The dining hall at Washington College, a small liberal arts school in Chestertown, Maryland, looks more like a high-end food court.
At “The Kitchen,” the lunch menu includes garlic rosemary pork loin, vegetarian stuffed bell peppers, and lemon-glazed turkey with vegetables. At other stations, students can pick up shrimp bisque in bread bowls or gluten-free pizza. Environmentally conscious diners can mix their own smoothies with a bicycle-powered blender.
And if they still don't see something they want to eat?
“You can go up to an associate and tell them what you want, and they’ll make it for you,” says Joe Holt, chief of staff at the college.
All this choice, of course, has a price. Room and board is rising about 6 percent a year at the college, twice as fast as tuition.
Five years ago, Washington College spent almost $24 million to renovate its outdated cafeteria and hired a company called Chartwells to manage it.
Holt says what they do costs more “than the old system where you got the gallon can of corn and you cranked it open and put it in a serving dish, and that was your meal.”
Washington College couldn’t afford not to upgrade, says Holt. The competition for students is fierce, and the amenities arms race is part of what’s driven the price of room and board up 50 percent at private colleges over the last 25 years (after adjusting for inflation), according to the College Board. At public universities, it’s up 67 percent.
Students—and their parents—have higher standards than they used to, says David Bergeron, vice president of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re expecting college students to be exposed to healthier eating options, more fruits and vegetables, better quality food,” he says.
That’s just the “board” side of the equation. Students also want single rooms and private bathrooms, and colleges are building luxury dorms to accommodate them.
But if today’s students are pickier, they don’t necessarily own up to it. Washington College students Michelle Coleman and Leon Newkirk say the dining hall didn’t really figure when they shopped for colleges.
“I’m not a picky eater,” Coleman says. “I’ve always just eaten what’s given to me.”
“Same here,” says Newkirk.
Still, as they load their plates with pierogi in wild mushroom sauce and grilled chicken, both say they like the food and are willing to pay more for it.
The two biggest cinema chains in the U.S. reported dismal summer earnings, not surprisingly, on the heels of a lackluster summer for films.
Revenue was down for films from $4.85 billion in summer 2013 to $4.05 billion this summer, and consequently Regal and AMC announced drops in earnings of 15 and 9 percent respectively.
That’s problematic because summer is when studios work to lure lots of eyeballs with big blockbusters.
"July was really the killer,” says Keith Simanton, managing editor of IMDB which keeps track of box office numbers through its website BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Year over year, July 2014 was down 38.5 percent. Last time it was down that much was in 1995, when "Waterworld" was the big July premiere.
“A number of films did reasonably well,” Simanton says, "but were not the gigantic smashes that was hoped or supposed.”
“Hercules," for example, brought in $99 million domestically and had a production budget that Box Office Mojo estimates at $85 million.
With the bad summer box office news, Regal Entertainment Group, which is the nation’s largest cinema chain, said it’s considering selling itself.
"It’s about the last thing I expected to hear in my lifetime,” says Barton Crockett, a media equity analyst with FBR Capital Markets.
Crockett says Regal might actually be in a position of strength at the moment, because this past summer wasn’t as much a trend as a part of a larger cycle. For one thing, there are high expectations about the slate of movies scheduled for release in 2015.
“It’s kind of smart at one level to think about selling into what seems to be a lot of investor enthusiasm about a strong 2015,” Crockett says.
That enthusiasm includes high hopes for the two films the comic book powerhouse Marvel plans to release next year: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man.” Both films are slated for summer 2015.
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Click the media player above to hear Corey Boles in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.
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In an interview with Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said new rules targeting vocational college programs that leave students with too much debt and too few job prospects were designed with "outcomes, not inputs" in mind.
"The worst-case scenario is when you go to college, accumulate debt, and then don't graduate," Duncan said.
When asked if he thought everyone should go to college, Duncan said he believed everyone needed additional education beyond high school: "If young people drop out of high school today, they are basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are no good jobs out there... the economy has changed."
Duncan said the so-called "gainful employment rules" target middling-to-failing vocational education programs–most of which are offered by for-profit universities and community colleges–in order to provide meaningful post-secondary education across economic classes.
The final draft of the rules released on Thursday relaxed some earlier provisions, drawing criticism from some education groups and for-profit education providers, who say their programs may be the only option for thousands of low-income students. Duncan said no programs will be shut down without "time to improve."
"We invest $22 billion each year in these programs," Duncan said referring to the federal financial aid that pays tuition for most students in for-profit programs. "We want to see strong programs grow, and expand and serve more students. And we want to see programs that aren't doing a good job either improve or cease to exist... Shutting them down is not our goal, but we will have that ability. It's when training is leading to jobs that don't exist, or where debt is unmanageable... that's what we're pushing back against."
The debt-load requirements in the new rules target only vocational training programs and schools. Duncan says the Obama administration has expanded investment in Pell Grants, pushed for broader state-led initiatives and encouraged universities themselves to fight higher tuition overall. He - along with his boss - has also discussed a "more transparent" rating system, which, as one education official told the New York Times, should be a straightforward process, "like rating a blender."
"I don't know whether that's the right analogy or not, but let me say this: We as taxpayers... we invest $150 billion in grants and loans each year to make grants and loans accessible. That's the right thing to do, if we are focused on outcomes.
You can listen to the interview on this evening's Marketplace, or on the audio player at the top of the page.