The short answer to the important college question “Are meal plans worth it?” is that it depends. You could find yourself asking this if you live on campus (or off-campus), if schoolwork keeps you from preparing food or if you have zero culinary talent.
College meal plans are a convenient solution if you don’t want to cook the night before a big exam. However, with 69% of college students taking out student loans to pay for school, squeezing dining plan costs into an already tight budget can be challenging.
Are meal plans worth it? 4 questions to ask
1. How much does a college meal plan cost?
2. Will unused meals roll over to the next semester or school year?
3. What kind of hours and flexibility does the meal plan offer?
4. Does living off campus make my meal plan cheaper?
A spring and fall semester meal plan for college students costs anywhere from $876 to $8,272 among the 10 universities we examined. Below are meal plan costs from those 10 colleges across the U.S. (Note that some colleges offer meal blocks — for example, 25 meals a semester — in addition to meal plans, so that’s why you may see smaller low-end ranges with some of the schools.)
Not having to cook your own meals is a benefit that comes at a steep price. As the table shows, meal plans tack thousands of dollars onto your total college expenses each year.
Graduate student Drew DuBoff, who attends Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., said the dining plan cost is worth it — and he has a degree in culinary arts.
While studying as an undergraduate at Johnson & Wales, he purchased a meal plan that included:
- 10 weekly meal swipes
- $600 flex dollars
Flex dollars were loaded onto his student ID — like how a debit card is used — and spent at on-campus, grab-and-go eateries. The total annual cost of his meal plan was $3,474, which amounted to about $8.50 per meal, according to DuBoff’s calculations.
“I do feel that I saved money because I easily would have spent more than $8.50 on a meal outside the university,” said DuBoff, owner of Quizzalicious, a service that helps entrepreneurs build online quizzes. “I think that the quality of food was very reasonable for the cost and I can’t 100% say that I would be able to cook a meal from scratch, have it taste that good — in such a short time — and keep it on budget.”
DuBoff worked part-time for campus dining, too, so he was able to get three to five free meals a week depending on his schedule.
Each school’s dining plan policy differs. For example, block meals at the University of California, Irvine can’t be rolled over to the next quarter, but flex dollars can be rolled over as long as they’re spent by the end of the spring quarter.
Before signing up for a college meal plan, think about how many times you’ll realistically eat on campus. One way to approach this is to ask yourself how often you’ll be on campus. If you work part-time, have off-campus activities or take classes at odd hours, you may lose out on your prepaid meals.
College meal plans offer a communal experience for students in the dining hall. However, on-campus dining halls, restaurants and snack shops post business hours so you know your options.
For example, at California State University, Northridge, the closest dining hall to the dormitories is Geronimo’s, which opens at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday. If you have an early morning work shift or class at 7 a.m., you won’t be able to catch breakfast before starting your day. This is another reason why it’s important to consider timing before buying a meal plan.
Your school may have terms and conditions that offer more flexibility when claiming your meals. For example, some schools, such as the University of California, Irvine, allow limited carry-out from the dining hall, while other colleges, such as the University of Iowa, don’t allow carryout.
Living off-campus can mean you have access to cheaper meal plans, but not always. At the University of Arkansas, the most expensive plan for on-campus students is $2,185 a semester, which has no weekly meal limit and includes $150 dining dollars. By comparison, the most expensive dining plan for off-campus students is $848 a semester for 50 total meals and $500 dining dollars.
College meal plan FAQ
Are college meal plans mandatory? If you’re a first-year student, your school may require you to purchase a meal plan. For example, Temple University requires new students to have a minimum plan of 10 meals a week.
How can you get out of a mandatory college meal plan? Schools that enforce a mandatory college meal plan may require a valid reason and documentation before approving an exemption from the dining plan. For example, if you provide a doctor’s note stating that you have special dietary needs that the dining hall can’t accommodate, you may be off the hook.
