Campus Life

Check Out College Cuisine When Visiting

My colleague, Sally Rubenstone, just returned from an extended college-visit trip with her high school junior son and husband. Their venture took them through Louisiana and Texas. While I'm sure that these experienced travelers and college-knowledgeable people were careful to note a number of details about the schools they visited, I'm still waiting for a report from them about the quality of food they encountered at the campuses they visited.

Sometimes college visits don't include a proper evaluation of the colleges' dining halls' excellence or lack thereof. The important thing to remember is that during the nine months per year that college students spend on campus (assuming that they are residential students), a significant portion of their general happiness (whether or not they're aware of it) will come from their satisfaction with the quality of the food that is available to them.

This is an important issue, so much so that a quick Google check for “best college food" will bring you a large selection of links reporting various lists of which colleges dish out the tastiest meals. For example, can tell you about their selections for the 60 best colleges for food. There you'll find their latest Tasty Top-10 (in David Letterman order):

10. Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

9. Tufts University, Boston

8. Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Ga.

7. UMass Amherst, Amherst, Mass.

6. Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

5. University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles

4. Emory University, Atlanta

3. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.

2. Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis

1. Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

Have you visited any of those schools? If so, have you sampled the food and found it top-10 worthy?

What should you be looking for in regards to campus dining when you visit a college? Well, fortunately, I have some expert opinions on that to share with you. Are you hungry for more information?

David Porter is an author, social architect, and CEO and president of Porter Khouw Consulting, Inc., a foodservice master planning and design firm based in Crofton, Maryland. David has more than 40 years of hands-on food service operations and consulting experience and is a professional member of the Foodservice Consultants Society International. He is a graduate of the prestigious hospitality program at Michigan State University and has been recognized as a leader in his field.

Across the country, high school students are busy planning college visits in order to winnow their wish lists before senior year applications. With his permission, Porter offers his wisdom about three important criteria to look for in evaluating dining during a college visit.

“It's important to visit while classes are in session, and to pay attention to what's going on in the classroom outside of the classroom. What are the wholesome opportunities for socially rich student engagement and study on-campus? What extra-curriculars are offered and how accessible are they? What does the college newspaper reveal about campus issues, concerns and opportunities?

“Many universities require freshmen to live on campus for the first year because administrators know that students who live and dine on campus have higher GPAs and higher graduation rates than those who don't. A properly socially engineered dining-learning commons is central to the day-to-day lives of all students living on-campus and is crucial for face-to-face social networking and study with fellow students.

“But these same universities often fail to realize that student dining is as much — even more — a factor in developing a sense of community and predicting future success. This is the centerpiece of 'the classroom outside of the classroom.'

“Here are some suggestions for evaluating campus dining commons:

• Is there a centralized dining hall or commons, or are food locations scattered? A dining-learning commons is the living room of the campus, a place where students come together and pause long enough to meet, talk, make friends, see and be seen, relax, study and collaborate. These are all vital not only to bonding but to learning how to socialize with fellow students from a wide variety of backgrounds in a neutral environment. That provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to develop and nurture valuable networking skills for their personal and future professional lives. If the meal plan encourages them to scatter across campus — or go off campus — to pick up fast foods eaten in isolation, vital opportunities are lost.

• What are the hours of operation? Students live on a different clock than most of us. For many students, 11 p.m. is the middle of the day. Is the dining-learning commons open, thus respecting and being conducive to their (not our) lifestyle? If so, does it offer more than microwave pizza and hot dogs? This will offer a social and safe on-campus environment. If the place isn't open when they're hungry, they'll go elsewhere.

• How far is the dining hall from dorms and the academic core of campus? I once consulted with a university that was mystified about why two dining halls got lots of student traffic, while the third — the most beautiful — was largely ignored. When I visited, I discovered the dining hall had been built on top of a rather steep hill on the far edge of campus. The location offered great views, but the climb was a bear! Dining halls should be within easy reach of both dorms and classroom buildings in the academic core or students simply won't use them.

That final consideration makes a lot of sense to me, as I recall my college daze, so to speak. My freshman dorm was located on the far edge of campus, bordering a city street. The dining hall, which had reasonably late hours, was maybe a quarter mile away, across a large quad. However, just one short city block from my dorm's rear door, was the Hilltop Sub Shop, the center of the gastronomic universe for out of this world steak sandwiches. So, just as Porter reports, I found myself (and my roommate) heading to Hilltop rather than the ol' dining hall for our late-night snacks (a.k.a. multi-thousand-calorie binges). Ah, those were the days!

All this should be food for thought as you begin (or continue) your college visits this year. Oh, and by the way, in case you're curious, here are the bottom 10 from The Daily Meal's Top 60 colleges for good food:

60. University of Washington, Seattle

59. Boston College, Boston

58. William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.

57. University of Richmond, Richmond, Va.

56. Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.

55. Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

54. Scripps College, Claremont, Calif.

53. Roger Williams University, Bristol, R.I.

52. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

51. Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.


Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.