Students bought nearly 3.5 million meal swipes during the 2017-2018 school year — but used only a portion of them.
Because students allow swipes to expire, and due to markups in the structures of the plans, millions of dollars students spend on plans go unused.
Ohio University, like most four-year universities, requires students who live in its residence halls to buy a residential meal plan. Those dining plans are a way to ensure that each student has access to food, but the plans come with costs that may go unnoticed by students.
Using public data collected by Ohio University Culinary Services, we conducted an analysis comparing OU’s meal plan options to other public four-year universities in the state on the basis of total cost and value for money. The analysis also examined the differences between meal plans offered by OU and how much students actually use their plans.
The records show students are letting between $16.6 million and $17.3 million in meal plan value disappear per year by letting swipes expire and by using them at markets where their value is decreased. That accounts for almost 40 percent of the Culinary Services’ roughly $40 million annual budget.
Richard Neumann, the director of the OU Culinary Services, disputed those numbers but was unable to provide alternative figures. When asked about unused balances, he listed some of the ways his department uses the extra money.
“The money that isn’t spent?” he said. “Again, we have scholarships that we contribute to: $3.16 million this year, next year $3.5 million. It goes to fund other projects on campus. It is used to provide goods and services for the students. It doesn’t go into anybody’s pocket.”
The bulk of the money is not being returned to students’ pockets. The swipes students don’t use are absorbed by Culinary Services, according to Neumann.
Neumann said the money goes toward overhead and that running a university culinary department produces more overhead than running a restaurant or convenience store. For example, the university has to work around scheduling constraints due to student workers’ course loads, he said.
OU offers four dining options for freshmen. They can choose 14 or 20 meals per week and select between Traditional- or Flex-style plans. For sophomores, a Traditional 10 plan is also available. No matter what option students pick, any leftover meals they haven’t used by the end of the week are deleted.
Flex plans differ from Traditional plans in that students can use their meal swipes in the university-owned markets on campus, such as Jefferson Marketplace or Boyd Market, in addition to in the all-you-can-eat dining halls. Students get to spend $6.50 for each meal swipe they use in the markets and are also allotted $225 in Flex points per semester to use at university coffee shops, markets and dining outlets, such as West 82.
The Culinary Services website lists Flex 14 first out of its meal plan offerings and highlights it with a statement reading, “FACT: Nearly 60 percent of all students on a Meal Plan choose the Flex Meal Plan option.” Flex 14 is the least cost-effective for students.
In a comparison of the 50 total meal plan options offered by all of Ohio’s four-year public universities, OU’s Flex 20 and Flex 14 plans are the most expensive and third-most expensive plans in the state based on total price ($3,228 and $2,894 per semester, respectively).
Both Flex 14 and Traditional 10 were among the most expensive plans in the state based on cost per meal. Each meal on Flex 14 costs an estimated $12.24, and each meal on Traditional 10 costs an estimated $12.04.
There is also significant inequality between the plans offered by OU. For example, when the $225 in bonus flex points aren’t counted in the total, Flex users still pay about $2.50 more per meal than the equivalent Traditional plan. That means a Flex 14 user pays $30 more per week than a Traditional 14 user for the freedom of using their meal swipes in campus markets.
However, that freedom might be costly. Flex 14 users pay $12.24 per meal swipe without flex points, and Flex 20 users pay $9.63 — but those same meal swipes are valued at only $6.50 when redeemed in campus markets. That means Flex 14 users see 47 percent of the value of their meal swipes disappear when they use them in markets; for Flex 20, the value lost is 32 percent.
In other words, items bought in markets with Flex 14 swipes cost students 88 percent more than the listed price, or 48 percent more for Flex 20. So, a $5 jar of peanut butter would actually cost a student $9.42 if they were on Flex 14 or $7.40 on Flex 20. But students continue to spend more than a quarter of their meal swipes at markets.
Some students chose Flex plans specifically to use some of their swipes to have convenient access to dry food and household items, often without realizing that they are losing money on every purchase.
“The reason I get Flex 20 is because I like to use the extra (swipes) I have at the markets, but now I don’t know if it’s worth it,” junior Claudia Grable said when she was told about the loss in value, adding that it didn’t seem fair to give students only $6.50 per swipe.
Grable is not the only one who is choosing not to use all her swipes at dining halls.
Over the course of the 2017-18 academic year, an average of only 43 percent of the more than 3.4 million meal swipes allotted to OU students last year were used in dining halls. 28 percent were used in markets, and 29 percent, or about 973,000 meal swipes, were never redeemed at all.
Neumann contradicted these findings but said he lacked the records needed to refute them.
“There’s information that I don’t have records of that would indicate that it isn’t only 45 percent,” he said. “We use a good percent of (meal swipes) in the markets and in the dining halls. More than 45 percent. My numbers would be much higher than that. I don’t have it exactly because there’s no need to keep an exact copy.”
However, the data used for the analysis came directly from public records from Culinary Services, of which Neumann is the director. Several of the spreadsheets that included the information in question bear his name.
Because the amount of money lost at markets depends on whether the student is using swipes from a Flex 14 or Flex 20 plan, it is impossible to determine exactly how much money is being lost in total. However, using a best- and worst-case scenario, the amount of meal plan value that students didn’t use last year was between $16.6 million and $17.3 million.
That money was never redeemed for goods and is the equivalent of 100 percent profit for the department.
Still, Neumann disagreed with the idea that students weren’t getting what they paid for.
“Our program encompasses more than the dining halls,” Neumann said. “Students pay for the cafes, West 82, they pay for Latitude (39), they pay for Smooth Moves, the three markets. You’re just looking at a small slice of what we do and trying to infer that they’re not getting their value.”
However, students cannot use their meal swipes — whether Flex or Traditional — at the Latitude 39 or West 82 dining facilities or at the cafes on campus, as these facilities only accept flex points, Bobcat Cash or money for payment. Smooth Moves, the smoothie shop in Boyd Market, does accept meal swipes, although it is unclear why these swipes would be left out of official reports or whether they were counted into swipe totals.
OU also offers virtually no low-cost options compared to other universities. The cheapest OU plan offered, the Traditional 10, actually costs more money than paying for 10 meals per week in cash and is the third-most expensive meal plan in Ohio based on cost-per-meal.
Flex 14, OU’s most popular plan, offers students a savings of only $1.89 per week compared to buying the same number of meals in cash. Considering how many swipes go wasted, many underclassmen would actually save money if they were allowed to pay to enter to dining halls as they go.
Figures used in calculations came from university websites or data obtained in public records requests. The full dataset and a methodology are available here.