Sunday, December 6, 2015
Meal Plan Costs Tick Upward as Students Pay for More Than Food
By STEPHANIE SAUL DEC. 5, 2015
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Before his 35-mile commute through Appalachian hills
to classes here at the University of Tennessee, Michael Miceli eats a gigantic
breakfast. It is his way of getting through the day without spending money on
a campus lunch.
Food deprivation is merely one trick Mr. Miceli uses to minimize his
college debt, now creeping past $22,000. So the $300 bill he got from the
university this semester — for food — sent him into a tailspin.
“I was in near panic at the thought of having to borrow more money,” said
Mr. Miceli, 23, a linguistics major.
For the first time this year, the University of Tennessee imposed a $300
per-semester dining fee on Mr. Miceli and about 12,000 other undergraduates,
including commuters, who do not purchase other meal plans. The extra money
will help finance a $177 million student union with limestone cornices, clay-tiled
roofing and copper gutters, part of a campus reconstruction plan aimed
at elevating the University of Tennessee to a “Top 25” public university.
Tennessee’s contract with its dining vendor, Aramark, is just one example
of how universities nationwide are embracing increasingly lucrative deals with
giant dining contractors, who offer commissions and signing bonuses to help
pay for campus improvements and academic programs. It is part of a new
model of raising money through partnerships with private vendors, officials
say, and with state funding for higher education still below pre-recession
levels, a way to replace lost revenue.
Under its contract, which runs through 2027, Tennessee will get 14
percent of all food revenues plus $15.2 million in renovations to dining
In exchange for signing a 20-year contract that runs through 2034, the
University of Virginia recently got a $70 million contribution from Aramark,
based in Philadelphia — in addition to $19 million in renovations and annual
commissions increasing to $19 million a year. Texas A and M announced a 10-
year deal in 2012 with Chartwells, a subsidiary of the British-based Compass
Group, that included a $22.7 million signing bonus and $25 million in capital
Universities frequently announce the windfalls with great fanfare, but
critics say the cost gets passed on to students and contributes to the expense of
college. Tom Mac Dermott, a dining consultant who works with universities,
said upfront payments were built into the price of the meal plans. “When you
keep tacking on this stuff, the cost of the plan goes up.”
President Obama mocked gourmet college food in a speech in February at
Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, suggesting that it raised college
costs. And meal plan fees are increasing annually at many schools, driven
partly by demands that food be locally sourced, freshly made and hormone-free.
Yet the particulars of the contracts reveal that much of the meal plan cost
does not go for an individual’s food. Colleges use the money to shore up their
balance sheets, create academic programs and scholarships, fund special
“training tables” to feed athletes, and pay for meals for prospective students
Like many such deals, Texas A and M’s agreement with Chartwells comes
with a catch, Mr. Mac Dermott said. If Texas A and M wants to cancel the deal, a
pro rata portion of the money must be repaid.
“Suppose the operator isn’t doing well over time?” Mr. Mac Dermott said.
“The university can’t get rid of them. The investments are made on the
guarantee that if the contract is terminated by either party, the client will
return the money. That’s not a gift.”
But Phillip Ray, A and M’s vice chancellor for business affairs, said there was
no clawback if the contract were terminated for cause. “People say, ‘You’ve
signed this big deal, now they own you,’ ” Mr. Ray said. “Not at all. We call the
In 2013, the year after A and M entered its agreement, several dining
facilities there were temporarily closed by the county health department,
which found rodent droppings and a roach infestation.
Other colleges have deals that offer sweeteners — renovations to the
president’s house, private parties catered for employees, free meals for athletic
officials in exchange for free football tickets.
These arrangements, which auditors have criticized, can create revenue
streams outside the normal budgeting process for funding pet projects, raising
the potential of abuse.
At South Carolina State University, a historically black institution, a 2014
audit found that students paid $343 a year in “hidden costs” for food. The
money was rebated to the institution by its vendor, Sodexo, a French company,
partly to pay for a $5 million wellness center, which was never built. The
university, under new leadership, said it has ceased the practices described.
An audit this year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette found that
the food vendor catered free parties for children of a university employee while
inflating bills to the university. In a response to the audit, the university said
the employee had repaid the fees.
For food vendors, one of the critical components in turning a profit is a
guaranteed revenue stream.
Hofstra University on Long Island announced in 2013 that it would
require a minimum buy-in from all residential students. Brandeis University
in Waltham, Mass., will require participation by even seniors who live in
dormitories with kitchens next year, said Skyler Golann, chairman of the
student dining committee.
“There’s definitely been a backlash,” said Mr. Golann, a sophomore from
Hinesburg, Vt. Brandeis said the requirement would help pay to renovate
dining halls without increasing tuition and other fees.
This is how mandatory meal plans have become a political issue, both on
campus and off. The New Jersey General Assembly last year adopted a ban on
mandatory meal plans, although it was never approved by the Senate.
“Some colleges were particularly egregious in requiring high-cost meal
plans,” said Assemblyman Joseph P. Cryan, who sponsored the legislation.
Meal plans at some private schools cost more than $3,000 a semester.
The mandatory meal plans that have created the biggest controversies are
those imposed on students who live off campus. One of the first protests arose
in Alabama, where students at several universities sued to block the plans, but
the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against them in 2011.
Danny Evans, a Birmingham lawyer for the students, said that since his
lawsuit, the idea has “gone viral,” spreading to other colleges. This year, in
addition to the University of Tennessee, colleges ranging from Loyola New
Orleans to Suffolk County Community College on Long Island — a commuter
school with no dormitories — have announced mandatory commuter meal
Responding to complaints, administrators said dining was important for
commuters because it fostered campus community, citing studies showing that
students with meal plans stay in school longer.
Administrators here at the University of Tennessee, where a $1,899 per-semester
meal plan is mandatory for freshmen who live on campus, first
floated the requirement that other students buy a $300 per-semester meal
plan at a meeting two years ago. Grant Davis, a student who attended the
meeting, at which Aramark served lobster ravioli, said, “We knew we were
Students protested the plan, garnering more than 1,000 signatures
practically overnight on a petition titled “Don’t Force Feed Us.”
Phase 1 of the new student union building, heralded as the cornerstone of
a campus transformation, opened this year, with a ChickfilA, Subway, Qdoba
Mexican Grill, Starbucks and several other restaurants.
Students can get refunds if they do not eat the food, but experience at
other schools shows that most succumb to the fast-food temptations.
Mr. Miceli, a senior from Dandridge, Tenn., intends to ask for a refund.
Even so, he said, he regards the money as a loan to the university that he
could not afford.