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Meal plan pricing (2019 edition)

Topics/tags: Rants (mild), Grinnell

Some time ago, in musing #161, I ranted about the pricing of meal plans. As a Grinnell parent, I continue to worry about the costs of our meal plans. And, since I regularly hear from students that they find it much cheaper to live off campus, I worry about the effects of those plans on the financial accessibility of Grinnell, particularly as Grinnell considers building more housing to reduce the number of students who live off campus [1]. I also recall that my meal plan musing was one that students commented on last spring.

It’s now a few years later. It seems worthwhile looking at how things have changed. Let’s start with prices. I’ve taken the current meal prices from and the plan prices from [2].

Breakfast was $8.75 in 2016-17 and is now $10.00 in 2019-20. That’s an increase of over 14% in three years.

Light breakfast was $6.75 in 2016-17 and is now $7.00 in 2019-20. That’s an increase of only 3.5%. Let’s hear it for consistent increases!

Lunch/Brunch was $11.00 in 2016-17 and is now $13.00 in 2019-20. That’s an increase of about 18% over three years.

Light lunch was $9.75 in 2016-17 and is now $11.00. A comparatively low increase of about 12.8%.

Dinner was $14.00 in 2016-17 and is now $16.00. That’s an increase of about 14%.

The standard three meals (breakfast, lunch dinner) totaled $33.75 per day in 2016-17. They now total $39.00. That’s an increase of slightly less than 16%. Scary!

What about the plans? There are still nine plans, numbered 1 through 10 [3].

Plan 1 - Full Meal Plan gives you twenty meals per week plus five guest meals across the semester. In 2016-17, it cost $3,161 per semester. In 2019-20, it costs $3,507 per semester [4]. That’s an increase of almost 11%. It’s also what you get when you increase prices by exactly 3% each year. How is the value? If students eat the expected meals (no light anything) for all fifteen weeks of the semester, My spreadsheet suggests that this plan provides good value over buying the individual meals, as those meals would cost $4,025, $518 more.

This analysis, like the others below, assumes that students eat all the available meals for fifteen weeks of the semester. That’s not quite accurate, since students do miss meals. It’s also not quite accurate in the other direction because meals are served before classes start and, I believe, during part or all of fall break. However, meals are not served during spring break.

Plan 2: Any Fifteen Meals Plus gives fifteen meals per week, $250 of dining dollars, and five guest meals. I’m not sure that $250 is a good trade-off for five meals per week [5]. The pricing and changes in pricing are the same as in Plan 1. The value is, of course, less good than Plan 1. However, this time around, we are at least in a state in which the cost of the plan is less than the value of the plan [6,7].

Plan 3: Any Fifteen Meals is just like Plan 2, except it doesn’t include dining dollars. You would assume that it would cost $250 less. But it doesn’t. This year’s cost is $3,253 per semester, $254 less than Plan 2. I believe that makes it an obviously better plan than Plan 2. This plan cost $2,920 three years ago. The increase is a little over 11%. This cost of this plan remains fairly close to the value of the plan.

Plan 4: Any 12 Meals Plus has changed since three years ago. The prior plan gave ten meals per week, rather than twelve. This plan gives you twelve, along with $385 in Dining Dollars and five guest meals. Since the plan is different, it doesn’t make sense to look at the increase in cost. It is now $3,253 per semester. As far as I can tell, the value of this plan is $3,120, making its cost more than its value [8].

Plan 5: 80 Meals Plus. That’s eighty meals per semester plus $145 in dining dollars. Three years ago, it was $142 dining dollars. The price has gone from $1,212 to $1,370, an increase of about 13%. What about the value? It’s gone from $1,262 to $1,430, also an increase of about 13%. It remains a reasonable deal, although not much of an advantage over now plan whatsoever.

Plan 6: 65 Meals Plus. This one includes $195 in Dining Dollars per semester. It costs $1,235 per semester, $135 less than Plan 5. Are fifteen fewer meals and $50 more dining dollars worth the savings? Almost certainly not. Let’s see .. the value is also $1235. I guess it’s nice to see a perfectly priced plan for once.

Plan 7: Lunch Bunch. Lunch five days per week. This plan can be nice for students who live off campus, since it makes it easier to socialize at lunch time. Its cost has gone from $767.00 to $929.00, an increase of 21%. Ouch! But its value, at $975, remains slightly higher than its cost.

Plan 8: Dining Dollars Plus). Not so surprisingly, $100 in Dining Dollars remains $100 in Dining Dollars.

Plan 10: No Board. Since you were probably bored by my analyses, I assume you appreciate that title.

What have I learned from all of this? We’ve increased our at the door prices significantly over the past three years. We’ve had much more moderate increases in the prices of our meal plans. That now makes Plan 1 a comparatively good value and, as importantly, removes the Meal Plan Penalty from Plans 2 and 3. All three of those plans are particularly good values in the fall for students who are staying on campus for fall break [9]. On the other hand, I still don’t understand why Plan 4 continues to impose a penalty on students. I also remain puzzled that, although we charge $39 per day for food, when students travel we will only reimburse them up to $30 per day.

What else? I suppose I should share the guidelines on what plans students can choose.

Individual meal plan options are determined by class standing and housing status. First year students are required to participate in the Full Meal Plan (1) for their first semester, but may choose between the Full Meal Plan (Plan 1) and the 15 Plus Meal Plan (Plan 2) for second semester.

Returning students have other options, based on housing status. Students living in the residence halls may choose between Plans 1, 2, 3, and 4. Students in Cowles Apartments are required to participate in a minimum of Plan 6. All other students who reside in designated co-ops, campus houses, or who live off campus may choose any plan or may opt out by choosing No Board (Plan 10).

I wonder what things will look like in a few years.

Postscript: The last time I mused about this subject, I spent a lot of time writing to various folks about this and other related issues. This time, the prices generally made sense. I may ask about Plan 4 at some point, but it’s not high on my priority list.

Postscript: Sometimes I worry that I get too enamored with data.

[1] At the opening Faculty Meeting, President Kington described concerns about the number of students living off campus, including worries about the quality of that housing. I don’t expect that we’ll be creating more housing immediately, but it’s clearly in the longer-term plans. I hope that when we build new housing, we will build housing that does not require students to be on the meal plans.

[2] I apologize that the prices are behind the GrinCo password wall.

[3] Ed Wood would continue to regret the lack of a Plan 9.

[4] Isn’t that a terrifying number?

[5] Okay, I"m pretty sure that it’s not a good trade-off, unless you don’t eat those five meals. And, even if you don’t eat those five meals, I’m pretty sure that 75 outtakes are easily worth much more than $250.

[6] We assume that the door pricing of dining hall meals is their value.

[7] Three years ago, the total cost was more than the value.

[8] As I’ve said, I haven’t counted the meals before the start of the semester nor have I counted meals during break.

[9] We really do need something better for students who stay on campus during winter break and spring break. Those are clearly the times of greatest food insecurity for our students.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-04.