Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

In College Dorms And Dining, How Nice Is Too Nice?

Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana

IU president Michael McRobbie listens to a presentation during the meeting of the IU Board of Trustees in Indianapolis on Thursday, August 18.

Nearly half of U.S. students factor in their on-campus dining options into their choice of where to go to college, which has turned college food services a $4.6 billion dollar industry.

It’s also made some Indiana University trustees wonder whether it’s economically feasible for the school to take part in an “amenities race” to build the nicest dining facilities and residence halls.

The Board of Trustees ultimately approved a $22 million project for a new on-campus dining hall Thursday, but trustees grilled university officials behind the plan whether the facility might be too fancy.

“We’ve tried to stay below luxury villas, but I don’t think anyone knows where this is heading,” IU trustee William Cast said in the meeting. “Where does it end, the private room? The tile shower? The sushi? If this economy doesn’t turn around, I don’t know where [amenities are] going.”

The project would add a 50,000 square-foot, 700-seat dining space in Forest Hall, complete with seven dining “venues” — each serving different types of cuisine — a coffee shop, and a “grab and go” convenience store.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Student pours organic dressing on a salad at UC Berkeley dining commons.

IU officials estimate the new space will have a cost-per-square-foot similar to that of a new residence hall complex Purdue University trustees approved in April, as expansive dining facilities have become central elements of selling colleges to prospective students.

Ultimately, says Rachel Warner, marketing director at the National Association of College and University Food Services, the drive to build dining halls that support a wide variety of eating options is a “response to the demand of the consumer” — the student.

“It’s not a race for amenities or to outdo everybody else. [Schools] are trying to provide an experience which students want,” Warner told StateImpact.

The trustees ultimately approved the measure because, as trustee Thomas Reilly, Jr., put it, “you’ve gotta build this thing because there’s nowhere for people to eat” in the area. There’s a new residence hall in the works in that section of campus, and there was a consensus on the board that dining options on campus are becoming too scarce.

Do you think college dining has gotten too fancy? Overly luxurious? What about student residence halls?


  • Nazani14

    Young people who are smart enough to get into college generally have some concept of what healthy food is, and they know it doesn’t come out of a can.
    The move to more choices in dining halls may in part be a response to parents- we’re forced to pay for one or two years of food contracts, so we d@nm well want our kids to get quality for that money.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment. Do you think it’s possible they can get “quality” food in facilities that aren’t, as some might say, ‘too fancy’?

  • College Student

    “Where does it end, the private room? The tile shower? The sushi?”

    Wow, what a moronic boob. I’m going to assume that the dining facility they are replacing is old, outdated and energy inefficient. Furthermore, building a new dorm isn’t some kind of “luxury” when so many students live in them. Don’t forget that students are the customers of private universities; they should get the experience that they pay for.

    • Jose

      Yes, students should get what they pay for but how much should they pay? Students and families complain about the rapidly increasing cost of both public and private education but they fail to realize that they are driving up those costs–for multiple options in the dining halls, fancy recreation centers with climbing walls and spa type services, student centers, dorm rooms that are nicer than hotels. These things come at a price and schools offer them because they feel they need to compete for students who like the flashy new stuff, but they have to increase the costs of attendance in order to offer such options. Let’s remember that when we hammer administrators for raising the price of tuition, fees, residence halls and food contracts.

      • StateImpact Indiana

        Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts… Do you think it’s possible it’s not the cost of food and lodging, but maybe the cost of *tuition* that’s really what everyone’s complaining about? Maybe the food and lodging are an incremental cost in the scheme of things?

        If you attended, what were your accommodations like when you went to college?

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for your comment, ‘College Student.’ They aren’t really ‘replacing’ a dining facility, for the record, they’re renovating about 15,000 square feet of a dorm and adding about 35,000 square feet to total in a 50k square foot dining hall.

      I wonder if you could respond to Jose’s comment below — yes, it would be nice to have new facilities, but then we turn around and complain about the high cost of tuition — doesn’t have have a point there?

