How Was the Food at Your College?

I’ve continued to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, and the latest episode–Food Fight–raised some questions for me.

The episode uses two universities, Vassar and Bowdoin, to demonstrate a key shortcoming in American higher education (in Gladwell’s opinion). Here’s the main comparison:

  • 23% of Vassar’s students are Pell Grant recipients (as Gladwell says, these are “poor smart kids”) and the net tuition for lower-middle class students is $5,600. Also, importantly, the food at Vassar isn’t good.
  • 14% of Bowdoin’s students are Pell Grant recipients and the net tuition for lower-middle class students is $8,900. The food at Bowdoin is excellent.

Gladwell focuses heavily on the food at these two universities. To summarize his point, Vassar has lots of poor smart kids, but their food budget suffers as a result. Bowdoin doesn’t seem to care as much about poor smart kids, instead diverting funds to create amazing food for its students.

I appreciate Gladwell’s intentions here. The idea that poor kids deserve as good of an education as rich kids hits home with me, as does the idea that having a diversity of students is good for everyone in higher education. My family wasn’t poor when I went to college, but we certainly weren’t rich either. My university, Washington University in St. Louis, did a good job of working with us so I could afford to go to school there. And the food was pretty good.

What’s wrong with have a diversity of interesting food options at universities? Can’t that be a part of the educational process, just as sports, study abroad, and social activities are? After all, the things we put in our bodies have a big impact on our cognitive abilities.

Listening to the episode made me wonder if Gladwell was picking on the wrong aspect of Vassar’s budget. How big of an expense is food at a university?

I poked around online and found some charts showing annual spending by universities (though not the universities in question here). Here’s an example from the University of Montana:


Granted, I’m sure this varies from school to school, but it gives us a starting point. Food is part of “Student Services,” which is listed as 6.2%. Montana’s total budget in 2013 was about $400 million, so food is some portion of $24.8 million. Compared to some of the other expenses, it doesn’t seem like that much.

Isn’t it possible for a university to have good food AND be financially welcoming to poor smart kids?

What do you think? Does university food matter? Is there a fallacy in Gladwell’s argument?