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Mandatory meal plans add to college debt

Iowa's public universities don't outsource food service to big contractors

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IOWA CITY — If student debt is a pile of spaghetti, residence hall meal plans are the meatballs on top.

Some Iowa college students say mandatory meal plans — required of most residence hall dwellers at Iowa’s public universities — add to student loan debt, which has surpassed $1 trillion nationwide.

“I definitely feel like I could have a smaller meal plan,” said Tina Remec, a University of Iowa freshman from Naperville, Ill.

Remec and her friends had so many meals left over at the end of the fall semester they used their extras — which don’t carry over — to buy sandwiches, fruit, chips and cookies to make more than 20 brown-bag lunches for homeless people. While she was glad to help others, Remec would have preferred to save the money.

Iowa’s three public universities require students living in residence halls without kitchens to buy meal plans, which range in cost from $1,500 to nearly $2,300 per semester. The plans, which include meals in dorm dining halls, grab-and-go munchies and food from campus cafes and coffee shops, compose up to one-quarter of the total cost of one year of college.

The rationale for requiring students living in residence halls to buy meal plans is twofold, said Von Stange, assistant vice president for student life and director of UI Housing and Dining.

“We want students to have nutritious meals,” he said. “It’s also a fire-safety issue if people start cooking on their own.”

A 2012 Kansas State University study of 300 first-year students showed students who ate at least 11 times in the dining center earned an average GPA of 3.4, while those who at fewer than seven times a week in the dining hall earned an average GPA of 3.0. More than 60 percent of students surveyed said eating in the dining center made them feel more socially connected, K-State reported.

“We believe that having a meal plan makes it easier for students to focus on school — there’s not shopping, cooking or cleaning up,” said Brittney Rutherford, marketing coordinator for the ISU Department of Residence and ISU Dining. “Students also have the opportunity to gather with their friends for meals and build strong communities by dining together.”

Piling on

But rising student debt has become a national problem, with some economists saying college grads saddled with debt are delaying marriage, childbearing, home purchases and entrepreneurial efforts.

Iowa ranks ninth in average student debt at $29,730, the Institute for College Access and Success reports, and one of the highest default rates in the nation a 17.3 percent.

President Barack Obama suggested in a February speech in Indianapolis that gourmet food and top-notch recreation centers were driving up student debt.

At the UI, students can choose made-to-order burritos, pizza, hamburgers and home-cooked favorites such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes as well as use a salad bar, desserts and beverages. Mandatory meal plans make up 15 percent to 17 percent of the total estimated cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates.

Food was about 8 percent of the total cost for out-of-state students.

Meal plans at UNI — the university is made up of about 90 percent in-state students — are between 22 percent and 24 percent of the total estimated cost of attendance for undergrads.

At ISU, meal plans are 16 percent to 22 percent of the total estimated cost of attendance for in-state undergraduates in 2015-2016.

“It adds to the student debt everyone has to deal with,” agreed Dan Breitbarth, ISU student body president. But “at Iowa State, our food is great. When the food is great, you don’t get too many complaints from students.”

Controversies in other states

Some universities in other states have been criticized for using mandatory meal plans as a revenue stream offered to private food vendors that then pay for non-food expenses, such as dining center upgrades or other campus improvements, the New York Times reported in December.

The University of Tennessee started last fall requiring all students enrolled in at least 6 credit hours to have a meal plan. The change allowed returning students to opt out of residence hall-based meal plans, but if they do, they’ll be charged $300 per semester for food, whether they eat it or not.

Tennessee’s contract with dining vendor Aramark provides that the university will get 14 percent of all food revenue plus $15.2 million in renovations to dining facilities, the Time reported. The money will help pay for a $177 million student union.

Texas A&M signed a 10-year food service contract with Chartwells that includes a $22.7 million signing bonus and $25 million in building projects.

Iowa’s public universities provide their own food service. They do sign contracts with vendors to buy food, but a Gazette review of the UI’s contracts showed no kickbacks similar to those mentioned in the Times story.

Use determines value

The UI’s Stange said he’s aware some students question the value of mandatory meal plans, especially when looking at the cumulative cost of college.

“But when you look at our all-you-care-to-eat option, at $6 a meal, it’s a pretty good value,” he said.

But many students aren’t using their meal plans.

Jason Smith, 20, of Chicago, chose the unlimited Gold plan his first two years at Iowa, but downgraded to the cheaper Black meal plan for his junior year.

“Now with me in my third year, I realized I don’t need to eat there all the time,” he said of the Burge Market Place.

Smith eats about one meal a day at Burge during the week, he said. With 65 weekdays in the fall 2015 semester, that comes out to $24 per meal. On weekends, he rarely uses his campus meal plan.

Remec, a nursing student, ate most of her meals in the Burge Market Place at the beginning of the fall semester. She and friends Victoria Tanyag of Des Moines and Raelyn Galindo of Sycamore, Ill., like the made-to-order quesadillas and omelets.

Now Remec grabs a granola bar or a piece of fruit in her room before going to class in the morning.

“I have the Black plan and I still have a ton of extra meals,” she said.

Students with leftover meals or dining dollars often go on spending sprees at the end of the semester, stocking up on snacks or energy drinks at campus convenience stores to avoid losing the money.

UNI students used more than 97 percent of their dining dollars in 2014-2015, said Annie Karr, assistant director of Residence, Marketing and Conference Services. The surplus of nearly $14,000 — about $5 per student — was used to fund improvements to dining facilities or equipment purchases, she said.

Liz Mills, president of the UI Student Government (UISG), said she’d like to see cheaper meal plans. But as former executive director of Associated Residence Halls, another student government group, she knows food and wages are expensive.

Instead, she thinks UISG and individual students could do more to explain to younger students they can use flex meals in the Iowa Memorial Union, the main library and Pappajohn Business Building.

“We do hear ‘I’m only eating there X number of times,’” she said. “We need to make sure students know where they can use them. There’s a lot of education that can happen.”

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