The U.S. has nearly 16 million college and university students, a group with more than $300 billion in spending power. That alone makes university foodservice a promising foodservice revenue channel, but any food and beverage processor supplier to this market must be aware that college-aged consumers have definite demands and expectations.

In 2011, Technomic polled 1,500 college students around the nation for its “College and University Consumer Trend Report.” Survey results demonstrate just how important foods and beverages are to prospective students. Technomic says 44% of those surveyed indicated their school’s dining program was at least somewhat important in their decision of where to enroll. Despite that statistic, only 32% of students believe their school does a good job of making sure students are pleased with the overall dining program.

Sara Monnette, Technomic’s director of Consumer Research, believes suppliers and operators have significant opportunities to grow revenues by appealing to the campus crowd.

“Despite the fact that 62% of students surveyed say they eat at on-campus dining facilities at least weekly, only 28% of students are satisfied with the healthy offerings at their school, and only 34% express overall satisfaction with their school’s dining facilities,” she says. “Operators on and off campus could attract more students and increase the frequency of visits by refining their menus based on students’ desires.”

What are these university students’ dining desires? The ability to customize dining hall offerings is of particular importance; some 47% of students Technomic polled believe it important that they can omit or substitute ingredients in their food, compared to 43% sharing that opinion in 2009. Expanding that range of options also pertains to the time of day, as well, as some 48% of students strongly agreed they would like more on-campus dining facilities to stay open later at night.

If NPD Group research is any indication, many dining halls have significant room for improvement. NPD also finds that young consumers—and their increasingly discerning taste buds—expect more from their college dining experience. In fact, NPD research shows that students rate the quality of food and beverages at dining halls lower than chain and campus-based restaurants.

“Whether the satisfaction ratings are based on perception or reality, there is a significant opportunity for on-campus dining services to improve their customer satisfaction,” suggests NPD.

Furthermore, it is not as if those quick-service restaurants (QSRs) are performing spectacularly with these groups. Although QSRs have added higher-quality foods and beverages, young adults’ satisfaction with them has increased “only minimally” since 2002, NPD reports. However, they are even less satisfied with college dining halls, finds NPD’s Crest OnSite service, which tracks usage of foodservice at colleges and universities, as well as business and industry, secondary schools, hospitals and other segments.

As NPD explains, “With restaurants shaping young adults’ expectations on what should be available to them when they dine at school, college food providers have tough competition but also the opportunity to reverse negative perceptions by improving the quality of the food and beverages served.”

What menu items appeal to students? Gone, it would seem, are the days of pizza and generic cafeteria-style dining. Today’s college students are aware of and demanding many of the same trend-oriented foods as their parents. Some 21% of students, for example, are limiting their consumption of meat, either by following a vegetarian or vegan diet, eating only certain types of meat or consuming meat only occasionally.

This is a generation accustomed to dining out regularly, whether due to time pressures or working parents or pure convenience. The simple fact is restaurant dining is second nature to this group. As The Hartman Group notes, millennials tend to be more flexible in their eating routines than older consumers and 18-24-year-olds graze more during the day, are uncomfortable eating alone and often consume vegetarian meals, even if they do at times eat meat.

As Technomic’s Monnette explains, watching the trends on campus could well be a means of seeing into the future, as the trends taking shape in these dining halls could become part of the broader foodservice market, as these students graduate, enter the workforce and gain additional spending power.


Kids in the Hall
atisfaction Among Consumers Age 18-24

 % Who Rated Excellent

Choice of Beverages

Quality of Beverages

Taste and Flavor of Food

Quality of Food

C&U Dining Hall





On-campus C&U Restaurant





QSR Major Chains





Source: The NPD Group/CREST December 2010