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Sam Kissinger

Economic In-Tuition: Dining halls potential reason for increased meal plan price

Ohio University expands its meal plan prices as dining hall options increase. 

In the works right now at Ohio University are the renovations of both the Boyd Dining Hall, expected to be completed for Fall Semester, and the Jefferson Dining Hall, expected to be completed in 2016. The renovations are promising the underclassmen an extreme change to the original Jeff Dining Hall, including a Whole Foods concept kitchen area, coffee shops, longer hours and pre-prepared meals. Similarly, the new Boyd Dining Hall is projected to include "micro-restaurants" to offer a variety of foods to the students. These new dining halls seem like a perfect experience for the underclassmen: providing flexibility and variety.

However, the catch comes in the form of the costs of a required dining hall plan to the students. During the 2014-15 school year, the average cost of a required meal plan at OU was about $1,000 more than any other public university in Ohio, with the exception of Miami University. The cost at Ohio is set to increase 1.5 percent for the 2015-16 school year. Comparing OU to all other public universities in Ohio, in terms of meal plan prices, one can start to ask some questions.

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As meal plans have become a constant in nearly all institutions across the country, students have become price inelastic toward dining services. In simple terms, an incoming student might consider the different types of plans his or her new school offers but would rarely prioritize a certain school solely on meal plan prices. The price competition for dining services among universities is essentially eliminated, and universities rely on quality of dining halls to help entice students to choose their school. There are some scenarios in which students should raise the question as to why their meal plans cost so much; there might be more cost efficient designs for university culinary services.

The first notable comparison concerns OU and the University of Toledo. Both of these schools have similar enrollments and annual tuition, yet the 2014-15 average price for a required meal plan at OU is $1,504 more expensive than Toledo’s average meal plan. A major reason for the difference is that students at Toledo can use their meal plans to eat at retail restaurants such as Subway, Pizza Hut, among others.

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The blend of retail and traditional dining is present at a majority of Ohio’s public college campuses, and there is evidence that there should be. Akron, Wright State, Ohio State, Bowling Green State University, University of Cincinnati, Kent State and others (see chart below) all allow for students to utilize their meal plans at retail restaurants, yet OU does not, and its current meal plan costs exceeds every one of them. While these schools still have traditional dining halls on their campus, they do not rely on them as heavily as OU does, which could contribute to the greater costs for maintenance, wages and food for Ohio University. The variety of retail dining paired with dining halls not only appears to be a cheaper alternative, but also provides more flexibility for students.

There seems to be an optimal amount of flexibility, as well. Miami has far and away the most expensive meal plans in Ohio, a possible result of the many dining locations the university offers its students. Miami has about 30 dining options for meal plans to be used at. Other universities in Ohio of similar size, including OU, have about 15-20 options, which appears to be appropriate. Ohio State has close to 30 options, as well, but Miami has about one-third of OSU’s students. More dining areas mean more wages to pay and more costs for food.

Student employment could also play a major factor in the cost for a meal plan. Currently 2,100 students are employed through OU dining services, compared to 500 at Bowling Green, which could be one of the main sources driving the meal plan costs higher than the others. Dining hall employment is a nice way for students to earn money while at school, but the marginal costs of adding more workers appears to outweigh the benefits for the underclassmen.

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In the end, culinary services must consider various costs and benefits when making decisions of what to implement. Whether it’s deciding on how many student jobs it wants to create, how appealing it wants to make the halls or how many options on campus, a university needs to consider the cost consequences for the students’ sake. With even more reliance on dining halls at OU next year, it would not come as a surprise if the 1.5 percent price increase reoccurs in the years to come.

Sam Kissinger is a junior studying economics at Ohio University, a member of the OU Economics Society, a member of Alpha Phi Omega and a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Columns will be written by a different CCAP student from Ohio University each week. Email Sam at

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