Ahh, college dining halls — where roommates become friends, the freshman fifteen becomes a reality, and the line wraps around the building from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (What’s not to love?)
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Oh, right, the “luxury” of on-campus dining is also ridiculously expensive.
So pricey, in fact, that skipping the meal plan could afford you a year’s tuition at a community college, a 2009 Honda Civic, and four months’ worth of rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
These 15 college dining meal plan statistics will put the entire “American college experience” into perspective (and you’ll regret being woke after this doozy).
The Cost of College Meal Plans
- On average, college students spend about $4,500 a year on a meal plan.
- At Vanderbilt University, a $2,933 semester-long meal plan includes three daily meals, $200 “dining dollars,” and five meals for guests. For $818 less, University of Tennessee students gain access to unlimited on-campus meals plus an extra $100 dining dollars per semester.
- First-year Columbia University students foot a bill of about $11.40 per meal, $34 per day, and $2,802 per semester for a basic on-campus meal plan — all due upfront.
- A college meal plan costs students about $7.75 more per day than single people in the real world ($18.75 vs. $11).
- Eat-in restaurant meals average about $12.75 per dish at a 300% markup, and college students dine out more than the average person — over 4.2 times per week.
Why Do College Meal Plans Cost So Much?
The obvious answer is “because college is more expensive than ever.” Why hike the prices of room, tuition, parking passes, and textbooks and not gouge on meal plans, too?
But how do schools justify charging $4,500 (or more) per year on food, especially when some colleges don’t offer the luxury of unlimited meal plans?
We can think of a few possible reasons:
Over 17% Of Americans Follow a Special Diet
That may include gluten-free, sugar-free, low-sodium, vegan, or vegetarian options. Healthier meals could cost twice as much to make, explaining the absurd uptick in dining plans prices.
The Current College-Bound Generation Demands Healthier Choices
As much as 45% of 18–24-year-olds “always” look for nutritious foods. In response, colleges are stepping up their dining hall game by preparing healthier, more expensive meals.
College Students Are Often From Wealthier Families
According to Pew Research Center, 37% of undergraduates were “middle-income,” while another 9% fell into the “higher income” category.
Meal plans are pricier because the average American family can afford them.
They’re the Key to Success (Sort Of)
Most colleges require on-campus students to invest in meal plans, at least during the first year. This absurd policy forces students to choose — pay the $4,500, commute, or live off-campus.
If You Didn’t Splurge On the Meal Plan …
At colleges like Vanderbilt, you can dump nearly $3,000 into a dining plan per semester that only offers three meals per day.
Not to mention, some dining hall “meals” are a slice of toast and a single egg. Now, if you skipped the three-meal-per-day plan entirely, just how much would the savings add up?
- In one day, you’d save $18.75, or about the cost of a portable phone charger.
- In one week, the savings is $131.25, or a year-long membership at a discount gym.
- In one month, you’d have $562.50 more in your account, equivalent to a laptop.
- In a semester, the savings climb to $1,968.75, or a week-long couple’s trip to Cancun.
- In four years, you’d have $15,750, which could also buy you a 2022 camping trailer.
(Of course, this assumes you’re mooching off your parents the full four years. The actual four-year savings is closer to $6,510 if you’re buying your own food — which is still a lot!)
College Expenses Impacting Affordability
- College students now shell out about 25% more for the room, board, and tuition than students attending ten years ago.
- Tacking a meal plan onto student loans threatens the affordability of college for the 69% of students needing financial assistance.
- While food costs nationwide have climbed 26% in the last decade, the cost of dining hall contracts has skyrocketed more than 47%.
Why Is College So Expensive?
Baby Boomers love to brag about how “independent” they were when they were your age.
“I put myself through four years at Yale, bought a new Corvette, and rented a three-bedroom highrise in New York with the wages from my camp counselor job in the summer of 1972.” OK.
The older generations fail to recognize that inflation and unregulated markups have spiraled at crisis-like levels since the 1970s (perhaps earlier).
A full-year of Harvard tuition cost $2,600 in 1971 — or about $17,236 in today’s society. That later exploded 1,550% to $60,000 per year in 2016–17.
(The prices of homes had also doubled between 1970 and 2017, climbing from a modest $107,291 to a quickly burdensome $217,600.)
So why is every aspect of college insanely expensive, inflation be damned?
There’s a Growing Demand
More than 69% of high school graduates will attend college the fall after graduation.
The more companies “gatekeep” opportunities with degree requirements, and the more high school seniors apply for their “golden ticket,” the more universities can justify the price gouging.
Financial Aid Is More Widely Available
High college costs were once a barrier between low-income students and higher education.
But with more aid opportunities available to cover a portion and 86% of students receiving financial assistance, colleges raise their sticker prices to increase their profits.
More State Funding Cuts
Public colleges and universities rely partially on state funding to keep their doors open, hire well-respected faculty, and meet student needs.
But between 2008 and 2018, state funding plummeted, with 41 states cutting their funding — six of which slashed it by 30% per student. Colleges make up for this deficit with inflated price tags.
