How College Dining Halls Have Evolved Over Time

The dining hall is perhaps the most integral room on any campus, a charging station for thousands of overstressed youth struggling to power through their hangovers. Recall if you can, the feeling of stumbling in after a brutal exam, casting your eyes over a selection of cuisines so broad it makes the Cheesecake Factory menu look limited, and then discovering to your heart's delight that your favorite server, the one who packs the plate extra full, is here. 

Today, college campus foods are more varied than ever, with top-rated programs like the University of Massachusetts Amherst serving up sushi, tapas, and Vietnamese food, but these traditions have much simpler roots. The first university known to provide room and board for students was Nalanda University in eastern India, per The Daily Guardian. While the practice of keeping students housed and fed has been common ever since, doing so for free has, sadly, faded from fashion.

When the first universities were established in the American colonies, they modeled themselves on English Universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge. As noted by the Graduate School at Princeton, the dining halls at those universities saw undergraduates and fellows eat together, though divided in a symbolic fashion. The master and fellows of the university ate at a "high table," positioned on a raised platform to elevate them above the undergrads.

America's first dining hall was at this prestigious university

The first permanent dining hall at an American university was built for Harvard in 1642 (via Harvard Library). Other universities throughout the nation later followed Harvard's lead and adopted their own food spaces for students. However, unlike Nalanda University, American institutions charged students for meals. In 1810, a year's board at the University of Georgia cost $9. In return, students could enjoy a menu featuring fresh meats such as pork, mutton, and fowl, as well as a minimum of two vegetable options per meal. Dessert was only served on Wednesday nights.

Georgia's $9 annual fee is equivalent to $216.81 in 2022, according to the Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator. That's still a steal, considering that the average price of a meal plan for the 2022 academic year was between $3,000 and $5,500, per U.S. News & World Report. The University of Columbia's $2,802 per semester meal plan equates to $11.40 per meal, or $34.20 each day, according to NBC. As the cost of meal programs rises, cooking your own meals in the dorm becomes a more and more appealing option.