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The Marketplace Inflation Calculator

Competition for college kids extends to cafeteria

Amy Scott Oct 31, 2014
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The dining hall at Washington College, a small liberal arts school in Chestertown, Maryland, looks more like a high-end food court.

At “The Kitchen,” the lunch menu includes garlic rosemary pork loin, vegetarian stuffed bell peppers, and lemon-glazed turkey with vegetables. At other stations, students can pick up shrimp bisque in bread bowls or gluten-free pizza. Environmentally conscious diners can mix their own smoothies with a bicycle-powered blender.

And if they still don’t see something they want to eat? 

“You can go up to an associate and tell them what you want, and they’ll make it for you,” says Joe Holt, the college’s chief of staff.

All this choice, of course, has a price. Room and board is rising about 6 percent a year at the college, twice as fast as tuition.

Five years ago, Washington College spent almost $24 million to renovate its outdated cafeteria and hired a company called Chartwells to manage it.

Holt says what they do costs more “than the old system where you got the gallon can of corn and you cranked it open and put it in a serving dish, and that was your meal.”

Washington College couldn’t afford not to upgrade, says Holt. The competition for students is fierce, and the amenities arms race is part of what’s driven the price of room and board up 50 percent at private colleges over the last 25 years (after adjusting for inflation), according to the College Board. At public universities, it’s up 67 percent.

Students – and their parents – have higher standards than they used to, says David Bergeron, vice president of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. Department of Education official.

“We’re expecting college students to be exposed to healthier eating options, more fruits and vegetables, better quality food,” he says.

That’s just the “board” side of the equation. Students also want single rooms and private bathrooms, and colleges are building luxury dorms to accommodate them.  

But if today’s students are pickier, they don’t necessarily own up to it. Washington College students Michelle Coleman and Leon Newkirk say the dining hall wasn’t figured in when they shopped for colleges.

“I’m not a picky eater,” Coleman says. “I’ve always just eaten what’s given to me.”

“Same here,” says Newkirk.

Still, as they load their plates with pierogi in wild mushroom sauce and grilled chicken, both say they like the food and are willing to pay more for it.

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