UW-Madison’s new meal plan for the 2018-’19 academic year sparked backlash throughout campus. The university’s plan, however, is similar to others across the Big Ten Conference — and more affordable, too.
For Big Ten students living in university residence halls, the average minimum cost for a dining plan is almost three times the cost of UW-Madison’s lowest tier meal plan — around $4,117 per academic year. UW-Madison’s highest tier plan only costs $3,100 per academic year.
Northwestern University has the highest minimum cost for a resident meal plan at $6,300 per academic year. Purdue University has the second lowest minimum cost at $2,998 per academic year, which is still over double the cost of UW-Madison’s minimum.
Meal plans are a “natural part of attendance at college,” according to Director of Housing Jeff Novak, citing other universities’ programs. In fact, all other Big Ten institutions require dining programs for incoming students in residence halls with minimum deposits ranging from $1,499 to $3,150 per semester.
UW-Madison’s minimum deposit of $700 per semester will be the least expensive meal plan among all other Big Ten schools. However, it has drawn criticism from students on campus who claim the plan is unfair to low-income students.
Novak said the $1,400 minimum deposit per academic year was determined by looking at how much money students typically spend at campus dining facilities, as well as by comparing other meal plans required in the Big Ten.
Some UW-Madison students who follow halal and kosher dietary laws expressed their disapproval towards the meal plan, claiming that it is discriminatory against Muslim and Jewish students.
The University of Maryland is the only Big Ten school that gives students the option to choose a “Platinum Kosher Dining Plan,” which can be used as a substitute for other meal plans. For 19 meals per week, including Shabbat and holiday meals, the plan costs $2,795 per semester.
Though UW-Madison does not have a meal plan specifically for those with religious dietary needs, halal and kosher items are available at all of the university dining halls, according to their website. The website also says that students with special dietary restrictions, such as vegetarians and those with food allergies, can work with a registered dietitian to ensure their needs are met.
Similar to the University of Maryland, UW-Madison will allow some students to opt out of the mandatory meal plan if University Dining is unable to meet the individual’s religious or medical dietary needs. Novak said that the process for exemption is not meant to be difficult for students.
“Very few other [Big Ten schools] allow any exemptions for dietary purposes,” Novak said.
Indiana University is the only other Big Ten school — other than UW-Madison — with an à la carte only program. Other Big Ten dining programs are based on a set number of meals per week or all-you-can-eat options.
Following all other Big Ten universities, UW-Madison will also incentivize students to buy a higher-level tier package by offering bonus dining dollars, free beverages at Bean & Creamery and unlimited fountain drinks.
With the purchase of a more expensive dining plan, the Ohio State University similarly allows students to trade their “Visits” at dining halls for purchases at university convenience stores and retail locations. The University of Minnesota’s “Upgrade” meal plan packages include more “FlexDine Dollars” to use at chain restaurants such as Subway, Panda Express and Papa John’s.
Although UW-Madison’s new meal plan has created controversy, Novak said the new dining program is a “great option” and affordable for the campus community.
“We are trying to provide a great program for our students for the long term,” Novak said. “This is, at its base, aimed at providing an outstanding experience in dining for our students.”