University Dining Services: Generating Student Health or Institutional Revenue?

I'll begin with a statement we can all agree with: college is expensive. The high-priced housing, textbook requirements and transportation costs all put a huge strain on college students. One of the largest costs - tuition - has risen by 2.4 percent in the last year at private 4-year institutions, and by 3.2 percent at public 4-year institutions (Seltzer, 2017). In addition, there is an often unavoidable cost that is taking up a disproportionately large part of a student’s financial aid - the university meal plan.

As a freshman in the fall of 2016, I was outraged by the cost of my mandatory meal plan at the University of St. Thomas. For $1,806.00, I received 150 meal swipes to use at our main dining hall throughout the semester, 6 meal swipes to use for friends and family who came to visit and $230.00 "flex dollars" that could be used on food at campus eateries and school stores. After some quick math, the cost of a meal swipe for St. Thomas students is equivalent to about $10.10. Due to a busy schedule and inopportune dining hall hours, I had 90 out of my 150 meals left over at the end of the semester. Again, quick calculations determine that I had $909 of my $1,806 meal plan go unused. There was no way for me to retrieve this money, nor was there a way for this money, or the meals it was equivalent to, to be donated to those in need. This made me wonder what this "unused" money was really being used for.

Money that college students are paying for food isn't going towards food alone. One bit of evidence for this is that the cost of a typical college meal plan has risen by an alarming 47% in the last decade, while overall food costs across the US have risen by only 26% in the same period (Garcia-Matthewson, 2017). Also, reports suggest that colleges rely on the revenue from unused portions of meal plans when they are formulating their budgets (Gregory, 2015). Some institutions, like the University of Tennessee, are upfront about this reliance. In 2015, the university began charging all students who did not purchase other meal plans a $300 dining fee to finance a $177 million campus reconstruction plan (Saul, 2015). This common process seems unfair to students with already tight budgets. Across the US, 1 in 5 students are regularly skipping meals to prioritize the other costs associated with college (Swipe Out Hunger, 2017). Overcharging for meal plans and adding supplemental fees likely perpetuates this situation. If universities so heavily rely on this revenue from students, it should be added to the cost of tuition. This would allow students to make an informed assessment of the cost of a college education before they commit to a university. These meal plan rules and hidden charges are deceptive, and students only figure them out once they are on campus.

There are some institutions that are trying to make a change in the way meal plans work. Some universities have started to-go programs for busy students to use swipes they otherwise wouldn't due to time constraints. For example, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities To-Go program requires students to pay a one-time fee of $4 for a reusable container. Students can then use their meal swipes to take food out of dining service facilities on campus (University of Minnesota Dining Services). The containers are then washed and returned to the dining hall, where students can pick up a fresh container and start the process again. The program is environmentally friendly and allows students to actually use the meals they are paying for without being tethered to the dining hall itself.

Another innovative way some schools are working to make a change is by partnering with Swipe Out Hunger, a website with a mission to ensure food security for all college students. Started in 2010, Swipe Out Hunger has branches in colleges and universities across the US. The program works, with the permission of the institution, by allowing students to donate meal swipes or dollar increments during a "swipe drive" at the end of a semester. Once collected, donated meal swipes are distributed to students in need by the financial aid office or student resource centers, used to provide financial support to campus food pantries, and distributed to off-campus food distribution programs or local shelters (Swipe Out Hunger, 2017). This program allows the money students are already paying to be used in a way that benefits the community, rather than benefiting the pockets of the institution.

It’s worth noting that part of the high prices and fees associated with university dining services is the result of student demands for high quality food. Some students, especially those coming from families with higher incomes, tend to want more expensive and higher quality food (Garcia-Matthewson 2017). Ultimately, these more expensive options drive up meal plan costs for all students, not just those who are able to afford it. It’s unclear how much this demand affects dining service policies and prices.

Regardless, the way dining services are currently being handled at some universities feels incredibly unjust. For universities to so blatantly generate university revenue from meal plans while students are skipping meals all together cannot be the way of the world for much longer. We as students have the power to call out institutional actions we are unhappy with. If we agree there needs to be a change, then we can come together to pursue that change.


Garcia-Matthewson, Tara. (2017). Here's Why Food is so Insanely Expensive at College.

Gregory, Ted. (2015). Students' Meal Card Donations to Food Pantries Hinder Colleges' Bottom Lines. Chicago Tribune.

Pappano, Laura. (2016). Leftover Meal Plan Swipes: No Waste Here. The New York Times.

Saul, Stephanie. (2015). Meal Plan Costs Tick Upwards as Students Pay for More Than Food. The New York Times.

Seltzer, Rick. (2017). Net Price Keeps Creeping Up. Inside Higher Ed.

Swipe Out Hunger. (2017). The Campus Hunger Problem.

University of Minnesota Dining Services.\




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