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2017 C&U Census: Diners' choice

College students sound off on sourcing, allergens, meal plans and more.

While FoodService Director’s C&U reporting most often focuses on operators’ challenges and ideas, their policies all stem from diners’ desires and needs. As part of its 2017 College and University Consumer Trend Report, Technomic researchers spoke with 1,500 higher-education students about their dining experiences. FSD combed through their responses for feedback to help operators better do their jobs.


Who was polled?

  • 52%—18-21
  • 26%—22-24
  • 15%—25-34
  • 7%—35+

men women respondants

regional map cu census 2017


Where they live vs. meal plan participation 

cu stats 1

cu stats 2017 2

What they're eating

Of all their food purchases, students say they are most likely to purchase a midmorning or afternoon snack on campus, at 42% and 38%, respectively, as opposed to off campus. Once dinnertime hits, those numbers drop precipitously compared to off-campus purchases; 19% are more likely to buy dinner on campus; 16% said the same for a later dinner after 8 p.m.; and 16% for a late-night snack. 

  • 43%—The percentage of overall students that say fresh fruit is their most preferred snack, including half of women, likely due to its portability and healthfulness. Men were most likely to purchase potato chips or pretzels, at 36%.

Breakfast burrito bust?

Just 24% of students say they prefer a breakfast wrap/sandwich/burrito in the morning, down from 31% in 2015. Overall, students are looking to items perceived as healthier and lighter, as shown below.

students' preferred breakfast foods

  • 42%—Among trendy foods and beverages, students say they’re most likely to order international street foods such as tacos, empanadas, arepas and spring rolls. 

International foods

While Chinese is still tops, student interest is grooving toward less-mainstream ethnic foods like Indian cuisine, which 29% of students say they are likely to purchase, up from 24% in 2015. 

Percentage of students likely to purchase ethnic cuisines:

  • 62%—Chinese
  • 56%—Italian
  • 45%—Spanish
  • 43%—Sushi
  • 36%—Greek
  • 35%—Thai
  • 29%—Indian
  • 28%—French
  • 26%—Mediterranean

What they're not eating

Since students are more likely than the general U.S. population to follow a special diet, it’s no surprise that their expectations for college dining are at an all-time high. While 15% of Americans follow a special diet such as vegetarianism or veganism, the same applies to 20% of college students, 34% of whom say their school does a good job filling their needs.

  • 51%—More than half of students ages 18-24 say they don’t avoid any meat or animal products. Shellfish was the most likely animal product to be avoided, at 29% among this group.

Allergic reaction

Of the 1,500 respondents, 11% reported some sort of allergy, and of that group, students were most likely to report an allergy to dairy, at 31%. Peanuts, shellfish and wheat/gluten were the runners-up among the Big 8 allergies, with 20%, 18% and 16% of students, respectively, reporting an allergy. Items in the “other” category included citrus fruits, mushrooms and coconut.

  • 22%—While nearly one-quarter of students say gluten-free foods are more healthy or nutritious than other options, 83% say they don’t limit their gluten intake. Some 4% of students overall say they either have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.

Where they're eating

Today, more students are taking their college foodservice meals to go instead of eating them on campus. Nearly half (46%) of students are eating to-go meals, while 37% still eat in the dining hall and 17% are taking advantage of new technology to have their meals delivered.

  • 39%—The percentage of meals students ate on campus was unchanged from 2015 to 2016, at 39%. Students are especially likely to eat off campus during the weekend, driven by the 65% who live off campus.

On-campus chains rule

While school cafeterias or dining halls remained the most popular place for students to eat on campus, the growth of chain restaurants on campus is driving many student diners—more, in fact, than most nonchain concepts.

Percentage of students who visit on-campus restaurants at least once

  • 56%—School cafeteria/dining hall
  • 50%—Coffee/beverage chain
  • 44%—Fast-food chain
  • 43%—Fast-casual chain
  • 41%—C-store/mini mart
  • 41%—Grab-and-go snack cart or kiosk
  • 39%—Coffee/beverage concept not part of a chain
  • 37%—Vending machine
  • 34%—LSR not part of a chain

69%—Students’ top reason for purchasing food and beverage on campus was convenience. Just 14% said better food and beverage variety compared to off-campus offerings was a driving factor. 


What they'd change

Overall, 35% of students say they are satisfied with their school’s foodservice facilities, and 34% say the school does a good job ensuring students are pleased with the dining program—both down from 2015. Here’s what students are looking for from dining services, from the meals themselves to the way they’re purchased, that would help keep them on campus.

Drivers for meal purches on campus: Menu attributes

campus meal purchases

Make mine custom

Students say made-to-order stations (prepared by a chef) and build-your-own meal stations (prepared by students themselves) are the most appealing concept attributes for on-campus restaurants and dining halls, at 65% each, respectively. Other favored attributes include:

  • 57%—Environmentally friendly takeout packaging
  • 53%—Reusable takeout containers
  • 51%—Special events in restaurants/dining halls
  • 50%—Themed food days

63%—Students name low prices as the most important concept attribute for all food purchases, whether on or off campus, at 63%. Convenient location, speedy/friendly service, and late-night operating hours round out the top five.

52%—The percentage of students who say they would like their campus foodservice to stay open later.

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