It's that time of year again where Boston College students either realize that their meal plans won’t last them through the end of the semester or that they'll finish with a surplus of meal plan money. With this realization comes one of the most common complaints BC students have: Why is BC Dining so expensive?
There are numerous misconceptions students have concerning how BC Dining works and why administrators make the decisions that they do. The Gavel sat down with Director of BC Dining Beth Emery and Associate Director Megan O’Neill to answer the questions BC students have about dining hall costs.
What happens to leftover mandatory dining money?
“One of the best analogies is a gym membership. Most of the money has already been spent. If you don’t go to the gym you still have to pay for rent, utilities, staffing, etc.” says Emery. “That money is covering all of the hours of service that we have.”
This means that in addition to the costs of the food itself, there is a certain amount of money allotted for each student's access to food, regardless of how often they actually utilize the dining hall and its facilities. This is why students living on campus can’t choose a plan with less value than the Mandatory Residential Plan. Additional money can be added easily, but a minimum amount of money is required to guarantee that the dining halls are open year round.
If I’m paying over $65,000 a year to this school, why is the food still so expensive?
Financially, BC Dining is a self-operative organization. All of BC Dining's costs, including utilities and rent, are covered by its own business. “Our charge is to break even,” says O’Neill. “We’re not a contractor. We don’t have to make money for the school, but we can’t cost the school any money.”
Thus, BC Dining’s budget is calculated based on the amount of money received from the Mandatory Meal Plans, since funds from the Flex Dining Plans are carried over each academic year and are refunded after graduation. The Mandatory Meal Plan money allows BC Dining to plan accordingly for the year, keeping hours and other factors based on student numbers consistent.
What about the rumor that BC Dining adds an additional cost to the dining plan because of the assumption that students steal a certain amount?
This is a myth. O’Neill suggests that this rumor probably stems from the Capital Restoration Fee, a fee which in past years was part of the university's cost of attendance. This fee went to the dining halls to ensure they weren’t losing too much of their capital, but it was eliminated several years ago.
But why are the costs still so high?
This answer has two major parts. First, BC Dining isn't as expensive as some students presume. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, in comparison to the meal plans of BC’s top nine competitor schools, BC's Mandatory Residential Meal Plan actually cost the least, even though BC's dining halls are open for the longest hours. BC’s mandatory plan came in at about $5,106 per year, while schools like Cornell had meal plans that cost as much as $6,460 a year.
The idea that BC Dining is more expensive likely comes from the fact that many universities, including most major BC competitors, have a traditional swipe and eat system. With the swipe system, students eat as much as they want after swiping into the dining hall, but they are limited to a certain number of swipes. All colleges and universities have a different setup, but swipes generally reset each week and prices are not visible to students. In comparison, at BC, students can buy as much or as little food as they want as often as they want, with full knowledge of each item's price.
Another reason costs tend to be high is because of how BC Dining employs its workers. “One of the things we’re really proud of is that all of our employees are employees of the university. So your favorite cashier or your favorite cook or your favorite dishwasher gets the same benefits as your professors,” O’Neill remarks. “They get the same health insurance and the same 401(k). They can [count] on those things, but that has an associated expense.”
On top of this, all BC Dining employees, particularly full time employees, are paid above the minimum wage. The same cannot be said of schools that hire outside companies to run their dining services. The company Sodexo, for example, is contracted by over 600 colleges and universities worldwide, and its practices are riddled with controversy. Although the dining plans at the public and private institutions hiring Sodexo are often less expensive, they tend to have lower quality food along with minimally compensated employees in terms of both pay and benefits. As a result, Sodexo has had nine boycotts to date by students and employees at multiple locations.
It can be very easy to take the massive cost of attending BC at only face value, but there are many factors to take into consideration. Costs of the BC Dining meal plans could potentially be reduced, but this would require sacrificing quality, options, and a standard of exemplary treatment of hardworking employees.