The Daily Gamecock

Meal plans increase $800 in past decade

Dining dissatisfaction common college trend

The typical annual cost a USC undergraduate pays for a traditional meal plan has increased by more than $800 in the past decade and $200 in the past five years, according numbers from the Office of Institutional Assessment and Compliance.

The increases are likely in line with Consumer Price Index for the southern region of the U.S., said Robert Coffey, residential district manager for Carolina Dining.

Similar increases have been occurring at other Southeastern Conference universities. USC’s meal plan prices compare to those of Clemson, the University of Tennessee and other institutions, but students are still concerned with rising prices.

Student displeasure with meal plans is not unique to USC. Students at the University of Alabama and Auburn University sued their schools last year for requiring them to buy meal plans. While USC only requires freshmen to buy meal plans, Alabama requires all on-campus students to purchase them and Auburn requires even off-campus students to purchase a plan.

David Robinson, director of business development for auxiliary services for Auburn, said the university began mandating meal plans in 2008.

“It’s all part of Auburn’s living-and-learning environment, it’s part of having convenient places for students to eat on campus and having them feel more part of campus,” Robinson said. “There has to be a level of participation for us to offer the type of food establishments we have.”

Robinson did not say whether lower prices were a motive behind mandatory meal plan at Auburn. Auburn currently charges $1,990 a year for on-campus undergraduates, while the typical annual cost a USC undergraduate pays for a traditional meal plan is over $2,800. Coffey said he was not aware of any plans to make USC’s dining mandatory.

But the rising costs of traditional meal plans at USC have taken a backseat to criticism of the new Flex Plans. The Flex Plans, which allow students to use bonus-value “Flex Dollars” to purchase food any time they please, have received criticism from students for costing more than their retail worth.

Coffey came to the university last semester after 15 years at Virginia Tech, which boasts No. 1-ranked dining facility in the country and also where the Flex meal plan system began. Coffey’s first year at the university coincided with the beginning of Flex meal plans at USC. Coffey said USC had begun exploring Flex plans before his arrival due to student dissatisfaction with block meal plans.

Carolina Dining officials have defended the Flex Plans, saying they are based off the tried-and-true Virginia Tech system. But inspection of the numbers shows one important difference between the systems: At Virginia Tech, Flex dollars are worth three times as much as cash at several dining areas, while at USC, Flex dollars are only worth double.

For the Major Flex Plan at Virginia Tech, students pay $1,359 a semester. That cost includes an $869 base fee — to cover utilities, maintenance, repairs, labor and other costs incurred by the university’s dining services — and $490 in Flex Dollars, which triple for a retail of about $1,470 at the university’s several buffet dining centers. That’s more than the plan costs students.  

But at USC, Flex Dollars only count double no matter where students eat. For the Major Flex Plan at USC, students pay $1,315 a semester. That cost includes a $915 base fee and $400 in Flex Dollars, which double for a retail worth of $800. That’s $515 less than the plan costs students.

Flex Dollars only count double at Virginia Tech’s non-buffet dining areas. If a student were to spend all $490 Flex Dollars of their Major Flex Plan on al a carte items, it would be worth $980, or $379 less than the plan costs.

But Coffey said it was “hard to judge apples to apples” when it comes to complex campus dining systems at large universities.