Colleges May Soon Be Forced to Refund Unused Meal Plan Funds to Students

The Department of Education proposed a new rule that would require institutions to provide refunds to most college students.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on January 11, 2024
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  • Right now, many college students on a flex meal plan forfeit leftover funds at the end of a school year.
  • A proposal aims to disallow colleges and universities from keeping those funds.
  • The rule change would only apply to students who receive federal financial aid, including federal student loans.

The days of college students rushing to use their remaining meal plan balance by the end of the semester may soon be over.

The Department of Education (ED) proposed a regulatory change that would require most colleges and universities to refund a student's remaining funds from a flex meal plan at the end of the semester. Currently, institutions may choose to keep leftover money for themselves, to the dismay of college students.

ED's proposal would only apply to students who receive federal financial aid, including federal student loans.

The proposal would not affect more traditional college meal plans that offer a set number of meals per semester or academic year. Instead, it would only apply to so-called flex plans that hold funds for students to use at on-campus dining locations.

Schools would have to return funds to students within 14 days of the end of the payment period.

ED discussed this proposal with a panel of higher education stakeholders during a negotiated rulemaking session Tuesday.

According to a recap from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), most committee members were open to the proposal except for the negotiator representing for-profit colleges and universities. The for-profit representative worried that such a proposal would limit institutional meal plan offerings, specifically at smaller schools.

Most other negotiators, meanwhile, were in favor of the proposal.

One negotiator suggested that students be allowed to roll over unused meal plan funds so they could use them in another term or between semesters.

ED will meet with negotiators again in February and March. The department will likely take a final consensus vote on the regulatory proposal in March. But even if approved, the rule likely won't be implemented in time for the 2024-25 academic year.

The department is also considering a proposal to expand access to federal TRIO programs to all people who attended high school in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status, during these negotiated rulemaking sessions.