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What Are the Pros and Cons of an off-Campus Meal Plan?

By B. Miller
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many colleges and universities, where students live on campus or in nearby apartments, are now offering the option of an off-campus meal plan. Typically, this is a complementary add-on to a more traditional plan offered for getting regular meals at a cafeteria or student cafe. An off-campus meal plan allows students to visit nearby participating restaurants, and pay for meals there using their university cards. This allows the students to get more variety in their meal options, save money with discounts, and have more convenient options for dining if they live off campus. It is important that students carefully research the plan, however, as these meal plans can be more expensive to purchase up front, and may cause some students to spend more money than they normally would.

Offering an off-campus meal plan allows colleges and universities to partner with local area businesses to offer dining options to students, in what is often a win-win situation. Some participating restaurants may even offer discounts to students if they purchase meals using their off-campus meal plan. The main advantage of these plans is that they allow college students a number of dining options beyond the standard cafeteria fare, or the food that is found at an on-campus cafe or student union.

If students live and work away from campus, an off-campus meal plan can be much more convenient for them, rather than having to constantly return to campus to eat. Some meal plans also offer students the ability to manage their accounts online, such as by adding funds and tracking their spending habits, allowing them to see how much money they have spent on food each year. The convenience factor is also increased with an off-campus meal plan because it allows students to eat at any time; they are not limited to the hours that the dining hall or cafeteria is open.

There are some potential cons to an off-campus meal plan, however. First, such a meal plan may be more expensive to purchase up front, if the university requires funds to be pre-loaded on the cards. In addition, students might end up spending more per semester than they otherwise would just by eating at a dining hall, even if the restaurants offer discounts. Some universities avoid this, however, by simply charging students for one "meal" on their card, regardless of the cost at a restaurant. It is essential, therefore, that students considering signing up for an off-campus meal plan be sure to understand the specifics before paying for it.

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Discussion Comments

By clippers — On Jul 24, 2012

@profess - I know how you feel. My college cafeteria is also really bad. I can go off the plan but my problem is that I have nowhere to cook food. Unless I want to limit myself to eating microwaved food there is no good way for me to make dinner. My building does not have a kitchen in it anywhere.

By profess — On Jul 24, 2012

I wish that I could eat off campus but my college makes it really difficult to go off the meal plan. I think it is some kind of scam. I hate the food they serve there. It is worse than what we had at my high school.

Most nights I end up eating something like crackers and cheese or a ham sandwich. I had no idea that cafeteria food could get so bad. I am hoping that by the start of next year I can get off the plan.

By whiteplane — On Jul 23, 2012

I ate on campus for two of my years in college and off campus for my other two years. There definitely were pros and cons to both, but ultimately I kind of wished that I had stayed on the campus meal plan.

Sometimes the food was pretty gross, but what was really nice was how convenient it was. I took a really rigorous course of study and did not have a lot of time to shop or cook. Being able to stroll in to a hot meal almost on demand gave me a lot of time to focus on other things.

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