Economics of the College Meal Plan

Food: college students need it, and dining halls provideth albeit, not without cost. Most schools require that certain students sign up for a meal plan, where they pay up-front for colleges to provide X amount of meals during each week. Often, after a student is no longer required to sign up for one, they quit this program. For some, it is because they hate the food, but I think many make the decision based on the premise that meal plans are way overpriced.

Well, I'm sick of wondering, so I decided to do the math to find the exact value that my college's meal plans provide.

The Plans

My college boasts 10 meal plans to choose from. Two that are exclusive to 'First-Year Residence Hall Students', and 4 more options for 'Upper-Year Residence Hall Students' and 'Commuter/Apartment Students' (the overlap between student categories is what morphs 6 unique plans to 10 selectable options). Each plan comes loaded with some number of 'meals' and 'dining points'. Dining points are simple to value, they are simply a tax-free debit account. Dining points are just dollars that can be used at any campus dining locations or at things like vending machines, with the benefit that your account and transactions are exempt from state and local taxes (8.75% here in NY). The value of a meal is either one entry into any of the buffet-style dining halls, or a dollar value at certain campus restaurants, which varies depending on the time of day as follows:

Meal Swipe Values

  • Breakfast (7am-10:30am, M-F): $ 8.00
  • Brunch (10:30am-4pm, Wknds/Hol.): $11.75
  • Lunch (10:45am-4pm, M-F): $11.75
  • Dinner (4:30pm-8:30pm, M-Sun): $11.75
  • Late Night (9:00pm+, M-Sun): $8.00
It might not seem like it at first, but reducing the value you can get out of a meal swipe based on what time it is was actually decided to be a benefit for students, as it would reduce the amount of food they could consume at odd-hours. This decision was made to help stem the pervasive 'freshman-15' epidemic, and was based on studied effects of intermittent fasting.

Here are the actual plans with their allowed meal swipes per week, and dining points. Each plan is valid for one semester unless otherwise noted.

Dining Plans

  • Flex 19
    • Meals: 19
    • Dining: 200
  • Flex 14
    • Meals: 14
    • Dining 380
  • Flex 10
    • Meals: 10
    • Dining: 280
  • Flex 7
    • Meals: 7
    • Dining: 250
  • Dining 1
    • Meals: 0
    • Dining: 600
  • Dining 2 (Annual)
    • Meals: 0
    • Dining: 950
Just about every plan is also available for an 'optional upgrade' which I assume (because there is not a description on the page) means you can upgrade to a plan with more meals--though administrators recommend you still attempt to fast in any case. Even the 'Flex 19' plan is available for an 'optional upgrade' though. To what? The best of our research has yielded few answers, but new studies in the field suggest that those who attempt to upgrade from the flex 19 are hunted down and tossed into the school's boilers to provide heat during the brutal winters.

In any case, with these descriptions we can get to work. I think the easiest place to start, would be defining a range of the value one can get out of a meal plan, if they are maximizing their swipes and dining dollars (DD's).

DD's are simple, we will just multiply their value by 8.75%, to get the amount that you would pay if you bought all the same items with your regular old George Washingtons. Meal swipes on the other hand, have multiple interpretations. For instance, they have the general dollar amounts suggested before, based on the time of day. However, you can use them to enter any dining hall, an experience my school argues is worth $28 dollars otherwise.

Those who claim that 'the best things in life are free', have clearly never been to our dining hall. I read about the price beforehand and I was actually incredibly excited! With prices as they were, I had expected it to come with a red carpet, an orchestra playing a little Vivaldi, and a personal serenade from Gordon Ramsay himself. Note: I have not, as of yet, experienced any of the aforementioned affects.

Anyways, screw $28 dollars, I'm not going to give them the satisfaction of punching that into my calculator.


That was a lot of exposition for what has ultimately been the pressing of a few buttons on a calculator. Nonetheless, I will share the values at the upper and lower bounds for everyday usage, and also share what I think a more typical or average value is over the course of a semester.

Given: 13 weeks on campus

Upper & Lower

The results are the value of the meal plan, calculated as '(meals per week * thirteen weeks * meal value + dining dollars * 1.0875) - cost of plan', where meal value is either $8.00 or $11.75.

Dining Plans

  • Flex 19
    • -$1527.50
    • -$600.25
  • Flex 14
    • -$1700.75
    • -$1018.25
  • Flex 10
    • -$1240.50
    • -$1832.00
  • Flex 7
    • -$890.12
    • -$548.88
  • Dining 1
    • $652.50
  • Dining 2 (Annual)
    • $978.75


It is quite clear that the situation is more and more dire, as you select a plan with more and more meals. At the worst, the flex 14 is nearly a 50% loss of value! If you're skipping using swipes for breakfast it's not so bad, -$1000, but given that $1000 is enough to easily feed yourself for 13 weeks, it is certainly nothing to scoff at (remember this is the value lost beyond what you're already paying). For most people, the value of the meal plan is somewhere in between those numbers, because some will probably get a breakfast occasionally, and also it is likely that a lot of people (especially on the 19) have unused swipes left over at the end of the week.

I find it particularly egregious that any institution should be able to run a scheme as this. I cannot think of another instance where you can buy a product (tuition) and then be contractually obligated to purchase another product (meal plan). Logically, the excess cost for students should be attributed to the overhead of maintaining a meal system, however one has to wonder what part of swiping a card could possibly be costing ~$1000 per student.

Ordinary restaurants make money by charging for the food. This makes sense. Colleges charge you for the food and for the privilege of being charged for food. This does not make sense.

-Peter V.