As colleges and universities continue to accommodate online learning and other emerging education programs amid the impending enrollment cliff and student preference, a big question mark remains on institutions’ financial spreadsheets. How will they make up for the loss of dining service revenue?
“Most colleges and universities operate their foodservice as a standalone enterprise that is expected to turn a profit year after year,” said Dan Park, chief executive officer of CBORD, a technology solutions provider for higher education. “Dining services typically represent a significant revenue stream, and the disruption of that income has been a top concern for higher education leadership since 2020, when nearly all residential schools closed in response to COVID-19.”
CBORD surveyed departmental leaders in business operations, enterprise systems, procurement and other related departments on how they are adapting to the backslide of on-campus students. They found colleges are fighting to upkeep their profits in this area by diversifying revenue streams. For example, colleges are testing the implementation of transaction fees from off-campus dining venues, on-campus franchises, food delivery partnerships and self-service kiosks, according to the report.
Self-service kiosks, which eliminate the need for labor, point to the second-most important avenue leaders are leaning into to cut costs and boost their margins: automation. Half the respondents said their institution invested in automation in the last two years. More than half expect to see its implementation in the next two.
“An automated, connected campus enables students to use their ID to access facilities such as residence halls, dining facilities and classroom buildings,” Park said. “Moreover, these systems create a frictionless transaction experience, empowering students to pay for things like meals, parking, books, supplies, and laundry without carrying cash or credit cards.”
Models change, especially in today’s digital age. While automating labor is today’s most apparent opportunity to maintain student dining services, options will inevitably evolve.
“Just as many of our programs have adapted to both an on-campus and remote element, we are seeing many opportunities to use mobile technology to collaborate with our surrounding communities to provide dining services to our students in the years ahead,” said Mike Henderson of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.