Examining the games colleges play with meal plan option pricing.

While reviewing the charges and fees on my biggest bill ever, the $1991 meal plan charge caught my eye.  My son JumpStart Jack swears he never chose a meal plan, and I believe they put the Flex plan in as the default choice. Jack left orientation wanting the Flex Plan, but after some calculations we switched him to the 15 Plus Plan.  The Flex Plan is like a game full of some pretty impressive and sneaky techniques which I believe are designed to confuse parents and students, about the costs of food on campus.

Below is a screen shot of 3 meal plan options.  The default Flex Plan is on top, and my analysis will follow.

Analysis of Flex plan. 

Flex plan forces you to spend 30$ on vending.  Subtract $30 from $1991.

$1961 covers 111 days in the semester.

$17.67 per day or $123.67 per week for food.

The JumpStart family weekly Kroger trip is typically in the $100 to $140 range. There are 4 of us, and typically we get beer, wine, paper towels, cleaning products, shampoo, etc.  Beer may be a typical college expense, but I don’t remember seeing taps in the dining hall.

$1961 becomes 612 flex dollars.  WTF!!!  Dollars were multiplied by a factor of 0.312 and the student gets a card loaded with 612 flex dollars.  JS Jack and I looked over the bill together, but most college students will incorrectly assume that they paid $612 for their 612 flex dollars.

Flex dollars in the dining hall.

Flex dollars used in the dining hall receive a 70% discount.  Woo Hoo!!! Flex dollars were just multiplied by a factor of 3.33 and students believe they are getting a deal.

Let’s multiply 0.312 *3.33 to get a total factor of 1.04, meaning the buying power is amplified by 1.04x which is a total discount of 4%.  Confusing, but a little bit positive, and remember this is only in the dining hall.

A dinner listed as $10.23 will cost 3.07 flex dollars which were bought with $9.83 real dollars.


To make it even more confusing, the price list above from the school website does wrong interesting math with some bullshit unexpected results.  When I apply a 70% discount to $10.23, I get a final cost of $3.07 not $3.38 as listed on the school website.  Maybe the college rounded to 1 significant digit for the discount, and 70% truly only meant a 67% discount.  The 3% difference in discount skews all of the previous calculations in the wrong direction.

Flex dollars on the rest of campus.

When flex dollars are used in other campus restaurants including Wendy’s and Starbucks, a 50% discount is applied, which is a factor is 2.0x.  Half off is not as good as 70% off, but still appears to be a good deal for the student.

Now let’s multiply 0.312*2.0 to get a total factor of 0.624.  The real buying power at Wendy’s and Starbucks is only 62.4%. Another way to think of this take the inverse of 0.624 and you get 1.60 meaning you have to pay a premium of 60% at Wendy’s, Starbucks and other restaurants.

A delicious coffee drink from the on-campus Starbuck’s says $5.52 on the menu, costs $2.76 in flex bucks, and cost the student $8.83 in real dollars at the time the meal plan was purchased.  If the meal plan was purchased with an unsubsidized student loan, the costs will be far greater, but that is another article.

It is kind of genius the way the college screws with values, causing kids and parents to have no idea how their money was spent.

Now go back to the $17.67 per day for food.  If it was spend in the dining hall, a 4% premium makes it $18.38.  18$ is not enough to get Lunch and dinner every day in the dining hall.

When $17.67 is reduced to Wendy’s and Starbucks buying power, it is only $11.03 per day for food.

Typical students will have a mix of dining hall and other restaurant spend for a daily allowance somewhere between 11 and 18 bucks.

Student appetites vary, but in my college days, I would have been out of meals long before the end of the semester.  There is an option to add more flex dollars, but after paying 2 grand for 4 months of food, I’d rather not.

Jack’s final choice.

JS Jack and I decided to log in and switch to the 15 plus meal plan, and it cost an extra 6$.  Jack didn’t want to worry about stretching flex dollars to cover the whole semester, and thought 15 meals per week would be enough.

After actually being at the university for a week, JS Jack complains that all of his friends are on the flex plan, and nobody eats in the dining hall.  I’m hoping after a few weeks of activities and classes, he’ll expand his group of friends to include a few who eat in the dining hall.

It may sound like this is a long complaint about the meal plan options at Radford University, but that isn’t my intention.  For comparison, Roanoke College charges $3431 for 19 meals per week.  To be fair, and in RC’s defense, the Roanoke College food was awesome.  I suspect Radford is typical in price and quality, and I also suspect many other colleges across the country use these same scams techniques.  Radford was the most affordable choice for us, and living off campus next year (without a meal plan) should lower the cost even further.

Disease Called Debt
Posted in Paying for college..


  1. Holy cow – what a scam! Way to do all the math. I feel like college me would’ve though the Flex plan was the right choice too. I’d’ve been completely wrong.

    • It has been so long, that I have no idea what college me was thinking about. I know I ate at the same dining hall at least 17 times a week, and smuggled out snacks for later. The long list of options today are crazy.

  2. This makes me thankful that I only lived on campus for one semester before coming to my senses and commuting from home. Thanks for the education, I have an 8th grader and we’re already beginning to think about what college will look like.

    • Commuting from home would be tough in Roanoke. He could commute to the local community college, which my son would be totally against. Roanoke College is a private school and have cost him almost as much to commute, as it would to live at Radford. Radford and Va Tech are a 1 hour commute on a treacherous interstate. I actually feel more comfortable about him being at the college parties than driving I-81 twice every day.

  3. Wow, you would think that the tough math would be figuring out how to pay for tuition, not figuring out the meal plan. Back when I was in school, there was only one meal plan (during the time I lived on-campus) and everybody ate in the dining hall.

  4. Oh wow – never realized we would have to wade through mean plan options as well. Great analysis, and hopefully a mini-learning experience for Jack – skills that would be useful in the real world!

  5. Oh my I never dreamed they would charge this much for food. Great job in going through the calculations yourself and then deciding what meal plan.

    • The scary part is that meal plans are even more expensive at other colleges. Had dinner with a parent of a UVA student last night. UVA gives 2 choices to freshmen: A $2500 plan or a $2600 plan. They both have unlimited dining hall swipes, flex money, and guest passes.

  6. These meal plans were a painfully large expense at my college. I was happy to get an apartment and cook for myself, even though I didn’t own a car and bought food at inflated prices in the downtown area. It was still far cheaper than the meal plans!

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