While college students face ever-growing tuition bills, those increases in many cases are being outpaced by another rising cost: meal plan charges.
An analysis by the Springfield News-Sun found that meal plan charges have grown more than tuition and fees at six of 10 local institutions. Wittenberg, Miami and Wright State are among the universities where meal plan charges grew at a greater rate than tuition between 2004 and 2014.
The cost of Wittenberg’s typical meal plan increased more than 47 percent during that span, while tuition and fees jumped about 45 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Wittenberg said that statement is comparing apples to oranges because what’s included in the standard meal plan has also increased from 15 meals a week to unlimited.
Additionally, Wittenberg has frozen tuition for the past three years while, “nominal increases have occurred with our meal plans to accommodate increased costs associated with providing that service,” according to Doug Schantz, director of student accounts.
The cost of Miami’s meal plan jumped more than 60 percent in the past decade — one of the largest increases in the state during that span.
To attract students, colleges and universities are beefing up their dining halls with larger selections, more local produce and top-flight amenities. Ultimately, industry experts say, that cost is passed on to students through fees or rising meal charges.
Dawn Aubrey, an associate director of housing at the University of Illinois, said dining halls across the country are trying to meet the demands of current and future students. She said in recent years that has meant more “sustainable” or local food, as well as waste reduction.
“Who’s producing it? Who’s transporting it? How’s it prepared? And making sure that all aspects of the food are sustainable,” Aubrey said.
She acknowledged that there is a cost to meeting those demands, but argues that it’s a necessary expenditure.
Aubrey says colleges have to bow to student demands or risk them going elsewhere. She cited a 2013 study by Technomic — a Chicago-based food service consulting firm — that found around one in five students say they choose a college based on amenities. The firm also found that dining services are the top amenity cited by students.
Dining is a vital part of the college experience at a residential campus like Wittenberg, Schantz said.
“As such, we are continually partnering with our dining operations team to drive new initiatives that enhance the diversity and availability of food options for our students, promote sustainability efforts that mitigate our environmental impact and implement strategies that support the use of locally sourced food,” he said.
Another perk is that parents eat for free when they are visiting Wittenberg.
A standard meal plan at Wittenberg costs $4,774 for the 2014-15 school year, slightly more than what the University of Dayton charges.
But the school offers options ranging in price from $797 per semester for off-campus students up to the unlimited plan.
“Our programs are designed to offer students flexibility in maximizing their financial resources while at the same time choosing a plan that best aligns with their eating habits,” Schantz said.
Industry experts say that schools with large international student bodies, such as Ohio State and UD, need to offer larger food selections. UD, for example, has expanded its food selection to include more traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern dishes.
One common complaint about meal plans is that they can be confusing. When Gypsy-Storm Davis enrolled at Wright State in 2014, she purchased a plan that would give her 12 meals a week. The second-year finance student says she didn’t realize that the plan would mean that she would only eat one meal two days each week.
“I didn’t have a job at first as a freshman and didn’t have much education about the meal plan,” Davis said. “The first couple weeks on the weekends I was hungry. I couldn’t drive somewhere to eat, because I didn’t have a car. Those weekends were pretty hard freshman year.”
She isn’t alone. A study released in November by the American Public Health Association found that 1 in 3 college freshmen experiences food insecurity or “lack of consistent access to adequate foods.”
Davis says Wright State should do more to educate incoming students about plans she calls “complex.”
Miami and Wright State officials both said they make efforts to educate students and parents, yet confusion does persist.
Davis acknowledges that even if she had known more about Wright State’s meal plans, she might not have been able to afford the appropriate plan. The most expensive plan at Wright State currently costs $2,569 per semester. Meanwhile, the cheapest plan costs $1,555 per semester.
Davis recommends that incoming students do research about meal plans and whether dining halls will close for holidays.
“I didn’t go home (to Youngstown) for Thanksgiving,” she said. “That week I only got half of my meals, because the cafeteria closed for four days that week.”
How plans work
Another common complaint of college students is that meals don’t roll over to the next semester, meaning students face a “use it or lose it” scenario when it comes to eating.
That’s the case at Wittenberg, which offers five options: the unlimited plan with $100 bonus dollars for $2,484 per semester; 225 flex meals plus $100 bonus dollars for $2,173; 150 flex meals plus $200 bonus dollars for $1,925 open to upper classmen only; and two different small plans for Greek and off-campus students.
Gheretta Harris, executive director of business services administration at Wright State, says unused swipes disappear. For instance, a student who purchases the “budget plan” and uses only six of their swipes one week loses the remaining four swipes.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Harris said.
Wittenberg students who have a surplus of funds at the end of term, which is rare according to Schantz, can spend those dollars in the on-campus market to stock up on non-perishables.
Miami has a different setup. The school allows students to pick from an unlimited buffet meal plan, or a plan with either 262 meals or 225 meals. Miami students have the entire semester to use the swipes, but just like Wright State students, they lose unused swipes.
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