Improving Student Retention: The Role of the Cafeteria

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Dr. Kevin Trutna has served as the Vice President for Academic and Student Services at Yuba College in Marysville, California for the past five years. As the inaugural vice president while Yuba College made the transition from a single-college to a multi-college district with Woodland Community College, Dr. Trutna worked with faculty and staff to create a distributive education division, create a Writing & Language Development Center,expand student activities on campus, and form a
Crisis Intervention Team. Prior to becoming Vice President, Dr. Trutna served six years as Dean of Mathematics, Engineering, Science, and Health Occupations at Yuba College. At Arizona Western College in Yuma, Arizona, Dr. Trutna worked as Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, Planning and Grants, as well as Professor of Mathematics. Dr. Trutna earned his Doctorate from Montana State University in Adult and
Higher Education. He holds a Master of Science degree in Mathematics from Montana State University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Loyola University Chicago. Professionally, Dr. Trutna is active in the Association of California Community College Administrators (ACCCA), serving on the Management Development Commission and the leadership team that organizes the highly successful ACCCA Mentor Program. He is a graduate of the ACCCA Mentor Program himself, where he worked with California Community College Chancellor Tom
Nussbaum as his mentor.

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Dr. Kevin Trutna,VP, Academic & Student Services, Yuba College, Marysville, CA

This article examines the cost-benefit analysis of operating the college cafeteria at Yuba College.  During a budget crisis, all college expenditures were examined for potential cost savings, but more importantly, for their impact on student success.  The college cafeteria was scrutinized specifically for its impact on student retention and success.  Relevant factors that shaped the decision to retain a functioning college cafeteria at Yuba College were explored.  These include food service usage, relationships to other college services, and a review of pertinent studies for the impact of the cafeteria on retention.



In today’s budget climate, there is a constant struggle to decrease spending, while at the same time a pressure is exerted to increase retention strategies.  An interesting player entered both of these discussions at Yuba College: the venerable campus cafeteria.  While preparing a detailed recommendation for cost saving options, the cafeteria was investigated because it represented a significant expenditure of college resources.  During this research it was discovered that the cafeteria served many purposes beyond simply proving lunches for students and staff – it sits at the core of a college community while scarcely being noticed until budget shortfalls force everyone to examine the importance of food service on campus.  The purpose of this article is to present information that was uncovered in determining the role of the cafeteria in campus life, and its impact on the entire college.  This discussion is a topic of conversations among Chief Business Officers around the state, and this article presents several issues beyond the cost of operating a cafeteria.

A useful and inviting college cafeteria is a factor in the success of community college students.  A major retention strategy is to create multiple areas for students to stay on campus and utilize the support services available.  Cafeterias and food service programs are noted in several academic studies as one of the strongest retention strategies for students at community colleges.  Or, as one senior faculty member recently commented, “once students leave campus to get food, they will often not return to study or take classes.”  A summary of several relevant academic articles is included.

On the other hand, cafeterias are often financially subsidized by colleges due to several factors: the main reason being the seasonal use of food services by students.  Given the sparse budget situation faced by many colleges, it is natural to look at areas where budget savings can be realized.  A budget task force at Yuba College recently asked the question regarding the costs and benefits for operating the campus cafeteria.

Food Service Usage:

Student use of the cafeteria occurs in a predictable cycle.  Yuba College is part of a multi-college district where the main campus in Marysville generates approximately 5,300 FTES every year with an unduplicated headcount well over 9,000 students.  In the cafeteria, there were between 327-449 daily transactions during the last academic year but this fell off to between 106-207 daily transactions during the summer semester.  Most of the transactions were between $3.14 - $4.25 apiece.  Heavy usage was found during the mid-semester months, with not enough sales during the later days of finals week to even pay the staff required to open the food service venue.  A common thought from the budget task force was that there would be several outside vendors wanting to operate the cafeteria.  On the contrary, because food sales drop to zero for several weeks at a time (after spring semester but before the start of summer school, as well as the month recess during the winter break), the last time vendors were invited to submit proposals to run the cafeteria, only one company even bothered to submit a bid.  Due to the cyclical nature of student attendance that is tied to the semester schedule, there are distinct times during the year when usage is very high and there are other, prolonged times when students are not on campus.

It was also important to study the capacity and usage of the seating area.  The capacity for the Yuba College cafeteria is approximately 584 people in auditorium style, but it is more commonly set up for 295 seats at tables for cafeteria service.  This capacity is routinely reached during the hours from 11:00 am- 1:00 pm, with additional students standing or sitting on the floor during this time.  Available seating outside is heavily utilized except during poor weather.  It was also discovered that the Yuba College public bus stop is the largest volume bus stop for Yuba-Sutter Transit.  Approximately 10% of our students use public transportation, or some other means besides their own personal automobile, to arrive on campus.  These students are place-bound and cannot leave campus during the day.  A student microwave is available in the cafeteria, and a line of students waiting to use the microwave is common during the peak rush time shortly after 12:00 noon.

The Child Development Center (CDC) has a sub-contract with the current food service provider.  This arrangement meets the need for all child lunches and snacks for the CDC.  Additionally, many campus groups and outside entities utilize college resources for meetings, conference, and gatherings.  The ongoing need for catering such events was deemed necessary by the college community.