Healthy & Cheap College Meal Plan Alternatives
Short of receiving a full-ride scholarship or commuting instead of living on-campus, it’s nearly impossible to get a bargain deal on a college education from a reputable university.
(The required meal plan is the final nail in the coffin.)
About 69% of students could lose access to a required dining plan. Experts also predicted that 65% of job openings would require college by 2020, shutting off millions of opportunities.
But if your college doesn’t require meal plans, how can you eat on a budget? At $11 per day for a full year, fresh food could drop your dining spending by $1,627.50 per academic year.
Here’s how to save money on food without resorting to unhealthy meals:
Request an Upgraded Dorm Room or On-Campus Apartment
Some upgraded rooms have refrigerators and ovens. While not always an option, this route can help settle the $1 ramen-for-every-meal vs. $4,500 meal plan debate.
Buy In Bulk
This strategy doesn’t apply to fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or bread. But you can find cost-saving bulk deals on healthy foods, like frozen berries, oats, nuts, and dried pasta.
Choose Store Brand Goods
Big-name brands are notorious for jaw-dropping price markups. Yet, store-brand cereals, condiments, paper towels, soda, flour, and more offer very similar quality at a discount.
Be Proactive About Finding Grocery Store Discounts
Grocery stores are a goldmine of savings — if you know where to look. Couponing, loyalty or reward cards and even student ID discounts can save you 10–15% per shopping trip.
Food Insecurity Among College Students
- Of the 43,000 American college students surveyed, a concerning 36% met the criteria for “food insecure.”
- Studies estimate that 11.8% of American households classify as food insecure, with food insecurity amongst college students reaching epidemic-like proportions at 33% or 51%.
- Another report from the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that food insecurity in college students is 36% in four-year students and 43% for those attending community college.
- A survey of Brown University students found that 28% of respondents struggled with food access in the last three months. Sophomores were more likely to face food insecurity than freshmen required to splurge on pricey meal plans (30% vs. 15%).
Why Food Insecurity Is High On College Campuses
(We’ll try to explain this one without causing a complete political firestorm.)
According to Feeding America, food insecurity rates were at a 20-year low before the COVID-19 pandemic struck (10.9%). The leading culprits were poverty and unemployment.
But students from low-income areas don’t escape this cloud after stepping foot on a college campus. In fact, 15% of first-year Brown University students with meal plans are food insecure.
So how does that happen? Here are a few possible reasons:
Cheaper Meal Plans Are More Feasible
Twenty-seven percent of college students came from households identified as either “in poverty” or “near poverty.” For a family of four, the cutoff is a $26,500 salary for the entire family.
Although many schools (like Brown) require freshmen to splurge on the pricier meal plans, others offer the more affordable block options.
For example, Princeton University has a 95-block plan, averaging 6.33 meals per week. Unfortunately, students face the pressure of rationing their meals to last until finals or midterms.
Many Students Support Themselves Financially
The Association of American Colleges & University revealed in 2018 that 55% of college students are financially independent.
This puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on 18–22-year-olds juggling rent, car payments and insurance, medical insurance, electricity, gas, internet, and food.
Many students opt out of these expensive meal plans to cover tuition costs and guarantee future career opportunities. But they don’t have enough income to eat three square meals a day.
How Colleges Are Combating Food Insecurity Amongst Students
Food insecurity is a systemic problem, yet colleges across the country are launching initiatives to combat this problem.
Universities like Rutgers and Penn State and community colleges have since opened food pantries on-campus for students facing hunger.
Some of these food pantries resemble farmer’s markets (i.e., fresh fruits and vegetables), where students in need can grab a bag of groceries that includes canned goods and dairy.
State governments are also stepping in to help college students. New Jersey, for example, expanded its SNAP (food stamp) programs during COVID to include college students.
Neither solves the problem, but they can make a difference to struggling students.
Are Students Actually Using Meal Plans?
- On a 180-meal plan, male students average about 122 meals in the fall and 133 meals in the spring. Female students recorded slightly lower usage at 112 and 126 meals.
- At American University (and other universities nationwide), meal plans expire at the end of each semester without rolling over upon returning to campus.
- A survey of 552 college students found that 30% of college students skipped meals in any given month to guarantee their meal plan lasted the rest of the semester. About 21% feared depleting their plan before finals ended or worried about going hungry (6%).
Unlimited vs. Block Meal Plans: Which Is Best?
Unlimited meal plans are wildly expensive, but in a really weird way, they’re also the more logical option. That’s because — point-blank — block meal plans are kind of scammy.
Say you live in off-campus housing where meal plans are optional. You enroll in a 160-block plan in the fall and plan to split your meals between your apartment and the dining hall.
Due to odd class timing and a newfound appreciation for meal prep, you only eat one meal per day at the dining hall. That leaves you with 55 unused swipes by the time finals end.
At about $11.40 per meal (Columbia University), $627 goes to waste. But, of course, not taking full advantage of an unlimited plan may pour even more cash down the drain.