      • Recent College Grad

        Now that I’m out of school, I see the massive debt I’ve been expected to borrow for “investment” purposes as a major burden to the furtherance of my career, with the reality of economy. I still cook and feed myself well (and I did in school): it’s one of the most imperative priorities to one’s quality of life. But knowing what I know now (debt), and seeing how college students are pampered by institutions at a time in life when they could be learning the value of withholding a certain lifestyle level….it’s really, really sad. I see in some of my peers the beginnings of the entitlement mentality.

        Offering a certain quality of life is one thing- and I’m not disputing that that’s not one of IU’s primary goals (I’m not a board member)……but I think ALL higher education institutions should be very careful. I have two degrees, and attended two very different institutions in completely different parts of the country, and saw the mothering in both. College is about life-ahead prep. The more I saw given to myself and my peers, the more excuses I made to be lazy, relax, and perhaps enjoy a little too much how accessibly small my world was……..

    • collegeprof

      No, college students don’t always get what they pay for, and they should not, as far as their education is concerned. Students pay to rceive an education, not for grades, despite what some may think.

  • Peter

    Students are often paying a premium to live in a dormitory. At least in Chicago, the apartment rental market is significantly cheaper and provides more amenities (i.e., a kitchen, a living room). For such high prices, dorms should certainly have more private rooms.

    By the way, I love NPR, but trying to prove the point by adding a random photograph of a Berkeley student adding “ORGANIC!!!” dressing to their salad is a little pathetic.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thank you, Peter, for your comment. Even in a place like Chicago, as opposed to a small college town where IU is located, isn’t there something about a dorm experience you can’t put a price on?

      Yeah, yeah, we love to keep things visual! #notetoself: #stockphotographydoesntalwayswork

      • Jmpmk2

        As someone who isn’t too far (though further than I’d like to think about)removed from living in a dormatory, I can verify that there is something about dorm life that you can’t put a price on. Besides the utter chaos of beer and girls that put a smile on my face from Day 1, I also met friends and study partners I would have for the remaining three years.

        Confined spaces, intolerable food, persistent noise — all of it was completely worth the experience.

        Now having worked in kitchens (thank you, English degree), I will say that great food service is easier accomplished with great facilities, but it isn’t essential.

  • Sissy Bradford

    Food and dining halls are selling pointsclass of a university? What happened to classrooms, faculty, and books?

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Fair point, Sissy, thanks for making it… but do you think students probably are likely to spend their most time, not interacting with faculty or in classrooms, but in the dorms — maybe a good reason to spend money on making them nice?

  • Kathleen Emery

    Perhaps we should be considering the quality of the food, not the quantity. The average person should go eat in a typical dining hall for a week, and see how they feel.

    A hint: It doesn’t feel good.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your point, Kathleen. Everyone’s palate is different, but I think a lot of colleges don’t want dining hall food in the way hospitals serve dining hall food — one of the “venues” at this new dining hall is going to be a section called “Comfort Food,” for example. Do you think money trying to give students the comforts of home in their college dining is money well-spent?

  • Brian

    In this backward economy, wholesome food costs more than mass-produced food that’s not as healthy. People say college dining is “fancy” simply because it costs more all of a sudden, while that cost increase actually comes from a movement toward higher-quality, locally- and often organically-grown foods.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Brian, thanks for your response. At the meeting of the IU Trustees, the cost of food preparation did come up — but the contrast is in dining facilities now vs. 40 years ago. Do you think colleges can serve higher-quality foods in facilities that aren’t as (as some might say) elaborate or include seven different “cuisine” venues?

