they can live in special interest housing. Juniors and seniors live in suites or apartment style settings that are much nicer. All housing is college owned - no off campus. Perhaps that is why the party scene is not as strong as some other campuses. Non athlete peers fare well, just recommend finding a community on campus to be your niche. Whether it’s a capella or dance or equestrian team or sorority or sustainability group, there is somewhere for everyone as long as you get involved. Also, the study abroad opportunities are AMAZING and she is so excited to travel next year.

She loves Dickinson and despite some of the challenges it may face as a small liberal arts school, this is her home.


Seconding lovemycrazylife’s questions. Very interested in any info you can offer. Is the dining hall they eliminated coming back? Because the dining situation sounds abysmal. Is the dining plan mandatory all four years? Also hearing on other threads that the “best” faculty are leaving. Do you know if this is true? Can you share what year your son is? Wondering if the school and town seem very small after a couple of years. We’re visiting for accepted students day tomorrow and Saturday but I wonder if we’ll be able to get answers to these kinds of questions, Thanks!
EDIT: Whoops, you answered some of these questions as I was typing! Sorry to be redundant.

Dining is bad and yes it’s mandatory. I am not aware of any “best” faculty leaving but will ask my daughter. She’s a sophomore and has loved all her professors. She babysits for one of their kids, another invited the class to his home for dinner, etc. Those close relationships are a hallmark of dickinson. She loves Carlisle as a place to eat out with friends but is so busy on campus that she spends most of the time there.


Thank you! Sorry I referenced your child as your son, I was reading too quickly. Very strange to make the meal plan mandatory when it is so sub-par - it’s like we’d have to budget extra $ to food shop and eat in the dorm or eat in town. And very discouraging about freshmen dorms. I’m glad your daughter is having such a good experience though, with professors and activities, really good to hear. Thanks again!

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I’d love to hear your impressions after the accepted students weekend. We can’t make it as my D22 had pre-existing commitments. Hoping to visit later in the month if she is still weighing Dickinson. It’s a really tough decision, with pros and cons for two excellent schools! (Plus hasn’t ruled out a state university in a neighboring state where she’d also have great opportunities and we could probably make it work without her having to take out any loans…)

FWIW in my experience it is not unusual to make meal plans mandatory for students living in dorms with no kitchens.


I’ll try to remember to come back and share what we find out this weekend. Feel free to message me if I forget. We are also deciding between Dickinson and another small LAC and possible a neighboring state school and one other university, all have different pros and cons, of course!

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It sounds like you’re from MN which may make a difference positive or negative. How important is transportation home? We’re a NJ based family and my son is at St. Olaf. Getting him home for breaks has been very easy, lots of shuttles to MSP at break time for Oles and Carls and direct flights to Newark. He’s dorm to door in 6 hours. Getting to MSP from Carlisle would likely be much longer. Carlisle is hours from any truly vibrant city, but the town itself is quite quaint with colonial historic feel. The college is right in town unlike Olaf up on the hill above (the also quaint) Northfield. It seems like roughly half of Olaf students are from MN, WI and IA with the rest from all over the country and the world. I imagine stats are similar for Dickinson for PA, NJ, MD. Totally subjective, but when we toured Dickinson, we felt like we were in a 3d marketing campaign everywhere we turned, it felt a little too self congratulatory. When we visited St. Olaf on the other hand, we were blown away by the feeling that this institution did everything it could to walk the walk of a supportive, inclusive, academic community of doers and thinkers. We have not been disillusioned yet. Olaf has Interim in January which allows lots of students to study off campus and internationally for shorter times with out interfering with course of study, but it also has a lot of requirements which is not for every student. Have you looked through the respective course catalogs? Does your daughter know what she wants to study?

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Thanks! Yes, we’re from MN, which is certainly part of what makes her decision more difficult, given that there are both pros and cons to staying in-state. We’ve promised that if she chooses St. Olaf we certainly won’t be showing up uninvited! However, it would be wonderful to be able to attend concerts, etc.

Carlisle is a pain to get to for us, to be sure, and adds significantly to the cost/time factor. It reminded us of Northfield in many ways in that they both seemed to be great college towns.

I will say that my first impression of Dickinson was that they were trying a bit too hard to show that they were just as good or better than many of the more well known East Coast colleges. St. Olaf doesn’t give me that impression. They know who they are and are confident in that role.

Interim at St. Olaf is a huge draw in my opinion. I love that it gives additional options for off-campus study as well as interesting on-campus options. And to be honest, St. Olaf’s academic calendar would work far better with the rest of our family’s schedules. But…it has the (perceived, for her) downside of being closeish to home.

Right now she’s most strongly interested in environmental studies, social policy, and political science, which both schools seem to do well. She’s also very eager to do some study abroad experiences…and again, both schools do those extremely well. Each has a few factors that are stronger than the other. I’ve encouraged her to look through the specific course catalogs for both and will be doing so again.

I hope your son is loving his time at St. Olaf, and thanks again for your feedback!

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Good luck! She really has 2 great choices. I definitely wish that we could come to campus more easily (but my son doesn’t! :joy:


Yes, my D would be happy enough (she says) to just be dropped off and not see us again for the rest of the year. We shall see!

Is your son involved in music at all at St. Olaf? If so, I hope you’re able to get out for at least one of the Christmas Festivals.

His initial plan was to play violin, (music is what put Olaf on the map for us) but he chose not to get involved this year. It was a big surprise to us, but these things apparently happen when kids go off to college!

Just wanted to chime in that a lot of colleges are having a sub-par year foodwise. Many think it is related to post-pandemic difficulties related to hiring sufficient food service employees.


I have heard that too. The effects of the panedemic have certainly extended to unanticipated areas.

I can’t comment on St Olaf but can offer some insight into Dickinson. When you listed social justice, what immediately came to mind was a program that we found about when we visited in 2019.

We were there for an open house and interacted with some students. Most of them had a second major or minor that had a social science component. One student who stuck out, particularly to us, was doing a double major in Micro Biology and Religion, wanting to be a doctor. She wanted to understand the ethical impact of religion on medical choices.

The Carlisle is a cool little area with a fair amount going on for its size. Also, the town itself is easily walkable from campus. In terms of travel, it may not be as convenient as St Olaf. However, if Minneapolis is your airport, I believe there are multiple non-stop flights into Baltimore, about an hour and 45-minute drive, and Philly a little over two hours.