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Andy RosenAndrew S. Rosen is the author of Rebooting for the New Talent Economy and a frequent speaker on the challenges facing higher education in a knowledge economy. He is also chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., one of the world’s largest and most diverse education organizations.

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The Indefensible Luxury of Today’s College Dining

Posted by Andy Rosen on October 10, 2011

Out in the real world, the economy is awful and both families and governments are cutting back. But on college campuses, the good times keep rolling. I devoted an entire chapter of to “Club College” — how colleges are turning into full-fledged resorts. Even so, I keep thinking the pace of luxury will start to slow as states get more squeezed economically, and I keep getting disappointed.

The latest evidence: the Washington Post’s weekend article “Campuses Dining Goes Upscale,” which describes the “pho-style brisket, fire-grilled salmon, Pacific rim noodles, deconstructed cannoli” that characterizes new student eating options at the University of Maryland. Reports the Post:

“Nationwide, colleges big and small are competing for the attention of tomorrow’s leaders by targeting their bellies with Food and Wine magazine-caliber food.

“Out: taco bars. In: lobster tanks.

“’Students have different expectations now when it comes to food,’ said Joe Mullineaux, senior associate director for the University of Maryland’s dining services.”

If there’s any concession at all to the worsening economy, it’s that colleges now at least try to make a case that the upscale dining options are as costly as they seem – but the arguments tend to defy credulity. The Post asserts: “Today’s entrees are often cooked to order, right in front of students. This helps keep costs down; the only food prepared is food that is ordered.” Oh yes, of course; it’s well known that individually-prepared lobster or filet is less expensive than the cafeteria-line pasta of old-style dining halls.

Where there’s less dissembling is the reason colleges feel the need to provide daily meals for 19-year olds at a level most of their parents reserve for birthdays and anniversaries. “Campus officials say that while the more highfalutin dining entrees can sometimes drive higher revenue, they are more interested in food as a recruiting tool.” In other words, even as Maryland has cut its per-student funding to community colleges by 24 percent over the last four years, its taxpayers are footing the bill for fancy Italian, Asian and other eateries because the University of Maryland is worried if it doesn’t step up, kids will pick schools like George Washington University, less than 15 miles away. Is that really a better use of funds than making sure their less-advantaged citizens are getting a place in class? Would it be appropriate to ask ordinary Marylanders to help pay for fancy meals for relatively well-off kids even if the state’s budget wasn’t so strained?

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