When I packed up my bags and headed off to college, I knew it was the end of home-cooked dinners and my all-access pass to the kitchen. No longer would I be able to grab a slice of peanut butter toast on the go — I’d need to spend a whole meal swipe just to use a toaster.
But there was one issue I was completely unprepared for — wasting money by paying for food I never even got to eat. Pitt’s meal plans are set up in a way that forces students to pay for a set number of meals in the dining hall before the semester even starts, and it’s hurting students.
The meal plan system is set up in five tiers that offer different combinations of Pitt’s two main dining currencies — dining dollars to be used at any of the campus coffee carts or convenience stores, and meal swipes for access to the dining halls. While these combinations may seem reasonable, it is far too easy for Pitt students — especially first-years, who are required to have a meal plan — to lose money on the dining passes.
One meal swipe gets students as much as they can eat at Pitt’s dining halls, Market Central and The Perch. Initially this appears to be the most valuable dining option for first years, as one meal swipe costs between $9 and $12. But meal swipes, unlike dining dollars, do not roll over between semesters during the school year — and an excess can easily build up, considering the on-the-go lifestyle of college students.
Vicky Wu, a rising senior double majoring in communication and psychology, finished her first year with 50 leftover meal swipes despite taking the lowest meal plan offered, losing an estimated $500.
“I used up my dining dollars fairly quickly because my classes weren’t spaced out enough [to have] time to sit down at Market or wait in the lines,” Wu said.
While dining dollars can accumulate the way meal swipes do, they’re valid for an entire school year — and can be spent at multiple locations around campus. In the next year, with Pitt set to open its own grocery store, these dining dollars will only become more valuable.
Since first-year students are required to have a meal plan, forfeiting meal swipes accumulates to a loss of hundreds of dollars that many students can’t afford. Nearly four out of five college students are working part-time while in school, according to a 2013 study by Citi and Seventeen Magazine. The majority of these students use the money they make to pay for expenses such as books and tuition, and 41 percent of respondents put their hard-earned cash towards food.
Pitt should take note of this systematic waste of students’ money and reevaluate its meal plans. The simplest change to make would be to eliminate the meal swipe currency altogether, like at George Washington University, where students’ single-currency meal plans cover all dining locations on campus. Pitt could offer students larger amounts of dining dollars per semester, which could also be used to pay for entry to a dining hall. Swiping $9 or more to get into the dining halls would be just as easy as giving a meal swipe.
Another solution would be to increase the number of places where a meal swipe can be used on campus. Pitt has already taken a step in this direction through the Meal-To-Go program available at Market-To-Go. Meal-To-Go allows students to purchase an entree, such as a sandwich or salad, two sides and a bottle of water for the equivalent of one swipe. Expanding this program so that it is available in other places on campus would ensure that students can more easily make use of their swipes.
Wu herself has used meal swipes to purchase Market-To-Go items frequently and said she would like to see the practice expanded to make the program more desirable to students.
“I feel like there could be more variety,” she said. “I think the inclusion of hot foods like soups or [chicken] tenders would be nice so people didn’t feel like they were limited to only two options.”
Until Pitt takes steps to ensure its students don’t lose money through the meal plans it offers, students can try to avoid financial losses by utilizing the existing Meal-To-Go program.
Students can also try to anticipate an excess of meal swipes and use them frequently early in the semester — unlike the swipes, it is easy to splurge on dining dollars when the semester ends and purchase food and toiletries for later.
Universities should do their best to ensure students’ needs are met — and that their money isn’t wasted in the process. There’s certainly no shortage of food here at Pitt, but the way the meal plans are structured just doesn’t match up with the student lifestyle. In the interest of its students and their wallets, Pitt’s meal plan system must change.