Heller: Meal plan changes needed, flexible

March 1, 2018

Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Laurent Heller is sharing the rationale for meal plan changes announced in November and updated to reflect feedback from students.

There has been much talk on campus in recent weeks about meal plan options that will roll out for new University Housing residents next year. I would like to provide a little background and context on this important issue.

I understand how important cost is to students and families, whether it is tuition or room and board. We’re proud that UW–Madison has the lowest room and board rates in the Big Ten. Housing residents receive discounted meal prices that help stretch their dollars farther than off-campus dining options. Our dining program is entirely à la carte, which lets students eat what they want when they want it, unlike other Big Ten and UW System schools that require a yearly meal plan.

Photo: Laurent Heller

Laurent Heller Photo: Jeff Miller

As you may have heard, all new residents in Housing will now be asked to select one of three tiers for the meal plan in the 2018-19 academic year. The amount will be billed as part of a student’s total room and board, and will be deposited in the Resident Food Account on the student’s Wiscard. It is payable in four quarterly installments; those selecting the minimum deposit will pay $350 per quarter.

Meal plan funds can be used to purchase food, beverages, and grocery items at any University Housing or Wisconsin Union location, including Badger Market locations around campus.

This plan allows students and families to more easily plan for food costs throughout the academic year. It also gives University Housing the financial stability to continue offering an a la carte dining program and ensures that we can provide high-quality meals while keeping our prices low.  Price increases, driven in large part by the need to increase wages for generally low-paid housing and dining staff, mean that Housing is faced with a difficult choice between raising prices and capturing more business.  This plan follows the latter course, driving some business to campus dining facilities and thereby keeping prices lower than would otherwise be possible.

We decided to implement this plan after a thorough review of dining offerings at other UW System campuses and peer universities and an evaluation of University Housing residents’ typical spending on food.  The $350 minimum quarterly deposit equates to about nine meals per week, which gives flexibility to students who may not dine on campus every day or who regularly travel home.

For those students with financial need, financial aid can be used to cover this expense. The cost of attendance budgets $4,300 for meals, which is higher than the minimum meal plan deposit.

As you may have seen, we have made several changes to the original plan in response to feedback from students, parents and other members of the campus community. One of the most significant modifications was to allow the carryover of unused meal plan funds for use in future years.  The plan will also now include an appeals process for students who want to opt out due to religious, dietary or other special circumstances.

I recognize that the rollout of the new plan did not go smoothly, and appreciate the conversations we’ve had with students about the new program.  I think we need to be doing more of this, so University Housing, along with ASM, is planning improvements to long-standing student governance mechanisms.  We expect to be able to announce more details on this important subject soon.

University Housing’s mission is to offer students a high-quality living and learning experience at an affordable cost.  Ultimately the new meal plan should help us continue to deliver on this promise.  We expect to continue to offer the lowest cost room and board plan in the Big Ten next year.