  • Smaloney

    Isn’tn it interesting that we can serve chicken nuggets, chocolate milk, and tater tots to our elementary school children and not think twice about it…even blasphemously try to promote it as ‘healthy’ because milk has some calcium in it! However, when we move to our right thinking college aged children and put money into their dining and residence experiences with the rare inclusion of organic foods, healthy food options, and my favorite part yet, an emphasis on allergen friendly food choices….we balk that we have become too fancy and luxurious?? We are in a very sad place when we fail to see how healthy foods can make for healthier and more productive college students; maybe they should just buy more flat screen TV’s for the university centers instead so they can watch more Jersey Shore and reality TV….yes, that would probably help.
    University Professor and clinician
    Susan C. Maloney

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Appreciate the comment, Susan. I asked the same question to another commenter, and want to run it by you as well: Can’t you serve healthy food options and a wide variety of choices in facilities that cost less to build?

    • JJFoshay

      At UConn, which I graduated from a couple of years ago, expansive choices in the newest and most popular dining hall meant stations that were dedicated nightly to pizza, burgers/hot dogs, and the most popular – “comfort food” – featuring mashed potatoes and gravy every night alongside things like fried chicken and refined baked pasta dishes. The second newest and most popular dining hall on campus replicated this pattern. The salad area was nothing more than a small cart with iceberg lettuce and a non-variety of other toppings. Don’t make the assumption that large universities attempting mass-appeal are providing a healthier experience to the audience they’re trying to woo – sometimes it’s just a larger wall of cereal.

  • Rebekah S

    When I chose to go to college (IU Bloomington), food was not a factor at all. However, once I was at college, I wished very much that IU invested in healthier, fresher food with more vegetarian options. The university is making progress in this area.

    I am not interested in fancy food that mimics restaurants, and I am even less interested in fancy dorm life. Instead, I believe that IU (and other colleges) should strive to provide healthy, fresh (local if possible) food, and clean, well-maintained dorms that are accessible and affordable for all students.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Even if that healthy, fresh, local food costs more?
      Glad you chose to comment!

  • Tfiorill

    Wow! How times have changed. I went to UW-Madison in the late 60′s. Dorm meal plan was 20 meals a week, no Sunday evening. As much dairy as you wanted, America’s dairyland. Modest portions of powdered eggs, an often strange looking meat, vegetables, one serving of dessert and as much bread as you could eat. Buttermilk was the only milk in containers, I guess they figured that no one would take buttermilk back to their dorm, never underestimate the hunger of college boys.

  • Laurel

    Colleges should aim at creating an environment that promotes the physical and mental health of their students and the health of the greater global community. The problems that our food system causes on our health and the environments are no secret and our institutions of higher learning should work towards being part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem. This should not be a battle of schools trying to be the most luxurious, but rather of schools competing to educate the best global citizens.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Appreciate the insight Laurel. The question we’re posing to a lot of other commenters like you is this: Isn’t it not a question of paying for good food, but of paying for a facility that some people, like this trustee, worry might be too extravagant?

  • Anthony Cunningham

    I’ve been a college teacher for 25 years. Questions about college “real estate” are difficult to answer. In many cases, if you look at the room charge and then figure out the square footage, the costs are really high for students. But if you factor in the fact that students are paying for their room, but also the other amenities (gym, campus center, etc.), then the equation gets more complicated. And given the realities of financial aid, the picture gets even more complicated. Finally, many colleges have various tiers of housing, where the difference between first-year student housing and senior housing can be gigantic. So I doubt there is a simple answer to any “Too fancy?” question.

  • Jennifer Sundquist

    More choices, great. I remember when you needed to be afraid to eat in the dining hall, your digestive system would never be the same again. What I am concerned about is the distance these new “choices” travel to make it to that college freshman’s plate. Would it be more sustainable and cheaper to buy locally made and grown foods? Even better getting the students involved in growing things themselves. Many Universities have agriculture and horticulture programs, use them. The benefits are huge for the local economies and communities where the colleges are. Where did your dinner come from tonight?

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. Another commenter, ‘JJFoshay,’ left a comment here that seems to intersect with yours at some point… essentially, he argued colleges are building more expansive facilities to hold an expansive variety of not-necessarily-better-for-you food. Since you’re worried about the quality and origin of food, are you worried about the same thing JJFoshay’s worried about?

