At the end of every semester, all students who purchased on-campus dining plans lose their unused meals. Many frustrated students wonder why it is they are not reimbursed for the meals they paid for but did not use. If it is their money, why are they not entitled to it? Director of Dining Services Mark Hayes says the system is far more complicated than it seems.
"Once a student pays for a meal plan, the money goes into the state fund and it cannot be refunded," Hayes said simply when asked why refund checks could not be signed and delivered at the end of each semester. "It’s state money." Hayes went on to explain that the money spent on things like residential living and on meal plans is put into a reserve account and is eventually used for campus expenditures.
According to the University of Wisconsin (UW) System’s finance webpage, this practice is part of a "Reserve Accumulation Policy."
It is written in the policy that these "funds should be accumulated to meet debt service requirements, to ensure that equipment and facilities can be maintained, replaced, remodeled, or refurbished as needed, and to … offset short-term revenue losses or unanticipated expenditures." Hayes said that this auxiliary reserve is comprised of between 5 and 15 percent of the previous year’s revenue, although it is typically closer to 5 percent.
Essentially, the money spent by students on meal plans is used for many purposes other than food.
The means by which funds for campus services—such as dining facilities—varies between the universities in the UW System. For example, at UW-Madison, a $1,607 "operational cost" for dining facilities is tacked onto residential living costs. This fee is charged to students living in the residence halls regardless of whether or not they plan to purchase a meal plan. This money is then used to cover the overhead charges associated with operating dining services (e.g. worker salary, cost of food and preparation, maintenance of dining halls etc.). Hayes said that this is the reason students using meals to purchase food or groceries from an on-campus location are not charged taxes. "That amount has already been covered," he said.
Currently, every student here at UW-Stevens Point pays a different amount of money based on how many meals and Dawg Dollars they plan to spend in a semester. Hayes said that the percentage of used meals increased from 70 percent to 90 percent since the implementation of the current system. About four years ago, Hayes said, students had to purchase meals at the beginning of each week, and any unused meals would be lost that weekend. "A little inconvenient, but it worked for some students," Hayes said.
Plans to revise the meal plan system here on campus are underway. Hayes explained that a "Declining Balance Plan" is probably the most efficient meal plan option. Under this plan, all students pay the same amount of money for their food. Hayes said the changes made to this campus would most resemble UW-Stout’s current "Baseline" meal plan system. According to the Baseline webpage, students are charged a "Board Fee Cost" of $887 each semester. The page explains that these costs cover "such things as: mortgage/rent, utilities, labor, supplies, maintenance" and the like. Each student then pays for their desired amount of "dining funds."
A proposal for a Declining Balance Plan was proposed to the Residence Hall Association (RHA) and the Student Government Association (SGA). Hayes said SGA voted 18-0 in favor of the new plan, but because RHA did not express as much interest in the plan—and because meal plans are linked closely to students in the residence halls—no changes were made. Hayes said the issue will be revisited at some point next year.