College can be tough, and we mean really tough. With tests and book lists and what seem like endless assignments, college students today have a lot of stress to deal with. Sometimes all they need at the end of a long day is a good meal, but unfortunately, they can’t always get it. Let’s face it: college dining halls are not typically culinary havens. Thankfully, though, there are more than a few colleges across the United States that go above and beyond when it comes to their dining services. From a college that only cooks from scratch every day to a college that lets students use their dining plan at countless off-campus restaurants, we’ve tracked down the 75 best colleges for food in America.
This is our third annual list of the best colleges for food. Last year, the list was expanded from 52 colleges in 2012 to 60 colleges in 2013. For both lists, each and every one of the approximately 2,000 four-year colleges in America was considered. The first year’s list focused on the cleanliness and accessibility of the dining halls along with the menu options, while the second year’s list combined much of the criteria in the first list (combining healthy food and sustainability), and factored in student feedback to determine the best colleges.
For our third annual list, we’ve expanded our winners’ circle to 75 colleges to offer even more contenders the chance to show just how much their dining programs shine. We have used much of the same criteria as last year’s list, but this time around we considered the food scene of the surrounding area in our ranking. Students like to get off campus every once in a while, and if the food offered around the schools was easily accessible and highly rated, that was a contributing factor in the overall rating of colleges. We also didn’t consider student feedback this year because we didn’t want school pride to interfere with the ranking. We wanted our ranking to be based on quantifiable criteria that would really determine the best colleges for food without passionate students and alumni skewing the list.
We started out with a full list of around 2,000 colleges, and after rigorous research and reaching out to their dining services, we narrowed that list down to around 320 knockouts. These standout colleges were highly respected for a myriad of reasons across the country, and had dining programs that caught our attention. After that, we chose the final 75 by looking at specific efforts each college was making toward improving taste, nutrition, and community and deciding what was really exceptional. It seems that students across the country are becoming more mature in their tastes and demanding in what they expect of their college dining experience. Students want their food to taste great, to be fun, and to be sustainable, and colleges are responding.
With that in mind, here are the criteria we used to judge the 75 best colleges for food in America for 2014:
Nutrition and Sustainability: Each college on this list makes consistent efforts to ensure that their food is well-balanced, as well as tasty, and is healthy not just for the students, but for the environment as well.
Accessibility and Service: Colleges accommodate all dietary preferences, have a variety of options for students to choose from, and make sure that the dining options are conveniently located to students’ dorms. Dining locations on campus that were open late night or whose meal plans let students purchase off-campus food were given special consideration.
Education and Events: Colleges offer nutrition and culinary education to every student on campus, and they also hold multiple exciting and delicious food-centered events to foster community and break the monotony of the dining experience.
Surrounding Area: Students have access to exciting and vast food options in the area surrounding the college and can access it easily. We compiled information from Yelp to find out the quality and accessibility of all the food around campuses within a 5-mile radius.
The “X” Factor: These are the little extras that made our jaws drop and set colleges ahead of the pack.
Even though the actual quality of the food was extremely important in our ranking, the overall dining experience, including the surrounding area, is what really determined which colleges made the cut and which didn’t. For example, New York University’s meal plan gives student the options to use their campus cash at over 20 restaurants in the food Mecca that is Manhattan. James Madison University hosts farm-to-fork dinners to encourage students to eat seasonally and sustainability. Columbia University has two late-night dining options for student night owls, and UC Davis utilizes produce grown in their campus garden for meals. Vanderbilt University has a Dining Advisory Committee, comprised of students, university staff, and dining staff, that monitors all aspects of the dining experience.
Some of the more expensive colleges had more extensive sustainability efforts, and, even though they are rated highly academically, it wasn’t always the Ivy League colleges who came out on top. Smaller colleges often had a better program that could cater to each and every students need due to the low population. In general, though, students have become more and more in tune to what good food is, and the colleges that paid attention to that and designed their dining programs around that were the most impressive.
Several colleges didn’t make the list this year for many reasons. Dartmouth College, which made the list last year, just fell short of the mark because although its food program is still impressive, other colleges made vast improvements that overshadowed it. Other colleges didn’t offer enough variety in the events that were offered, or didn’t take sustainability as seriously as others. We have really considered every aspect of the dining experience, and through that have determined the best colleges for food in America.
We’ve tried to highlight the most impressive and most delicious aspects for each of the colleges on this list.
Check out the slideshow above for the 75 best colleges for food in America.