If your dorm room doesn’t have kitchen appliances and you can maintain a regular eating schedule, shoot for the unlimited plan.
Otherwise, a per-block plan is a way to go. But you’re better off lowballing the blocks you buy; it’s better to buy more meals halfway through the semester than blatantly waste money!
Why Meal Plans Are a Cash Grab
(This is going to sound like a tinfoil hat moment, but we promise it’s not!)
- Nearly all colleges require first-year students to buy meal plans, often limiting them to the most expensive options.
- Some colleges expand this mandate to second-year students or any student living in on-campus housing.
- The choice becomes: invest in the meal plan or sacrifice the full college experience and the doors a degree will open for you in the future.
- It’s rare for underclassmen dorms to have cooking-friendly appliances, like refrigerators, stoves, and ovens.
- At first, the wide selection of food at the dining halls is enticing, but it can quickly become repetitive when you’re eating three meals per day.
- Not all dining halls offer healthy foods, leaving you to shop on your own if you want to avoid the freshman fifteen.
- Colleges partner with chains like Starbucks, Applebees, and McDonald’s, allowing students to use their “flex” or “dining” dollars to buy food off-campus.
- Students inevitably want to spice up their diets by dining out more often, investing in more dining dollars, or simply using their meal plans less.
- Universities make an absurd amount of money, while students spend the next ten years forking over monthly payments to close out the loan.
Did every college president team up to create this elaborate scheme? We hope not. But no matter how you slice it, college meal plans make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Pros of College Meal Plans
Some Plans Offer All-You-Can-Eat Perks
Unlimited meal plans are a mini-feast for literally every meal of the day. Nobody’s stopping you from loading your plate with pizza and ice cream or “curing” a hangover with greasy fries.
These buffet-style dining halls offer plenty of variety, the most bang for your buck, and more control over your calories and macronutrients.
Some plans also include a set number of dining dollars or flex points. You can redeem these at campus vending machines, the Starbucks in the library (great for students that need coffee to keep running), or even nearby off-campus restaurants.
The Pre-Made Meals Are Much-Needed Time Savers
If nothing else, college is a four-year-long time management lesson.
Balancing social activities, academics, and work can become so hectic that students admit to spending just an hour per day eating.
Not to mention the intense sleep deprivation most students experience that makes the whole thing even more stressful.
There’s simply not enough time in the day to cook three square meals. Not to mention the lack of stoves, ovens, and full-sized refrigerators in traditional dorm rooms.
They Lesson Financial Worries (For Now)
Financial aid, scholarships, and grants broaden access to secondary education, which was widely considered a “luxury” for centuries.
Many college students hail from low-income households where food insecurity rates struck a startling 11.8%, only worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While undoubtedly pricey, these prepaid college meal plans can help relieve that worry — at least for 30 weeks a year.
Of course, this doesn’t solve the systemic problem at its root. Students may still need a part-time job to afford toiletries, medications, clothing, and fresh foods.
Cons of College Meal Plans
Universities Use Them to Gatekeep the College Experience
Many colleges require all first-year (and even second-year) students to purchase a meal plan if they’re planning to live in on-campus dorms.
Even at ivy league schools like Princeton University, where tuition already costs $56,000 per academic year, the required “unlimited” meal plan costs an extra $7,500.
When lumped into your student loans, you might be paying off those late-night munchies or Mexican feasts for the next ten years!
The Loopholes Can Unsweeten the Deal
The thought of unlimited food for 30 weeks a year is convincing enough for naive freshmen to drop the $4,500 without a second thought.
But the “unlimited” bit really only applies to the dining halls. So if your school has cafes or fast food chains on campus, that’ll cost you those precious “dining dollars” or out-of-pocket cash.
The block plans, on the other hand, don’t roll over unused meals. That’s why many students end the semester with extra meals because their classes fell during lunch or breakfast hours.
(Tip: The last week of the semester is the best week to mooch swipes from students looking to pawn their extras off for free!)
The Freshman Fifteen Is Hard to Resist
The dining hall has plenty of healthy options, including fresh-made soups, vegan wraps, deli sandwiches, and a full salad bar.
Now, try telling 18-year-olds unleashed into the real world to turn down the buffalo wings or bucket-full of mac & cheese. The temptation almost always wins!
With so many options and near-unlimited access to food, it’s no surprise that 25% of first-year students gain ten pounds in their first semester alone.
College is already stressful enough. Adding the weight of a thousands-dollar investment only creates a bigger challenge for students planning for a successful future.
If you’re living off-campus, skip the meal plan entirely and bring your own lunch on days you spend hours on campus.
If your school requires a meal plan, buy it freshman year and track how often you use it. Next year, you can decide if you need one and, if so, how many meals per semester.
If your college has optional meal plans and you have an upgraded dorm, cook your own food and visit the dining hall or off-campus dining socially.
If affording a meal plan (or food, in general) is another hurdle, check with your college to see if it offers an on-campus food pantry or can point you toward government assistance.