Why Ensuring College Students Feel Welcome on Campus is Key to Success

By Brett Ladd, CEO Sodexo Campus

As students prepare to graduate from high school and begin college, the number of decisions they face can inspire a mix of excitement and trepidation. From selecting courses that align with their interests and identifying potential career paths to deciding which clubs to join and how to decorate their dorm room, college is a time for young people to begin figuring out what they want and who they are.

Before students can start making these day-to-day choices, though, they must make one of the most important decisions of their lives: choosing a college. Finding a campus where they fit in and feel comfortable is imperative; it is the foundation for students’ future academic and professional success, and it will impact their personal and social development. Ensuring a good match between students and the campus culture even supports the success of the college itself by impacting engagement, retention, graduation rates and alumni loyalty. It is essential that students choose a college where they feel as though they belong.

This is one of the ideas explored in the latest chapter of the President to President thought leadership series. In “The Post-Pandemic Student Success Imperative,” Elmhurst University President Troy D. VanAken, Ph.D., explains how important it is for colleges to admit students who will excel within the campus culture, as well as the role education professionals must play in helping students succeed by providing resources that encourage them connect to the campus community. He posits that these efforts ultimately support retention and the overall long-term success of students and the college itself.

Sodexo agrees that it is critical to understand what motivates students and helps them thrive. We also know we cannot assume that what students value will remain the same from year to year. As each new generation comes of age, sometimes in circumstances that are wildly different from those of their predecessors, their beliefs and expectations evolve. Because of the constant influx of new students on campus each year, it is vital to maintain a continuous focus on understanding what drives students.

One of the ways Sodexo does just that is through robust ongoing research into students’ perspectives. A great example is the Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey. We began conducting a survey in the United Kingdom in 2004 to identify and track trends in key areas of campus life as experienced by undergraduate students. In 2017, Sodexo conducted a global version of the survey, polling more than 4,000 students in six countries around the world (China, India, Italy, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.).

After a brief pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re excited to announce that the 2022–23 Sodexo Student Lifestyle Survey will be available online this summer, and it will reveal key insights about students’ preferences and priorities.

One major area of focus is what attracts students to a particular college and makes them feel like part of the community. According to our early results, a welcoming environment is one of the most crucial factors for students choosing a college, ranking as the second most important factor. Only financial considerations ranked higher.

The survey also reveals the toll that recent events have taken on students. Early in the pandemic, a 2020 Sodexo survey found that students reported a 22% drop in satisfaction with life in general. After two years of social distancing, the stress of worrying about their own health and that of loved ones, growing anxiety about the issues our world faces and high levels of isolation, students’ sense of well-being has plummeted even further.  

These issues aren’t only affecting current college students. For the first time as part of the Student Lifestyle Survey, Sodexo polled more than 200 high school students about their feelings regarding higher education. These students are preparing to graduate high school and go to college in the shadow of a lingering global pandemic. They are overwhelmingly stressed and feel anxious about the future.

What do these findings mean for higher education leaders? It has become apparent that college readiness and success on campus are about more than academics—students must feel like they fit in as an engaged member of the campus community. Classroom time is of course the foundation of higher education, but the hours students spend outside the classroom are teeming with opportunities to help students feel connected.

Dining is a top driver of student engagement on campus. Food brings students together to talk, socialize and form meaningful bonds. Dining halls are ideal gathering spaces, but only if they offer a warm, welcoming environment where students can thrive. They must be comfortable places where students actually want to eat and spend time.

Sodexo leverages the results of the Student Lifestyle Survey, as well as other consumer trend research, to create dining programs and other solutions for the campus environment that support student success. We design diverse menus that reflect students’ needs and preferences, offering a careful balance of comforting favorites and adventurous new dishes. And we ensure that dining halls and other spaces on campus are welcoming and create positive impressions.  

We are committed to using consumer insights to build innovative solutions that reflect the evolution of the campus lifestyle. In a data-driven world, it is important to collect information, analyze findings and draw conclusions that help us continually expand and adapt programs and services in a way that best meets students’ needs. To learn more about students’ values, interests and attitudes, check back here in July for the latest version of this compelling study.