An academic Culinary Arts Program runs a student restaurant three days per week.  The option of utilizing the program to run the cafeteria was considered.  However, this academic program is limited in its hours and scope of operations.  Summer semesters, finals week, and extra catering events would not fit into the academic program and course objectives.  In short, the Culinary Arts Program is designed to train future chefs and restaurant managers: it is not designed to provide an on-call service to the entire campus community including the various needs of different departments and students.  The sheer volume of the cafeteria use was too much for one limited academic program to handle.

Finally, the previous Request for Proposals (RFP) for food service vendors focused mainly on low-cost as a priority, with few other factors included.  The college community wants to attract food service providers that are dedicated to other factors: using local food sources to minimize the carbon footprint; promoting recyclable materials and recycling efforts; serving several healthier alternatives which include food in support of our diversity efforts across campus; and incorporating educational aspects into the delivery of food (such as calorie counts, backgrounds of the foods being prepared, and world food awareness).  The college community is very concerned with a low-price option, but other factors are equally important in creating a viable and inviting cafeteria.

Retention Studies:

Several retention factors and social benefits related to the cafeteria surfaced.  By providing a place for students to study, eat, socialize, and acclimatize to college life, the college cafeteria proved to be an integral part of a student’s development and college education.  The following articles related to the role of the cafeteria in student retention were used in determining the importance of using the college budget to support a viable college cafeteria.

ACT Research and Policy Issues - What Works in Student Retention
 These reports highlight information on successful practices in college student retention based on ACT's national surveys that included more than 1,000 colleges.  A student cafeteria is a leading factor correlated with student success in college students.

Noel-Levitz – College Retention Studies and Student Satisfaction Surveys
A nationwide leader in higher education consulting, Noel-Levitz conducts on-site research to help colleges create and improve student retention strategies.  A college cafeteria is one important criterion that is identified and studied in student satisfaction and retention strategies.

Non-Traditional Age Students: Attrition, Retention, and Recommendations for Campus Change
Stolar, Steven M. in ERIC #ED335092  
In 1991, a study was conducted at Cumberland County College (CCC) to examine the demographic characteristics, academic goals, attendance patterns, opinions about the school, and other relevant data about CCC's nontraditional age student population (i.e., students aged 25 to 55 years).  The importance of a cafeteria and food service was included.

African American Student Organizations as Agents of Social Integration
Guiffrida, Douglas A. in The Journal of College Student Development – 2003, Vol. 44, Number 3
This article reinforced Tinto's (1993) Dimensions of Institutional Action that includes a “Social and Intellectual Community.”  Effective retention programs are committed to the development of supportive social and educational communities in which all students are integrated as competent members.  A cafeteria is specifically mentioned as part of this interaction.

Student Retention: The Big Picture
Joe Cuseo from Marymount College in Thriving In College
Describes the need for a designated place on campus for commuter students such as a café, student center, or food service.  This article was published by Thriving In College, a program sponsored by Kendall Hunt Publishing Company that provides information on professional resources and professional development experiences to create or develop first-year experience seminars and programs for college student success.

The Negative Commandments: Ten Ways Urban Community Colleges Hinder Student Success
Hagedorn, Perrakis, and Maxwell in the Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Fall 2007, Vol. 1, Issue 1
This article highlights ten negative operative principles identified through focus group interviews conducted on 9 urban campuses with faculty, students, and administrators.  Together with its sister paper “The Positive Commandments,” the list of operatives serve as an indication of appropriate practices.
Commandment IX: Thou shalt NOT discount the importance of the physical environment and auxiliary services such as a student center, cafeteria, and places for students to meet and study in groups.

Reasons to Remain in College: A Comparison of High School and College Students
Mayo, Helms, and Codjoe in International Journal of Educational Management, 2004, Vol. 18, Issue 6
Article discusses the role of a student cafeteria in terms of food quality and inviting environment as a factor in the retention of students

Approaches to the Student Retention and Achievement Puzzle
Zepke and Leach from Massey University at Wellington, New Zealand,
In-depth study of higher education institutions that reinforced the role of a cafeteria and food service in retention.  This study was completed in New Zealand, but was rather robust summary of 146 relevant studies.

Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.
A discussion about race that was used by President Clinton at his first Town Hall Meeting about race in Akron, Ohio.  The subject is about race relations, but also points to the importance of social environments, including a college cafeteria, on social development and sense of community on a college campus.

Student Success or Student Non-Dissatisfaction?  Considering the Purpose-Guided Approach to the First Year of College
Jerry Pattengale, in Indiana Pathways to College Network – an association of college access program personnel and researchers who study college access and success.
This article presents the CPA Inventory which claims that both intrinsic categories and extrinsic factors are necessary for student success.  It delineates that intrinsic factors should drive student success including the learning environment (including cafeteria and food services).

Final Recommendation:

The cafeteria and food services play a vital role in the retention of students.  It does not exist solely to feed employees or students; rather it is an integral part of a retention strategy for community college students.  Included in these student services at Yuba College is a functional Child Development Center, which in turn, uses the cafeteria for its child snacks and lunches.  These two entities alone help account for the retention of innumerable students at Yuba College.

To close the cafeteria would cause harm to our student success rate.  It would force students to leave campus and not seek the resources available.  The sheer number of students on campus requires that we provide some sort of food service function.  A recommendation to look at alternatives for food service was eventually accepted, with other factors included in the decision beyond the lowest cost provider.  In the final conclusion, the decision was based upon the success of our students and the range of services that we can provide.  While closing a cafeteria may save money in the short term, it will impact retention rates and the social development of college students.  Finally, an inviting cafeteria influences the welcoming atmosphere that is the goal of a community college.