Report: College students most likely to spend money on food
college and university foodservice (Photo: Flickr user Mike)

What comes to mind when you imagine the eating habits of the average college student? Is it the stereotypically cash-strapped millennial stocking up on packets of ramen and macaroni and cheese, or is it the more modern foodie looking for new and exciting options at dining halls and at the hottest restaurants in town? The correct answer is both and everything in between – among other insights, Datassential’s newest Topical Keynote Report on Colleges & Universities found that while money is a concern for students, with expense being the top reason cited for not being on a meal plan (40%), most students would spend a gift of money on food over other items like clothes or electronics.

Our extensive report uncovers many more essential findings on the behaviors and wants of today’s college students, a population that is expected to reach nearly 23 million in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The college and university foodservice segment offers a $17 billion-a-year student-spend opportunity and, in this sneak peek of the report, you’ll see how you can snag your share of the segment.

Getting in tune with students and millennials

One of Datassential’s most asked about topics is millennials – what makes this generation different from others? What do millennials want and how can we appeal to them? With the age of the group consisting of 18 to 34-year-olds, millennials are intrinsically tied to the C&U segment, and Generation Z, sometimes called post-millennials, are also becoming increasingly interesting to operators as they start to form their own opinions on food and begin to enter into the college world. An understanding of these target demographics is key for C&U operators (and the industry overall) as they look to innovate against constantly changing trends and fluctuating taste buds.

In our extensive survey of over 1,000 current students enrolled in colleges across the country, we found that the majority of students want made-to-order, fresh, healthy foods that are also customizable and fast – the same things consumers overall are pushing for. You’ll find these trends in every segment of the industry – think Chipotle-style “build your own” fast-casual concepts applied to everything from fast-fired pizza to Indian-inspired chicken tikka rice bowls. It’s no surprise then that colleges and universities are following these industry trends, adding their own fast-casual eateries and food trucks, either self-operated or contracted to an outside company, in order to stay relevant and keep dining dollars on campus.

While the majority of students agree with one another in wanting the same overall industry trends like healthy, fast and customized, foods, college operators face the unique task of serving a wide range of students with various backgrounds and taste preferences – an ingredient or dish that may be familiar to some students might be too outlandish for others, and for those students with a wider range of previous food experiences, some offerings could come off as too plain or boring. Maintaining a balance is key for operators looking to appease all taste buds and to retain student utilization of campus dining programs. Introducing special themed nights such as "sushi night" or ethnic-themed nights like "Caribbean night" is just one of the ways operators can add variety and excitement to standard dining hall fare.

Over and over again, students also emphasized their propensity for variety, preferring to have choices that range from the classic and traditional, like pizza and burgers, to more unique options — nothing too exotic, but students are interested in options like sushi or new sauce flavors on wings. A wider variety can spice up what could become monotonous and prevent students from dining off-campus (unsurprisingly, one of the top reasons students go off-campus for food is to “have something different”).

Crafting creative concepts

In the August issue of our Creative Concepts TrendSpotting Report, Datassential highlighted the country’s most innovative colleges offering next-level dining programs. We covered colleges offering anything from wood-fired pizza, a concept more than 80% of college-age millennials (ages 18-24) wanted to try, to steak and lobster. At The Ohio State University, a stone-hearth oven cranks out more than 300 pizzas a day, while Virginia Tech University offers steak and live Maine lobster, available every day at its West End Market.

Here’s just a small sample of insights we gathered from more than 130 C&U operators, from their most unique menu items to the dining formats, partnerships and special events that set them apart.

  • We do several special format meals a year. One of the more successful ones is bizarre foods where we order and prepare foods many of the students may not otherwise have a chance (to) sample.”
  • “Once per week each dining hall plans and executes a "change up" food event that generally features something cultural (American Indian day last week).”
  • “We periodically offer both vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian "thalis" consisting of 8 little dishes per order including appetizers, main entrées, rice, naan, and desserts.”
  • “(We) offer wild game and offal such as tongue, heart, and liver. We use them in a variety of world cuisine applications.”

It’s clear that college dining has come a long way in offering items (like offal) that likely would never have shown up on college campuses a few years ago, and it’s now more important than ever to understand today’s college operators, as well as today’s generation of more adventurous college eaters, when hoping to reach those in this lucrative segment.

Graduating to new opportunities

Because C&U operators are part of larger institutions, they often have more wiggle room with the types of foodservice outlets they can gain revenue from and often have more flexibility than traditional restaurants. C&U operators are also highly invested in the overall institution and are interested in improving or maintaining their quality of foodservice outlets, with nearly 80% of operators saying campus dining is a key part of student recruitment. Almost a third of colleges even say that their dining operations are more motivated by student satisfaction than profit.

Retail and catering are also opportunities for schools to increase their reach with students and grow revenue, whether it’s by offering easy, grab-and-go meal options that inhibit students from spending their dollars off-campus, implementing student-run farms or farmers’ markets that provide fresh foods for students that would otherwise be shopping at nearby grocery stores, or by expanding catering services for special events like weddings, maximizing the use of existing facilities and gaining business in off-seasons when students aren’t in school.

Renee Lee is a publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about ordering Datassential’s Colleges & Universities Keynote Report contact Brian Darr at brian@datassential.com. Also ask about our line of TrendSpotting Reports, including the aforementioned issue of Creative Concepts: College Foodservice.

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