by Bernadette Ventura, FMP
Senior Associate
Washington, DC Office

Long gone (I hope) are the days of college meal plans with cafeteria tray lines – and all that they conjure up like meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes, overcooked peas and cubed Jell-O.  Campus dining has come a long way to match the real-world expectations of the consumer-savvy student of today.  The traditional board plan with its “all-you-care-to-eat” dining halls still exists, but in many cases resides alongside standalone retail outlets and food courts. 

Colleges have had to look at ways in which students could partake in these popular food courts within the confines of the traditional board plan.  Many board plans now include some amount of “flex dollars” or “equivalency value,” both of which can be used at dining outlets other than the board dining rooms and sometimes even in c-stores and other retail outlets.

Consumers have a way of pushing the envelope with their desires driving new concepts, and college students are no different.  In the college environment, which naturally fosters a communal, sharing atmosphere, students want the ability to be with friends and classmates in the dining destination of their choice.  So where will this push the college meal plan next?

I was recently asked to think about solutions for a client that wants to combine the typical board dining hall and the more contemporary food court in the same space – with no delineation!   This is exactly the paradigm shift needed to allow full interaction of all students, with no boundaries caused by meal plans.  I bounced a few ideas around with colleagues as to how this might work, and here’s what I think is the most simple and streamlined solution:  A stored value system where everything is priced à-la-carte (including “meal deals”) in both traditional dining halls and food courts – no matter where the meal comes from.  Incentives such as discounts (%) or “bonus dollars” could be applied based on the amount deposited on the stored value device (card, FOB, etc.) or by some other method. 

What are some of the implications of such a departure from traditional thinking on the topic?  From the operator perspective, it could be argued that the revenue stream will be adversely impacted in that the missed meal factor would no longer exist.  However, this would be a good challenge (opportunity) for operators to continuously improve on food quality and choices.  Further, It could be said that the missed meal plan balances may have a positive impact in that the elimination of the traditional “all-you-care-to-eat” program will reduce “overtaking” or “overeating” for one price (including taking food out to eat later or feed friends).

For the college itself, such a program could also impact the revenue stream.  There are solutions for this too, though. For example, the college could retain a certain percent of the stored value, or simply be paid a commission on dining service sales.  In some cases, colleges are already paid a commission from dining services if they are contractor-operated.  In those situations, the commission program could be reevaluated and redefined to include an additional percent on stored value program sales.

For the student, this might mean balancing their food budgets and food intake, but shouldn’t part of the college experience be to ready young adults to function in the real world?  Still, even this is not an insurmountable issue.  A daily or weekly spending limit could be placed on stored value cards to help train the student to budget.

Finally, if I were a parent sending my child to college, and if all other things were equal, I would choose the educational institution that defined a dining program in the stored value fashion, particularly those that offered incentives.  Meal plans are typically expensive for the parent/student and are oftentimes underused (missed meal factor) and a stored value program would tell me that the college cares about providing value to me in all areas.

The technology is out there and the possibilities are endless.  Perhaps it’s time to take the college meal plans to the next level. In my research, I came across one University that follows a similar model in dining services.  It seems to me that this will be the shape of the future of higher education meal plans – student satisfaction, variety, and control, creating a real-world system, while eliminating abuse and waste.

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