In higher education, automation pays off

Donna, the CFO of a private college in the Northeast, has a problem. Her foodservice and security team leaders have both asked for add-ons to their systems to enable better student service and access control. Donna knows having a more connected, automated campus would be a big selling point to prospective students and their families, but she has a fixed budget for the next fiscal cycle. Luckily, she’s learned that self-service food kiosks are both a great next step to automation and a new revenue generator. Installing kiosks across campus is a win-win.

Previous CBORD Insights research and blog posts have explored the many operational challenges facing higher education campuses in today’s environment. Labor shortages are driving up wages and eroding service levels. Supply chain issues and inflation are requiring just-in-time substitutions and inflating budgets. And student expectations for a connected campus have never been higher.

Fortunately, automation gives campus administrators many levers of control. Today, automation is widely seen as a way to reduce the need for people to perform routine tasks or as a tool that helps employees work more productively. In a recent CBORD survey, the top two benefits of automation cited by higher education professionals were operational efficiencies and predictable costs.

Automation can indeed assist leaders with their ongoing efforts to increase efficiency and cut costs — but that’s just the beginning. As many higher education institutions are discovering, automation can deliver a range of other benefits. It can improve quality and reduce errors in work — for example, the automated downloading of inventories from a food vendor’s systems helps ensure that dining operations have up-to-date data.  This reduces the need to manually key in data, thereby saving time and reducing inputting errors. Automation can also enable centralized controls — for example, automated locks and mobile credentials make it possible to control building access to quickly locate specific students or lock down areas in the event of an emergency.

Building Best Practices

Automation can do more than support routine tasks. It empowers your employees with smart tools that increase accuracy and efficiency, so they can institute best practices across departments. 


Automation can manage costs, reduce labor requirements, and even enable new revenue streams. Self-serve food kiosks, for example, not only remove staffing costs, but they also open up a new sales channel. Research shows that a majority of consumers – especially younger consumers like college students – enjoy using kiosks to order food. These devices work so well that they have become widely used and accepted in private-sector restaurants. “For-profit businesses have analyzed their environments and found these to be an effective way to drive revenue,” says Brett Africk, director of sales, platform systems, at CBORD.

Upselling From Kiosks

Kiosks also makes it easier to upsell. “This is more than the traditional, ‘I‘ll have fries with that’ approach,” says Africk. “It can involve an array of customizations, like having avocado on your turkey sandwich or a fried egg on your hamburger, and things that people might not even know about until the kiosk prompts them.” These options are typically presented with images and text, and customers can simply push a button to add items. “Kiosks really drive revenue because they upsell for you automatically,” he says. In fact, McDonald’s has reportedly found that the use of kiosks increases average order size by about 30%, compared to counter sales.

According to Africk, in higher education, the return on investment on a single kiosk is less than a year. “If you have a bank of kiosks, it is even faster, because you get some economies of scale with multiple machines.”

Expanding Options

Kiosks are just one way automation enables foodservice delivery on campuses. Students can now order meals on their phone, then swing by a food locker or service counter to pick up. They can walk in and out of unmanned self-service shops that deduct payments automatically. They can place orders from facilities on or off campus, delivered either by humans or robot carts.

Overall, effective automation can help increase efficiency, quality, and consistency in campus operations and help boost revenues — often, all at the same time. The pace of change is accelerating, but not as fast as student demand for frictionless, app-driven options. And as the technology continues to improve, automation can be expected to open the door to a range of innovations that will help institutions meet operational challenges and deliver a better student experience.

CBORD Insights proprietary research, Customer Priorities Survey, Sept 2022, n=276.

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