By Brett Ladd, CEO Universities and Government, Sodexo North America

The role of higher education is always evolving. However, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly accelerated the pace of that evolution, forcing colleges to create new avenues for learning and flexible options for students to achieve their goals under unusually challenging circumstances.

If there has been any silver lining to the cascade of difficulties we’ve faced since early 2020, it may be our renewed focus on what truly matters, both on an organizational and individual level. When the pandemic brought daily life grinding to a halt, it also created an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities. Many people realized they are more than their jobs, their education, their careers, or their academic achievements. From baking a perfect loaf of sourdough bread to crocheting a comforting throw blanket, Americans pursued new interests and rediscovered their passions. In fact, 60% of Americans started a new hobby during the pandemic; that number is even higher among Generation Z at nearly 80%. The pandemic inspired people to discover and explore new outlets for creativity and self-expression, and it brought the intrinsic value of these pursuits to the forefront. 

Higher education has always served as a way for students to explore their identities and figure out who they are and what they value. Now, colleges and universities are taking that concept a step further, taking a holistic approach to education that considers students’ larger identities. Instead of just classroom learning around traditional topics, colleges are working to help students become both professionally and personally successful and fulfilled. 

One excellent example is highlighted in the latest chapter of this year’s President to President, a thought leadership series written by renowned college presidents. In “Holistic Approach to Higher Education,” Rider University President Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D., describes a unique program at his University that helps students become successful, well-rounded individuals. In addition to core academic work, students participate in courses, community service, internships, or events that align with their personal interests and encourage engagement and creativity. This approach, which was already in development prior to 2020 but ramped up during the pandemic, integrates students’ academic and career goals with their other interests to offer a more robust and fulfilling educational experience. Rider University has also taken steps to make higher education more accessible and affordable to every student, especially those following a non-traditional path. 

Sodexo similarly recognizes that students’ success both during and after college requires more than rigorous coursework and high test scores. Today’s students believe in striving for conscientious citizenship. They value their well-being and that of those both around the block and around the world. And they care about the planet, hoping theirs will be the generation to address climate change and other pressing environmental concerns. 

Gen Z students realize that good health is the foundation of personal success, and they prioritize their physical well-being. One choice that students increasingly make to improve their health—and reduce harmful environmental impacts—is limiting meat consumption. Around 14% of college students are vegan or vegetarian, and another 29% of students actively try to eat less meat. To meet this demand, Sodexo partnered with the Humane Society of the United States to develop more than 200 new plant-forward recipes. To help students reduce meat consumption without sacrificing the flavors they love, Sodexo also began using a proprietary beef and mushroom blend in burgers, tacos, and meatloaf. This slight tweak reduces saturated fat, calories, and sodium, and it decreases the environmental impacts that result from beef production. 

Unfortunately, many students struggle with stress outside of school that makes it difficult to focus on academic and personal achievement and fulfillment. Economic hardship was exacerbated by the pandemic, and food insecurity among college students reached new heights. More than half of students now report experiencing food insecurity, and 69% say they’ve had to choose between buying food and paying for basic utilities. Creating a social safety net on campus is more crucial than ever to retain students and is a core element of a holistic approach to education. We’ve partnered with national nonprofit organization Swipe Out Hunger to combat food insecurity among college students. Through this groundbreaking program, Sodexo donates two free meal swipes for every mandatory meal plan sold on campus. The meals accumulate in a special meal swipe fund, which provides students facing food insecurity with access to free, nutritious meals on campus. 

As we continue working towards a post-pandemic future, the emphasis on holistic approaches to education is one change that is likely to persist. We can no longer simply work to educate students on academic subjects without working to address other important aspects of success and personal fulfillment. Sodexo is proud to support student development with programs and solutions that help students on their journey to becoming who they hope to be, both on campus and beyond. 

November 01, 2021