A headshot of Deen Haleem '21.
Photo Courtesy Deen Haleem ’21.

Deen Haleem ’21 (he/him)

The meal plan at Davidson is economically irrational. What I mean by that is that any meal plan is a clear loss of money for anyone who buys it. Moreover, the meal plans actually get less cost-effective the larger a plan is. I’m not kidding. If you take the 4 meal-per-week plan, count all 500 dining dollars as equivalent to real dollars, and then imagine that instead of using 4 swipes a week, you just pay commons $11.50 4 times a week when you eat, your projected total for the 4 meal-per-week plan (assuming a 17 week semester) is $1,282 a semester. Davidson’s 4 meal a week plan currently costs $1,580 a semester. Even when assuming that every dining dollar would go towards the discounted $8.00 Commons swipe (as opposed to $11.50 on a credit card), the plans are still a loss of between $16 and $80 dollars. That means that, depending on your meal plan and how often you go to commons, your meal plan loses you a minimum of $16 and a maximum of $585. It is true of every plan (as seen in the table below) and the savings one gets from eating the same number of meals without a meal plan is always significant. 

PlanCost of PlanMoney Lost by Using 100% of Dining Dollars at CommonsMoney Lost by Using 100% of Dining Dollars at Union/Vending Machines
2 Meals per Week$1,020$54$229
4 Meals per Week$1,580$16$298
6 Meals per Week$2,410$80$387
8 Meals per Week$3,250$69$561
10 Meals per Week$3,740$60$581

For the past few years, I’ve known this and simply purchased a lower-cost plan. I had a discussion with my parents (who are funding my education) and they said they would give me half of the difference in funds from the plan I had to the plan I switched to (i.e. I got the full difference in the cost between the plans, and half of the money that would have just gone to the school). I advised my friends to do the same, but didn’t think too much about actually working to change this. However, as I’ve thought about this issue more, I’ve realized that it is something that most affects students on financial aid. If we assume that the average student loses $200 per semester due to the meal plan, this means the school receives an additional $400 a year as a result of this pricing. Of course, much of this money goes back to dining services’ payment of employees and purchasing of new equipment. Moreover, some of it surely goes back into the school’s general fund for other events on campus. We can disagree about the honesty of raising revenue in such a way, but what is clear is that this is detrimental for students on financial aid. 

A student’s financial aid is the total cost of attendance (inclusive of the cost of books and food), subtracted by the amount FAFSA determines a student can contribute. Thus, the true cost of attending Davidson is the fixed cost of food (which is calculated independent of the cost of a meal plan) plus other costs, plus tuition. If Davidson needs to raise an extra $400 or so per year to run the school, then that is what it is and we can have a conversation about cutting costs if we want. What we can’t have a conversation about is what it actually costs to go here. The school is raising additional revenue off of these plans and that should revenue just be included in the cost of tuition (i.e. if the school is making $400 per student, they should raise tuition by that amount, or forgo the revenue). Not only is this more honest, it gives those on financial aid the aid they deserve. For, any student receiving financial aid would receive 100% of whatever was added to tuition (again, this is due to the fact that the determination for aid is need minus cost. If cost goes up $400 and need doesn’t change, then aid has to increase by $400 as well). As for those not on financial aid, we wouldn’t directly benefit, but we would at least be able to purchase reasonably priced plans from the school and not need to dive into the numbers every semester. As someone who has done this, I can say not having to dig into it would be a great reprieve.

So what do we do with this? In my view the answer is clear. Buy the lowest priced plan. No matter your situation, if you purchase the same number of meals you would’ve had before, you will at least save some money. For those of you who have a large meal plan and seldom eat at commons, you could save up to $1,000 a year. That’s a lot of money! Even if you eat exclusively at commons and only save $16, you still got something! Celebrate with some ice cream or gamble it on whatever you think the next GameStop is. Maybe give it to a worthy cause and help support a great organization like the Carter Center. 

Now the big question: What if we all do this? Well, if we all do it, then the school will likely respond by fairly pricing the plans so people begin to buy them again. If they do that and decide to forgone whatever funds they would’ve made, that’s still great. Now everyone has the option to buy a reasonably priced plan. However, if they really need those funds, then they raise the cost of tuition, and everyone on financial aid sees their aid increase. As far as I can see, everyone benefits in the short-term by buying the cheapest plan, and most of us benefit in the long-run as well. In my view, that makes our choice from here on out pretty clear.