Junior zoology major Adam Coolman thought he was being fiscally responsible this semester when he purchased the cheapest campus meal plan available to him. On average, Coolman only eats about one meal each day, so he purchased the five-meal plan, which allows him to enjoy five meals each week in either the Wildcat Den or the Marketplace.
What he didn’t know, however, was how much more money he was truly spending for a meal in a Northern cafeteria, when compared to many other students and community members.
Anyone walking in off the street can purchase an all-you-care-to-eat lunch or dinner for $6.95, but Coolman, under his five-meal plan, pays $19.31 per meal for the same food.
“That’s crazy. I didn’t even know it was that much,” Coolman said, after being informed of the numbers. “I would just be better off not having a meal plan.”
But that isn’t an option for Coolman, who lives in Halverson Hall, as NMU requires all students living in the residence halls to purchase one of three meal plans each semester.
Students can pay $1,897 per semester for a constant meal plan, which allows unlimited access to the cafeterias. The other options are a 14-meals-per-week plan, which has a cost of $1,788 per semester, and a five-meals-per-week plan, which is $1,652 per semester. The plans all contain varying amounts of Dining Dollars, which can be used in all Dining Services locations. There is also a fourth meal plan option, composed of just Dining Dollars, available to Spooner Hall residents.
When the Dining Dollars are removed entirely from the equation, the price per meal varies drastically from other dining options. Someone with the 14-meal plan will pay $8.57 per meal, while someone with the five-meal plan, like Coolman, will pay more than $19 per meal.
“I don’t know how they set (the prices), because if you break it down by meal, it doesn’t make any sense,” said ASNMU President Hobie Webster. “They are not setting it by what I think to be a fair or objective standard.”
Art Gischia, associate vice president for Business and Auxiliary Services at NMU, said the current meal plan structure has existed for four or five years.When it was put into place, Dining Services was losing money, and a consultant was brought in to suggest ways in which to restructure the meal plan system, among other things. Still, Gischia realizes that the options provided to students aren’t necessarily the best.
“You can’t argue about the cost per meal, if you factor it down that way. There’s no argument there. Certainly, it’s a very expensive plan on a per-meal basis,” he said. “I think the overall structure was put into place so that it could help Dining Services provide not only the all-you-care-to-eat menu, but it generated some much-needed revenue in that program.”
The money collected through the meal plans and on-campus food establishments is vital, Gischia said, as Dining Services receives no additional money from the university or the state to aid in operations.
Webster said that he understands the fiscal side of the equation, but added that it is important, now more than ever, to keep all student costs as low as possible.
“I don’t make the claim that Dining Services shouldn’t be allowed to charge what is necessary to operate,” he said. “What I think should be absolutely written into policy, firmly, is that the price that we charge students who are forced to buy into a meal plan does not exceed what a regular person off the street can pay for the same product.
“Business is business, and you have to make a profit or break even. But do it in an honest and open way. And I don’t think that’s what is happening.”
Dining Services Director Greg Minner said that he can see why students may be upset by the current rates, but added that he has been in his position for only a few months, while the current meal plan structure has been in place for quite a bit longer.
“I’m not sure about the whole rationale of that during that time, but I can see how (students) might have an argument, especially with the five-meal plan,” Minner said. “But it’s a choice. You can choose that.”
Minner said that he has reviewed the previous year’s budget and is working on meal plan rates for next academic year. Dining Services must propose the new rates to the NMU Board of Trustees for approval before they are put into effect. Minner hopes to present the numbers to the board by the end of February, and said that the final figures will depend on the economy, as well as other issues.
“When we set them, the rates are set for an entire year,” he said. “Once the board approves them, that’s it.”
Gischia added that while it isn’t economically responsible to consider slashing the rates of student meal plans without making that money up elsewhere, a compromise may be possible between student meal plans and other rates and plans aimed at off-campus students and community members.
“That’s a question that has been raised and we’re certainly trying to respond to it,” he said. “From an economic standpoint, we’re not sure what the best mix is at this point.”
Coolman, however, may not stick around and wait for the prices to drop.
“Next year, I’m going to be in off-campus apartments and I’m probably not going to have a meal plan,” he said. “I’ll just walk in off the street and pay for it if I have to.”