Finding value in a pricey on-campus dining plan

(Courtesy of SMU)

College is often described as a time of newfound freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility. One of the most self-taught lessons in college is personal financing, but a recent Gallup poll shows that more than two-thirds of Americans do not even create budgets.

SMU students pay 79.7 percent more per year for undergraduate tuition than the average American college student. That fact alone is enough to put a dent in their bank accounts. But because food is a necessity, it is often one of the first budgeted items.

“College is a great training ground for students to begin to explore their personal finances,” said Jennifer Jones, executive director of student development and programs.

The estimated total cost for students attending Southern Methodist University during the 2014-2015 school year is $60,586. Of that, tuition is estimated at $40,770 and room and board is estimated at $14,646, leaving $5,170 for miscellaneous fees. As of this school year, all first – and second – year students living on campus are required to purchase the “All Access 7” unlimited meal plan priced at $2,375 per semester.

There are 115 days this semester— pricing each day of unlimited meals at approximately $20.65. The only problem is that the meals don’t seem to be “unlimited” and are not the students’ first choice. Therefore, outside spending is almost a given.

“I usually eat off campus at least three meals a week, and they are always on the weekend as food is not readily available or good on the weekends,” first-year Richmond Dewan said.

SMU Dining Services recently cut back the hours of operation for RFoC at Umphrey Lee, the most central dining location on campus. It now operates from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Fridays and 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. On Sundays, it is open from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

David Ter Kuile, senior director and resident district manager of Dining Services explained that they are monitoring traffic patterns to determine the hours when dining locations are open, and he believes that SMU offers a great variety of cuisine.

“Our award-winning chefs put a lot of effort in creating menu items that are exciting and creative,” he said.

Student Body President Ramon Trespalacios dines off-campus four to five times a week.

“The number one reason I choose [to do so] is the quality of the food. Dining options on campus have decreased in quality throughout the years. It seems like they have focused more on variety without perfecting any recipe,” he said.

Trespalacios feels he is neither getting the quality nor quantity that was promised, especially since the hours were recently changed.

“I’m disappointed. I love the dining staff and have no complaints there, but when it comes to hours, I did not like the recent decision to cut them,” said Student Body Vice President Monica Finnegan.

Finnegan doesn’t feel that her all-access meal plan was worth what she was paying for it. The cutback on hours of operation is not the only thing upsetting students. Students reported that at times the dining areas are technically open, but food is scarce and diverse options do not exist.

“I have walked into the dining hall at 7:00 p.m.—when it closes at 10:00 p.m.—and witnessed all of the stations closed except for one, and I was told they ‘ran out’,” Dewan said.

According to the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, the average daily cost of a healthy adult diet totaled $7.48. Because the SMU average daily cost of food is well above that, students should make sure to take advantage of their meal plans during the current hours of operation and provide Dining Services with the feedback that they clearly need.

“I would suggest to them that they get their money worth through the meal plan, and allow off campus adventures with dining to be a weekly or even a monthly treat,” Jones said.

Ter Kuile explained that SMU Dining Services conducts an annual comprehensive survey, “Dining Styles,” to understand what the customers think, and has been pleased with the results so far.

“We are, however, always striving to improve our dining program, so we reach out to many student organizations on campus on a regular basis during the school year,” he said.

Dewan believes that it is a time for complete overhaul of SMU Dining. “It’s time to not only feed this campus a good education, a good social life and a good view— it’s time to feed this campus good food. As they say, you are what you eat, and right now it’s not good.”

How to save:

Plan in advance: Just like your classes, schedule your meals. Adapt to the different dining location hours in order to maximize the value of your plan.

Keep your change: Each time you receive change back at a meal, put it in a safe place. Every $7.48, treat yourself to a healthy off-campus meal.

Avoid your credit card: If you aren’t keeping close tabs on what you are charging, try not to charge at all. And, if you don’t yet have a credit card, make sure to look out for cards with low
interest rates.

Nutrition first: Use the Campus Dish App when seeking daily nutritional information for on-campus food, and be sure to visit the registered dietitian on campus if you have questions or need clarification.

Ignore the bell: If you’re watching what you eat, sprint out of the dining hall when you hear the sweet sound of the dessert bell.

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