Should I get a meal plan in college? It depends. Aside from grabbing a bite to eat, communing with peers over a meal can build camaraderie at a new school, possibly enhancing the college experience. From a financial perspective, the cost per meal may be pricey if you’re OK spending the time to shop for groceries and cook. Also, if you prefer simple meals, such as a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a meal plan that charges you $8.50 for it may not be budget-friendly.
Are meal plans included in room and board? Some colleges include the meal plan cost in room-and-board charges.
Are college meal plans tax deductible? No, college meal plan costs are not tax-deductible. According to the IRS, expenses such as transportation, insurance, and room and board (which meal plans may be baked into) aren’t considered a deductible education expense.
Kat Tretina contributed to this report.
Interested in refinancing student loans?Here are the top 9 lenders of 2022!
|Lender||Variable APR||Eligible Degrees|
|2.49% – 11.72%1||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.50% – 6.30%2||Undergrad & Graduate|
|4.13% – 7.39%3||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.49% – 7.99%4||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.49% – 7.99%5||Undergrad & Graduate|
|3.24% – 8.24%6||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.48% – 7.98%||Undergrad |
|1.74% – 7.99%7||Undergrad & Graduate|
|3.69% – 9.92%8||Undergrad & Graduate|
|Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.
Splash Financial Disclosures
Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount.
The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.
To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.
Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of September 6, 2022.
2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.
Laurel Road Disclosures
All credit products are subject to credit approval.
Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $9 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.
As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.
Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.
Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.
Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.
Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.
KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.
This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
3 Important Disclosures for LendKey.
Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse, any educational institution.
Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of 5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.
As of 09/09/2022 student loan refinancing rates range from 4.13% APR – 7.39% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.99% APR – 9.93% Fixed APR with AutoPay.
4 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.
You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 3.99% – 8.74% APR (3.74% – 8.49% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 2.74% APR to 8.24% APR (2.49% – 7.99% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.
5 Important Disclosures for Navient.
6 Important Disclosures for SoFi.
Fixed rates range from 3.99% APR to 8.24% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Variable rates from 3.24% APR to 8.24% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law, Variable Interest rates on 5-, 7-, and 10-year terms are capped at 8.95% APR; 15- and 20-year terms are capped at 9.95% APR. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on the term you select, evaluation of your creditworthiness, income, presence of a co-signer and a variety of other factors. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. For the SoFi variable-rate product, the variable interest rate for a given month is derived by adding a margin to the 30-day average SOFR index, published two business days preceding such calendar month, rounded up to the nearest one hundredth of one percent (0.01% or 0.0001). APRs for variable-rate loans may increase after origination if the SOFR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. This benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit lowers your interest rate but does not change the amount of your monthly payment. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance. Autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi.
7 Important Disclosures for Purefy.
Purefy Student Loan Refinancing Rate and Terms Disclosure: Annual Percentage Rates (APR) ranges and examples are based on information provided to Purefy by lenders participating in Purefy’s rate comparison platform. For student loan refinancing, the participating lenders offer fixed rates ranging from 2.73% – 7.99% APR, and variable rates ranging from 1.74% – 7.99% APR. The maximum variable rate is 25.00%. Your interest rate will be based on the lender’s requirements. In most cases, lenders determine the interest rates based on your credit score, degree type and other credit and financial criteria. Only borrowers with excellent credit and meeting other lender criteria will qualify for the lowest rate available. Rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice. Terms and conditions apply.
8 Important Disclosures for Citizens.
Education Refinance Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69%-9.92% (3.69%-9.92% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49%-10.11% (4.49%-10.11% APR).
Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 6.39%- 9.60% (6.39% – 9.60% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.58% – 9.79% (6.58% – 9.79% APR).
Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69% – 9.16% (3.69% – 9.16% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.35% (4.49% – 9.35% APR).
Education Refinance Loan for Parents Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69%- 9.09% (3.69%- 9.09% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.28% (4.49% – 9.28% APR).
Medical Residency Refinance Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69% – 9.16% (3.69% – 9.16% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.35% (4.49% – 9.35% APR).