  • Captdthompson

    Mr. Stokes,
    I appreciate the article and think the focus needs to be on lowering costs for state universities and colleges. Sure, the students may want all sorts of things such as mutliple dining options, wonderful plush dorms and exercise areas. But with so many students and graduates awash in college debt, how about the cheap option. Low cost food and basic housing. No gym, one can always run outdoors. Why all the amenities like a resort? I thought the focus was on education?

  • B. J. Parker

    My undergrad food selection was mediocre. Not bad, but mediocre. I paid a set price and multiple options. more times than not, instead of drinking the orange juice provided, I would grab four oranges and squeeze my own (how’s that for healthy?). The food wasn’t great, but I never went hungry. I think the conversation shouldn’t be about health as much as it should be about expectations. With a declining economy it is only natural for schools to jockey for the limited amount of parents’ money.

  • Georgia

    I graduated from college a few years ago, and I did not think the food was “too good” or particularly good at all. In my undergraduate dining hall, the meal plan was fairly expensive (it was cheaper to live off campus and cook for yourself) and the quality of food was very low. I lived off of grilled cheese and salads for a substantial part of the year. The dorms were nice and I think they do not need to be changed. I also did not consider the dorms or meal plans or even what the campus looked like when choosing a college. The emphasis on going on tours I think has increased the chances of students choosing a college for shallow reasons.

  • Anonymous

    I am shocked by the trustee’s comment that “there’s nowhere for people to eat”. I went to graduate school in Bloomington, and what I loved most about the area is that there were lots of diverse options with excellent food choices and quality and affordability very close to campus. When I went to college, our amenities were relatively basic (though they had started offered apartment-style living, but those too were still far from luxurious), but we still ate the food in the dining hall and lived in our tiny dorms rooms while happily paying tuition. Why? The education was worth it, and we didn’t have any other choice. It’s what we expected college to be. We didn’t expect to be pampered, live in places that were nicer than our parents’ houses, or eat gourmet food at the school cafeteria. If you got tired of cafeteria food, you worked to make your own money and then went out somewhere in the small town where the college was located or in the larger city nearby. These sorts of “amenities” are superficial, but that’s what people say students are looking for. But it is disturbing that in so many areas of life people are now placing more value in the superficial than in other standards of quality. Is this the dominance of a youth-based culture? Or something else? A good school is not determined by how many fancy new luxury apartment buildings or gourmet dining options or sports facilities, etc a university has on campus. It’s about the quality of the faculty and the ACADEMIC experience. They are focusing their money and attention on the wrong issue at the same time that faculty wages and resources are getting cut and faculty themselves are being attacked for not buying into this “consumer” mindset and being pressured to appease students rather than to teach them. Having turned high school into a meaningless 4 years of pampering, we apparently now want to do the same with college.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Hi jeahart, thanks for your comment. Just to clarify: the trustee was putting it (maybe too) plainly that, with a new expansive residence hall complex set to be built in the area, there wasn’t enough dining space for students living in that specific part of campus.

  • lld5678

    My vote is for budgeting for higher quality food ingredients – more of the healthy, local, and organic variety – and not spending more on fancier facilities. And now I have a journalistic comment: The text of the article shed light particularly on IU’s lobbying for the latter (facilities and cuisine stations), but I take issue with the choice of photo and caption: “Student pours organic dressing on a salad at UC Berkeley dining commons.” Do you really mean to question budgeting for organic salad dressing? …. in the context of talking about whether college dining has gotten too fancy or luxurious? A parallel naturally is drawn by including that photo.

  • Douglas Garrison

    I entered undergrad at Colorado College with a slightly different perspective on campus dining and housing than many of my peers: I had come out of a boarding high school. So it was hard for me to understand the constant complaining about dining hall food when, compared to my New England prep fare, I saw a veritable smorgasbord around me! Perhaps we simply need to send our kids away for high school to experience some healthy deprivation relative to the B&B of Mom and Dad, thereby lowering expectations (like mine had become) when the acceptance letters arrive from colleges…

    Just a thought.

