College Food Rankings

I often wonder if any high school seniors apply to certain colleges because of the great food those schools serve. Conversely, I also ponder whether or not anyone chooses not to apply to a college because the food is reported to be substandard.

That’s an an interesting selection criterion. It may also be related to the so-called “Freshman 10” (or 15, or maybe even 20!), but that’s another story.

I’ve written before about collegiate food quality, but thought it time to review the current “rankings.” Yes, something as subjective as food can be ranked, probably because some college food can be called rank.

Of course, no blog post of mine would be complete without an insipidly boring retrospective of (turn on the echo machine for another exciting episode of) How It Was When I Went To College. As all my devoted readers know, I attended two institutions of higher learning before nailing down (some have said “cobbling together”) my degree.

I spent my freshman year at a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania. At the end of that year, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, rather than waste further time and money, allowing my grades to plummet due to my unsettled focus, and possibly get drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam, I withdrew and joined the Navy to avoid the draft. My strategy and budding sailor career promptly took me to Vietnam … twice. You gotta love it when a plan comes together.

penn state

Anyway, after my sailing days (daze?) ended, I transferred to Penn State University, which was at the opposite end of the spectrum from my little liberal arts school. So, I’ve seen both types of higher-learning environments: small colleges and huge universities.

What did I notice about the food back then? Well, it was certainly nothing like it is today. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t paying every year as much as a new Corvette costs these days. Food rankings did not exist and students weren’t looking for or even sometimes demanding epicurean perks. We were just happy to have a hot dog or a piece of pizza.

The one thing that stands out in my memory of freshman year is the name of the guy who was head of food services at our little college: Mr. Bloodgood. Yikes. We used to conjure images of him working in the kitchen preparing meals. Those imaginations were less than appetizing. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time school evenings at Hilltop Sub Shop. I’ve written about that here too. The HSS is where my lifelong affair with mayonnaise began. Maybe I’ll write about that some day (I’ll give you advance warning).

After my time at Penn State, I was able to deduce a rough theory about colleges and their food. It appeared to me, from my micro-sample, that the smaller the school, the better the food. That is, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between food quality and school size: smaller = better; bigger = less good.

And that brings me to Best College Food. “The 2016 Best College Food ranking is based on meal plan costs and student reviews. Top ranked colleges offer outstanding on-campus dining – students can easily access healthy, quality food across a wide range of cuisines and dietary preferences.”

college cook

Of course, noting the high level of subjectivity associated with judging food, you may be wondering how these experts went about creating their rankings. Here’s a peek into the rationale:

The Best College Food ranking provides a comprehensive assessment of the quality and cost of on-campus dining options. This grade takes into account key factors such as average meal plan cost and student reviews in an attempt to measure the caliber of and student satisfaction with campus food options.

1713 Colleges Assessed

At the time of analysis, our database contained records for 1,713 public and private, traditional four-year colleges and universities across the United States. For the purposes of this ranking, a “traditional” college is considered to be any accredited, non-profit post-secondary institution that primarily offers four-year degree programs (as opposed to two-year or less). Some colleges were not included in this ranking if: (1) they were not located in one of the 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, or the District of Columbia; (2) they had fewer than 100 full-time undergraduate students; or (3) they had insufficient data (see below). Of the colleges that met the required qualifications, we were able to grade 1,378 and rank 1,071 …

Factors Considered

Factor Description Source Weight
Student Surveys on Campus Dining Student opinions about the quality of the campus food at the college they currently or recently attend(ed). Includes 95,612 reviews and opinions from 85,562 unique students. Minimum 10 unique students required at each college. Self-reported by Niche users 85.0%
Average Meal Plan Cost Average cost of meal plan, as reported by the college. U.S. Department of Education 15.0%

Statistics obtained from the U.S. Department of Education represent the most recent data available, usually from either 2013–2014 or 20142015, as self-reported by the colleges.

college kid eating

Without further ado, then, let’s take a look at at the 2016 Top-10 food schools. along with some supporting details.

10. Skidmore College

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.4 out of 5 48
Average Meal Plan Cost $5,162


9. Cornell University

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.3 out of 5 116
Average Meal Plan Cost $5,566


8. University of Georgia

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.2 out of 5 306
Average Meal Plan Cost $3,956


7. Gustavus Adolphus College

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.3 out of 5 49
Average Meal Plan Cost $3,290


6. California Baptist University

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.2 out of 5 160
Average Meal Plan Cost $4,430


5. James Madison University

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.2 out of 5 188
Average Meal Plan Cost $4,632


4. Bowdoin College

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.6 out of 5 42
Average Meal Plan Cost $6,796


3. University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.3 out of 5 227
Average Meal Plan Cost $4,820


2. Washington University in St. Louis

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.6 out of 5 90
Average Meal Plan Cost $4,666


1. Virginia Tech

Factor Value
Student Surveys on Campus Dining 4.5 out of 5 183
Average Meal Plan Cost $3,624


Looking back over the Top 10 here rather puts the kibosh to my smaller-is-better theory. However, you can check out the complete list, which is ten times longer than the above Top 10. You can also search by state and each school has a link for more details.

Penn State, by the way, comes in at #62. I think that’s appropriate. I didn’t see Mr. Bloodgood’s school listed, so I can’t tell if his efforts made a long-term difference (Dave said humorously).

So, ask your stomach where it would like to spend its next four years (or more). Then, go with your gut, so to speak.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.