When I visit college campuses with my daughter, I’ll be paying special attention to the dining commons. They’re more important—far more important!—than many people realize.
As a foodservice design specialist working with college campuses across the country, I focus on social architecture—the conscious design of an environment to encourage social behaviors that lead toward a goal. In the case of dining commons, my goal is to solidify college students’ connections to one another and foster their commitment to their school.
Both are essential for student success: students who live and dine on campus tend to have higher GPAs and are more likely to graduate. They also tend to be active alumni who stay involved with their school for the rest of their lives.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for when I’m visiting my daughter’s favorite schools:
- Is there a centralized dining hall (or halls), 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 people from a wide variety of backgrounds in a neutral environment. That will serve them well in their future professional lives! If the meal plan encourages them to scatter across campus – or go off campus to pick up fast food, they lose an important opportunity.
- 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 when they need it to be, thus respecting and being conducive to their lifestyle? If so, does it offer more than microwave pizza and hot dogs? If the place isn’t open and offering a good selection of foods 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 and dining/learning commons should be within easy reach of both dorms and classroom buildings in the academic core or students simply won’t use them.
Before visiting a college campus where you could potentially spend the next four years, make a checklist of all the places you need to see and the people you need to meet, and be sure to include the dining halls so you can make sure they're conveniently located and accessible.