  • John

    I just wrote an entire master’s thesis on this. The conclusion I found through statistical analysis was that no ONE area of college spending is responsible for tuition increases. And of course – that is the real issue of college spending; what is the impact on students and their families and the ability to attend college? And, what does the average students’ loan debt look like after graduating?

    The problem with public colleges and universities right now is that ACROSS the board they continue to increase spending as if we were in a growing economy. Analyzing tuition prices and college spending back to WWII shows that through any recession we’ve had in this country/individual states, the universities continue to increase spending through it.

    I come from a family of teachers, and so I know that in many ways, we need to continue increasing school quality/educational quality. But when tuition keeps going up, student debt is climbing, and jobs for recent graduates are slim – there is something wrong, and some part of the system NEEDS to change.

    Universities argue they need alllll these amenities to attract students, but I would be willing to bet there are still enough students and parents out there who would rather pay $5,000 less/year than have the excessively fancy dining halls that I have visited.

  • jm

    I absolutely agree that gourmet dining halls, olympic-sized swimming pools, and rock-climbing walls are amenities that contribute to a student’s final decision when selecting a first choice (early decision) from a list of schools–especially if these schools are comparable in academic ranking and size. That said, I don’t think that dining halls and state-of-the-art gyms would necessarily influence a student to choose between Yale and Uconn, though it might influence a decision between Trinity College, and say, Hamilton.

    As to whether or not schools should up the ante on their dining facilities, I do think that schools, especially small colleges and universities, should try to serve food that is relatively healthy, decent quality, and purchased from local purveyors when possible. This doesn’t have to mean organic frittatas and fresh squeezed juice, but things as simple as a large salad bar with low-fat dressings and a diverse variety of salad items, and fresh sandwiches. At my college (Trinity), in particular, it was not always possible for these items to be included in our menus because because a. we have a large athletic population that needs to be fed cheap, high calorie foods, and b. the school signed on a non-compete contract with a food service provider that prohibits the inclusion/sale of any non-Food Service sponsored food in the campus dining halls. Without said contract, it may have been possible for a local food purveyor (cafe, restaurant, etc . . .) to set up a small-scale, slightly more expensive, dining operation on campus.

  • Plastacineman

    We send our children off to school, and we tell them that they are now adults. Yet, we do not equip their livings spaces with a place in which to prepare and eat food. Most state schools require a child to live on campus ad share a dorm with another stranger for the first year. The parents are sold the meal plan, and the child becomes dependent upon the cafeteria, B.K., KFC, and whatever else is served up. The “kitchen” in the dormitories is so poorly equipped and un-secure that even if the child managers to put food together, they must carry it to their room to eat in comfort and privacy, and they are lucky if the food or cookware is there when they return. In a typical room, and hotplate is the best the school will allow, and some will not allow this. This all points to an on campus culture that is bent against the nutritional health of first year students. Is it any surprise that so many first year students succumb to depression and culture shock. Food water, and shelter are the three most basic human needs, and the average university does a very poor job of cultivating anything that approximates proper food habits. It is a human rights violation, when one gets down to it.

  • Concernedstudent

    Money shouldn’t be spent on building fancier facilities but on providing better quality and healthier food.

  • Mango Money

    I think providing good, healthy food for students should definitely be a priority, but at the same time, there needs to be a line. For one thing, providing all natural, good ingredients all the time can get expensive! So rather than provide all of the healthy food, perhaps schools should provide some healthy food, and with the rest of that budget, educate the students about eating healthy and budgeting for groceries on their own? Just a thought.

    A lot of times college kids get so used to the “infinite meal plan” that they forget, after school they’ll have to get groceries on their own. If the meal plan wasn’t so all encompassing, it might not be such a shock after graduation.

    I work for Mango Money’s blog and we have a great post on some healthy and INEXPENSIVE meals. Things like this would be a great alternative to being so reliant on a meal plan, and would save the school some money as well!

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