Ready or Not: Embracing the Next Phase in Campus Evolution

Cal Thetford
About the author : Cal Thetford

Chief Operating Officer, Sodexo Universities

Published on : 1/3/22
  • I hope you enjoyed some downtime and relaxation during the recent winter break. Perhaps you had a moment to read my first blog that considered a potential silver lining from the last 20 months: I’m heartened about the new ways campus leaders in student life, academic, and auxiliary services are collaborating. Right now, in-person or online opportunities to share ideas are essential as we all try to catch up and keep up.

    How can we proactively lead in times of uncertainty?

    Higher education is disrupted, and there are few discernable patterns. Here’s what is promising: as I travel to our partner campuses, I see students seeking out engagement. In many cases, there are more students opting for on-campus living and, in some cases, more students seeking meal plans. However, while student engagement may be on the rise, enrollments are not. Last month, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center predicted that undergraduate enrollment is on track to fall by another nearly 500,000 students this fall, following a record drop last year.

    While we work to identify root causes and solve declining enrollments, retention is vital. In 2019, average college completion rates climbed to their highest—60 percent, the highest rate they had been in the 10 years prior. In 2020, graduate rates plateaued[1], perhaps directly attributable to the pandemic. The good news is that those rates are not yet sinking—we have an opportunity now to get ahead.

    Much of today’s recruiting is focused on first-generation students, and many admissions officers are socking away frequent flyer miles as they travel to faraway states in search of new demographics. Ensuring these students feel at home, welcome, and engaged is vital. A student life professional in Pennsylvania recently shared with me that he had never seen his institution invest so much in first-year support services, from tutoring to counseling. Your freshmen likely attended much of their junior and senior years of high school online and faced more isolation and disruptions than ever. So, not only is retention more important than ever, getting it right for today’s students is more complex.

    Surely, every generation of students is different. We spend a lot of time studying campus life and student needs and preferences at Sodexo. Here’s what we know: even before their academic, social, and emotional lives were upturned, Gen Z was already transforming our digital experiences—making them far more consumer-centered and convenient and refusing to settle for lost time or perceived lost value. We are excited about the next iteration of our Campus Lifestyle Survey, where we’ll dig in deeper to student needs and changing perspectives.

    Our teams have been working to stay ahead and to rapidly synthesize the insights we have gained about your students in the last two years. I’m excited that deploying our Bite for Universities app is maximizing connections and supporting student engagement. We see that centering students within an omnichannel network of mobile ordering, integrated payment, delivery, robotics, autonomous retail, plus loyalty rewards and comprehensive dietary and nutrition information gives them a welcome sense of connectedness and control even when the world is chaotic. Proactively leading the digital campus evolution also means we are staying ahead of labor shortages, with new options to bring students together and deliver dining and engagement experiences directly to them.

    Technology isn’t the only way we’ll need to lead. Retaining both resilient and vulnerable student demographics requires a renewed emphasis on the basics: ensuring students eat. Trends analysis for dining preferences are a huge part of our Campus Lifestyle Survey. As we continue to expand plant-based, global, and local food focuses, how can we stay (at least) one step ahead? We also know that 1 in 3 college students is facing food insecurity. We are committed to vital retention and student wellness issues, creating a social safety net with tangible actions that improve lives, such as our partnership with Swipe Out Hunger. These are just a few ways we deliver the deeper and more nuanced approaches to retention needed today.

    How are you leading retention during these times of uncertainty? I look forward to continuing to exchange ideas in this space.


    [1] National Student Clearinghouse - National Six-Year College Completion Rate Plateaus to 60.1%, According to New Research