How College Meal Plans Have Become Exorbitantly Expensive

There's a reason why Top Ramen is famously linked to the college student aesthetic: attending university is expensive. But food insecurity isn't a cute trademark accessory; it's a serious problem for many of today's students — and, according to new data, the cost of eating on campus is only getting pricier. Tuition aside, many campuses are also hiking prices outside of the classroom: we're talking about dining halls. According to nonprofit education news outlet The Hechinger Report, the average college in the U.S. charges roughly $4,500 for an eight-month meal plan, which averages out to $18.75 per day for three meals.

The seemingly obvious solution would be for students to cook at home, right? But it's not so simple. Just as many colleges require students to live in on-campus housing during certain academic years, says, a pricey meal plan is often a mandatory accouterment as part of student enrollment. Sound appetizing?

Last November, Virginia Tech announced that Spring semester meal plans would see a $100-$215 price increase from Fall. Now, campuses across the country are hiking prices. Earlier this month, the University of Pittsburgh's Board of Trustees unanimously approved a $2.7 billion operating budget which would include a 4% price increase for meal plans in the 2022-2023 academic year, reports Pennsylvania news outlet TribLive. This month as well, Clemson announced a tuition increase for the first time in three years, via Greenville's The Post and Courier, including a 4.5% increase for dining. Here's the reason for the spike.

Food inflation and higher wages raise dining prices

When Virginia Tech announced its sudden mid-academic-year meal plan price increase, the university blamed workforce shortages. Employees in Dining Services needed to be offered higher wages, it said, or they weren't working.

It's true that the food service industry has seen a major shift post-pandemic. In Fall 2021, Chicago-based restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch called the nationwide labor shortage the "number one problem the U.S. is currently facing," (via FOX Business). To offset the higher wages, Kharasch advised restaurateurs to raise menu prices by 20% just in order to remain profitable. In July 2021, there were nearly two million leisure and hospitality job openings — more than in any other industry sector, says Restaurant Business. Restaurant goers and student diners alike might expect to pay the same prices, but food inflation and higher costs of labor dictate subsequently higher operating costs for food establishments — campus dining halls included.

Labor shortages aren't the only reason, either. Clemson blamed its meal plan price increase on nationwide food price inflation (via The Post and Courier). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of food in America has gone up by 10.4% in the past 12 months alone. Several universities across the country (including Virginia Tech) have implemented food pantries to help students struggling with food insecurity. But, considering the already-exorbitant price of tuition, many students and parents alike might feel inclined to ask: why are food pantries necessary at all?