What to Know About the Cost of Paying for Meals in College

US News & World Report
By Farran Powell
May 23, 2018

Some college meal plans can cost more than $6,000 for one academic year.

With skyrocketing tuition prices at four-year colleges, paying for meals is often an overlooked cost.

“Budgeting for college goes far beyond saving up for tuition. Many families neglect to factor in the additional expenses that often come with being a college student, including living and dining costs, which can really add up, depending on the student and the school,” says Kat Cohen, the founder and CEO of IvyWise, a New York-based admissions consulting company.

Meals that are provided regularly make up the “board” in room and board rates at colleges and universities. Data on board rates collected by the U.S. Department of Education show that four-year public institutions charged full-time students slightly more than $4,400 on average during the 2015-2016 school year. Four-year private institutions charge even more – around $5,600 on average – according to the Education Department’s data.

Colleges often require students who live on campus to purchase some type of meal plan. For instance, all students attending the University of Iowa who live in residence halls are required to purchase a college dining plan. The cost of a meal plan at UI for one semester ranges from $725, which covers an average of five meals a week, to $1,850, which includes unlimited meals.

Other universities have similar requirements. At the University of Alabama—Birmingham, all freshmen who live on campus are required to choose between two meal plans that both cost $1,875 for the 2018-2019 year.

While meal plans vary in cost among institutions, an unlimited meal plan can amount to thousands of dollars per year.

At Harvard University, the meal plan is a single, unlimited one; students are also required to live on campus during their freshman year. Board costs at Harvard for the 2017-2018 school year amount to more than $3,000 for board per semester. For students at Harvard who qualify for need-based aid, their packages will cover these costs.

While the convenience of unlimited swipes may be nice, experts say some students may want greater flexibility when it comes to housing arrangements and meal plans – especially if they’re a nontraditional student. A traditional student is usually defined as an 18- or 19-year-old who goes directly from high school to college.

“I always advise parents to research the cost of living on campus thoroughly, and factor these fees in when budgeting. Different schools have different dining policies, but frequently students living on campus are required to purchase a meal plan, at least for their first year,” Cohen says.

With the way schools structure dining card plans, students and their families can often lose money on unused meals, experts say.

“They’re certainly not cheap, but what they’re designed to do is to make sure students who are living in the dorms have access to food because most dorms don’t have kitchens,” says Kim Dancy, a senior policy analyst with the education policy program at New America, a think tank based in the District of Columbia.

For prospective students, here are a few things to know about affording meals on campus.

Many college students fail to use all the meals on their plans. College meal plans are typically paid upfront with tuition. With the semester-based meal plans, Dancy says it can be more difficult to budget accurately. “It’s hard to think that far in advance to plan our your meals in that way,” she says.

Experts recommend that students who plan to dine off campus consider a smaller meal plan. “Daily restaurant meals can add up quickly, especially if the college your student is attending is in an area with a high cost of living. Compromise by creating a budget that allows for occasional meals out, but emphasize the importance of making use of a meal plan and staying within your agreed-upon monthly spending amount,” Cohen says.

Unused meals are often nonrefundable. Not all institutions allow unused funds on a meal plan to roll over to the following semester. And many institutions don’t allow refunds on a meal plan unless it’s for certain circumstances. At Georgetown University, for instance, students who take a leave of absence or withdraw from the university after their meal plan has begun may receive a prorated refund.

When it comes to unused meals on plans that don’t offer a rollover or refund, some students purchase nonperishable foods at the end of the semester. One parent wrote on the popular Facebook group page Paying For College 101: “At the end of both semesters, our daughter cashed in as many, though sadly not all, of the flex credits she had for microwave shelf stable foods.”

Another solution is to donate meal swipes.

“There are some universities that give you the opportunity to donate your meal swipes to nonprofit organizations, but those are usually extremely limited,” says Jon Chin, a graduate student at New York University who created Share Meals, a digital platform to connect food insecure students with meal swipes.

Some schools provide a food pantry for students in need. Food insecurity, or not having enough to eat, can derail students from their academic career. “You’re going to see that food insecurity issue across a variety of institutions. It’s most troublesome when you think about the independent student who doesn’t have help from their parents or is working full time,” Dancy says.

According to a recent report by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, around 36 percent of four-year college students are food-insecure. The number is even higher among community college students at 43 percent, the report found.

In response to food insecurity among students, some public universities and community colleges are providing food banks, experts say.

“We’re seeing a lot of on-campus food banks. I think those are really great options to target students with the highest need who, for a variety of reasons, are the least likely to live in a dorm and buy the campus meal plan in the first place.” Dancy says.