OVERVIEW — MAY 2012
Dining — A Major Recruiting Tool
Choosing a college is perhaps one of the first “big” decisions a person makes in his or her life.
Students are no longer basing their decision solely on the academics of a school; Greek life, the off-campus community — and of course, dining — have become more important factors in the equation. As the competition for students has grown tremendously through the years, colleges and universities are realizing this; and smart administrators, as you know, have paid more attention to their dining programs and how they can use them as a selling point.
Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., is using its new dining hall as a major selling point to potential students in radio commercials in the massive New York City market. The radio ad not only lauds the school's academic program, but also uses the dining hall as a major selling point — claiming that the offerings on campus rival anything one could find in Manhattan. It was not that long ago when dining would barely be mentioned on a campus tour — let alone in an expensive 30-second radio spot when time is obviously at a premium.
The ad, while directed toward students, runs on a radio station whose target audience is more likely the students' parents. Parents (who usually are footing at least part of the bill) play a very important role in a student's higher education choices — and often times, dining matters more to them than to the students.
“When families visit our campuses, the incoming student wants to see the residence hall just as much as the science labs, gymnasium or library,” said Jonathan Kukta, director of Housing and Food Services for several Penn State campuses, in his article for The Back Page in this issue. “And even moreso, their parents want to see the dining hall to make sure they are getting meals prepared almost as good as the ones prepared at home.”
For parents of students with special dietary needs, like celiac disease and food allergies, dining jumps to the top of the list when choosing a school. Lois Durant, resident dietitian at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is one of the first people that the parents of potential students call when their child even considers George Mason. “The parents are the ones who are calling,” she said. “They tell me their needs and that they have a student who will be coming in the next semester — and some parents will meet with me a year out — especially when they are looking for places for the student that can provide for their needs. If they can't, they are off the list.”
While your marketing materials may be more important to their parents, students are better armed with information about your dining operations than previous generations ever were. With social networking sites like Facebook, potential students can reach out to current students to find out the ins and outs of campus life even before they step foot on the grounds for their first tour. So even creating a great brochure will not help convince students to come to your school if they already know the lowdown.
We certainly expect that the lowdown they're getting is that your food is fantastic. You've worked hard to make it so, and your university's marketing arm wouldn't be using your operation as a selling point if it weren't.