University dining halls have changed drastically over the past few decades, and the gap between them continues to widen. Need proof? Just check out this list of the best college dining halls from USA Today. It’s amazing just how much it’s changed over the years.


Today, as competition for students grows, dining facilities have come under scrutiny from administrators as a key way to attract students who are waffling between multiple universities. Because of this, colleges and universities are stepping up their game with campus renovations and added amenities designed to attract the best and brightest each fall.

Today’s student dining facilities are much more than big boxes where students show up and eat what is served. Students expect not only convenience, but also the variety and quality of their favorite restaurants. Well-traveled, more culturally informed students required options that reflect their diverse background rather than just traditional American staples. The movement in recent years toward green living has amplified the desire for more sophisticated meals. Students expect healthy options that aren’t short on flavor and sustainable practices that improve the community as a whole.


A recent article in Campus Dining Today tracked thousands of interviews with college students to determine what today’s students want, and how they’re shaping the future of campus dining. A number of interesting points came up, including:

Mindful Dining – Campus Dining Today looked at a survey from Culinary Visions Panel which asked more than 450 millennials about their school dining expectations. Words like “fresh,” “local” and “whole grain” were among the top claims that mattered most to millennials. Additionally, there were strong feelings about consuming food they felt was grown and produced in an ethical manner. More than half indicated they saw terms like “grass fed/pasture raised,” “hormone free,” “fair trade” and “organic,” among others, as being important.

student dining food preparation
A student worker prepares fresh ingredients at Michigan State University’s Brody Dining Facility.
University of North Florida’s Osprey Dining Hall features a number of fresh, yet fast and convenient, options for students.

Community Building – Food has a way of bringing people together; and with many students looking to connect with others, it’s often a great place to start. Dining spaces should encourage connections by offering seating that promotes conversation – whether for a large group gathering or a smaller, more intimate conversation. Community building also applies to the connect between students and food. Because many dining workers are actually students, their influence on other students should not be minimized. Service workers, who fully understand where the food their eating comes from, will be your best ambassadors when talking about on-campus dining.

A variety of seating options can help students make personal connections. Booth seating allows for intimate conversation in small groups
Open seating helps promote gathering and communication for larger groups of students. A wide view of the dining facility also helps students feel more engaged with the larger campus community.

Cooking on Campus – The ability to cook for oneself is a trend we’re seeing pop up again and again at colleges and universities. It’s one of the main reasons upperclassmen look to move to apartments – either on or off-campus. Today’s students have grown up watching cooking shows and part of a foodie revolution. They love food and love to experiment with new dishes. A great way to combine cooking with on-campus dining facilities is to offer hands-on demonstrations to students who are interested in learning more and honing their skills.

student dining facilities
The Osprey Dining Facility at the University of North Florida includes a do-it-yourself breakfast bar.

In the competitive marketplace of higher education, dining facilities are a significant component in recruiting new students and in retaining existing students on-campus. Creating a dining facility that offers more than just a good meal is key to pleasing picky students and even pickier parents who worry about eating habits away from home.

When properly planned, these facilities are an extension of the learning environment. Food is a natural way for people to come together, and the successful dining facilities of the future will offer a place where students and faculty can eat, learn, collaborate and relax together in a variety of environments. As such, dining facilities can offer a return on investment, not just through their own efficiency but also through the broader context of building a college or university’s brand.

Campus dining spaces should make students feel at home. By serving a variety of food and creating different atmospheres, the dining experience provides comfort for today’s diverse student population.