Do College Meal Plans Save Students Money?
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- College meal plans cost an average of $4,500 per academic year.
- That's significantly higher than the average cost of groceries.
- Meal plans can save students money — if they use the plan wisely.
- Compare meal plan rates with food costs to see if a meal plan saves you money.
A college meal plan gives students access to on-campus dining in residence halls, student centers, and other on-campus restaurants. Depending on your school and meal plan, you might get unlimited meals or a limited number of meals each semester. Many schools also offer flex dollars that students can spend at other locations.
But do college meal plans save students money? The answer depends on your school, the meal plan, and the local cost of food.
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How Much Do College Meal Plans Cost?
Are meal plans worth it? It depends on how much they cost. According to a 2017 Hechinger Report article, college meal plans cost an average of $4,500 per academic year (roughly eight months). That's more than a single person spends on food normally, which is about $3,990 in a year.
The cost of a meal plan depends on the school. At some schools, particularly those that require first-year students to live on campus, undergrads living in dorms must pay for a meal plan. What's more, some meal plans don't cover every meal.
At many colleges, students pay for a set number of meals per semester, which can average as few as eight meals per week. Even after paying for a meal plan, students often face additional food expenses. In addition, students who pay for a meal plan may need to cover food costs during breaks.
Before signing up for a meal plan, students should consider whether they're worth the cost.
10 Schools' College Meal Plan Costs
How much do college meal plans cost? Here's how much students pay for meal plans at five public and five private universities.
University of Michigan Meal Plan
At the University of Michigan, students living on-campus must sign up for a meal plan. The university offers several options, including an unlimited basic meal plan for $1,249 per term. Off-campus students can also sign up for a meal plan at the same rate. Both meal plans offer the ability to add dining dollars on top of the basic plan.
University of Virginia Meal Plan
UVA offers meal plans for students in the dorms and residential colleges, as well as student-athletes. First-year students must choose the All Access plan, which costs $2,890-$3,130 per semester, depending on the number of flex dollars. Each plan offers unlimited meals plus guest meals.
University of Florida Meal Plan
At UF, on-campus students can sign up for residential meal plans. The university also offers commuter plans with several options. Off-campus students pay $230-$790 per semester, depending on their meal plan option. The on-campus dining options range from $1,765-$2,300 per semester, depending on the number of meals and flex bucks.
University of North Carolina Meal Plan
UNC offers meal plans for on-campus students that cost between $1,622-$2,627 per semester. Off-campus students can also buy a meal plan for $300-$668 per semester.
University of California, Berkeley Meal Plan
At UC Berkeley, living in the residence halls as an undergrad comes with a basic meal plan at no extra charge. Upgrading to an unlimited plan with $500 flex dollars adds $475 per semester. Off-campus students can also buy a meal plan for $250-$3,380 per semester, depending on the option they choose.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Meal Plan
MIT students can pay for a meal plan for as little as $125 per semester or up to $3,404. Residents can buy a block of meals for each semester or unlimited meals. MIT also offers dining dollars for off-campus students at a discounted rate.
Rice University Meal Plan
Rice University students choose a meal plan based on how much they plan to eat on campus. Students in the dorms must sign up for the $2,400 per semester plan. The options for off-campus students range from $600-$1,400 per semester.
New York University Meal Plan
At NYU, first-year, visiting, and transfer students living on campus must pay for a meal plan. The costs range from $2,131 per semester up to $3,227. The cheapest plans estimate eight meals on campus each week, while the most expensive plan covers 19 meals a week. Off-campus students can buy a more affordable meal plan that costs $1,546 per semester.
Princeton University Meal Plan
At Princeton, undergrads in their first two years pay for the unlimited meal plan, which costs $7,670 per year. Juniors, seniors, and grad students can buy a less expensive meal plan, which costs $2,975 and provides 105 meals a semester.
University of Southern California Meal Plan
USC students living on campus spend $3,465-$3,955 on meal plans. Most of those plans come with unlimited meals in the residential halls plus guest meals. Off-campus students can choose from options that range from $417-$790 per semester. These plans cover 25-50 meals in the residence halls plus dining dollars that students can use elsewhere on campus.
Do College Meal Plans Save You Money?
Can a college meal plan save you money? The answer depends on the cost of food in your area and the cost of the meal plan. Most students can probably save money by declining the meal plan and making most of their meals at home.
Off-campus dining can add up quickly, however. If you tend to eat out a lot and don't enjoy cooking, a campus meal plan can save you money.
Some schools require undergrads in the dorms to pay for meal plans. In other cases, students should consider the cost of food in their area and the cost of their school's meal plan to find the most affordable option.
Create a Budget
Before deciding on a meal plan, college students should create a budget. Calculate all of your expenses, including regular expenses like housing, transportation, and tuition. Then consider categories like entertainment. Finally, calculate the minimum amount you'll need to spend on food. Then decide which option best fits your budget.
Determine Food Costs in Your Area
Food costs vary greatly by area. How much does food cost in your location? Check out resources on the average cost of groceries by state to estimate how much you might need to budget for food. Or check out local grocery stores and track your spending.
Determine Whether Your Financial Aid Applies to Meal Plans
Most students think financial aid only covers tuition. But most financial aid plans also apply to qualifying educational expenses, which include room and board. For example, borrowers can use federal loans to pay for meal plans on campus. Students can also use loans to pay for food when they live off-campus. Similarly, 529 college savings plans cover food expenses.
Some forms of financial aid do not cover meal plans. For example, certain scholarships and grants only apply to tuition costs. Check with your school's financial aid office to learn more about using financial aid to pay for meal plans.
Weigh the Convenience of a College Meal Plan
College meal plans are convenient, especially for students who spend long hours on campus. Instead of packing meals or looking for off-campus options, a meal plan can save students time. And for students living in the dorms, there's no more convenient option than on-site dining. Plus, some schools offer top-notch dining halls.