Ellis Blake Hidalgo
Mercury Staff

Why mandatory meal plans are detrimental to freshmen

College is costly. Student loans are as synonymous with the college experience as midnight cramming and keg stands. However, as UTD’s freshman class begins its journey laden with student loans and college fees, it seems unnecessary that UTD saddles those living on campus with the burden of paying for meal plans. For UTD freshmen living in the residence halls, the unfortunate reality is that the already high cost of living is exacerbated by overpriced, non-flexible and entirely mandatory meal plans.

Given the options of 10, 14 and 19 meal swipes a week, the cost of dining per semester is between $1,877 and $2,038. Averaged among meal plans, that puts the average cost of a Dining Hall West meal swipe between $9-12. For an entrance into a buffet with several stations, the cost of a swipe is not relatively high. However, the problem isn’t charging students $9-12 for entrance into a buffet; it is failing to realize that some students cannot afford to regularly eat at a buffet. The burden of college costs can be crippling, and a mandatory meal plan puts unnecessary extra weight on many families. By opting out of a meal plan, on-campus freshman residents would be free to save the money they would spend on meal swipes, instead spending far less on groceries or cheaper restaurant meals. The opportunities for cheap, affordable food are plentiful, but freshmen are chained to unwanted and bank-busting daily buffet meals.

By making meal plans as paid per semester, UTD saves a lot of hassle. Students’ families pay once every couple of months, and from there the students are doled out their swipes on a weekly basis. However, by structuring not only the payment, but also the distribution of meal swipes, UTD has created an inflexible system that consistently wastes students’ money.

Every Monday, students receive their paid-for amount of meal swipes. As the week progresses, some students dutifully use every swipe.  However, others don’t want to go to the dining hall every day, and this leaves them with an excess of meal swipes every Sunday night. Then at midnight, rather than allowing students’ swipes to carry over, or simply be refunded back, UTD deletes those swipes — starting students over with the prescribed amount of weekly swipes—and pockets the money. By creating this mandatory system, UTD has set up every freshman living on campus to lose hundreds of dollars per semester. 

As UTD consistently takes student money in what is clearly a for-profit scam, it’s important to distinguish Dining Hall West from the meal plans it’s tied to. As a freshman myself, I enjoy the food it provides and appreciate having a source of food so close to where I live. Additionally, the application of meal exchange does allow various ways to use meal swipes. In a world with optionally bought, customizable meal plans, I would be an ardent supporter of UTD’s efforts to provide an easy and efficient way for students, especially freshmen, to find food on-campus. But the issue isn’t the quality, type, or accessibility of food: it’s the mandatory way it’s shoved upon us.

Making on-campus living unaffordable is UTD’s business, but enforcing an inexcusably expensive policy on students needing housing is predatory and needs to change. Supporting customizable meal plan options would allow students to minimize their spending and build a financially efficient budget, tailored to every student’s situation. Eliminating the mandatory inclusion of meal money into every meal plan would allow students to then avoid changing their money into UTD-exclusive meal money, as well as saving hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per semester. Finally, removing the weekly distribution of meal swipes would eliminate the possibility of losing meal swipes.

Students should not be spending money for a product they have a specific period of time to claim. Implementing changes that support student saving would not only show that UTD cares about their student body, it would also encourage every incoming freshman to think through a financial plan and begin learning about budgeting. Making these changes would be beneficial to every UTD undergraduate. In the end, it will come down to the university’s priorities.