Katherine Cahalin/Staff Photographer
The New Jersey state assembly has passed a bill that would effectively stop the state’s colleges and universities from mandating that students buy meal plans.
The bill, No. A2811, passed by a vote of 53-17 on Nov. 12, with three abstentions. Besides eliminating mandatory meal plans for students who live on campus, the bill would force universities to offer students to offer meal plans with spending allowances and reimburse them for unused funds at the end of an academic semester or year.
The bill still has a long way to go before being passed into law. It needs to get through the state Senate before Gov. Chris Christie reviews it, but that does not mean the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), is shying away from the need for reform.
“The time for change in higher education has come,” Cryan told The Star-Ledger while speaking about several proposed bills dealing with the way colleges and universities are run. “For the last 20 years, New Jersey’s families have been at the mercy of what I would say is an oligarchy of presidents of higher education who determine their financial future.”
Talking specifically about Bill A2811, Cryan explained to the Ledger how meal plans are playing a major role in student debt.
“In many schools, eight out of 10 students go into debt from day one,” he said. “So they’re buying that $5 hamburger, so to speak, on the cost of a meal plan. By the time you get paying the interest, it’s significantly more, and it’s not just a hamburger — it’s a hamburger deluxe.”
If written into law, Seton Hall would be one of many New Jersey institutions to forgo forced meal plans and to offer the allowance system, although Princeton would be granted an exception. Cryan says this is because Princeton has strong graduation rates and offers free tuition to low-income students.
The mandatory meal bill would come with both pros and cons for Seton Hall students, as well as the rest of New Jersey’s higher education students. For one, students would enjoy substantial savings on the cost of school. At Seton Hall the average meal plan costs just over $1950 based on the eight standard plans offered the school and seminary.
That price is fairly consistent throughout the state. At Rutgers University, the average plan costs $1885, while at William Paterson University is upwards of $1931.50. The average plan at Monmouth University totals $2539.75.
With Cryan’s bill, students and parents would have the option to save that money. At the very least, they could get back what they do not use.
While some would say that is a square deal, Tara Hart, Seton Hall’s Director of Housing and Residence Life, has some concerns. The first issue she talked about was jobs and budgeting.
“If the bill passes the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Christie, I would imagine that Gourmet Dining Service and other campus dining vendors across New Jersey would need to examine their staffing and budgetary plans,” she said.
Although that argument may not be a priority for students and their families, Hart said the legislation has other potential outcomes that worry her.
“Passage of the bill may theoretically reduce costs, but since our traditional residence halls do not have in-hall kitchen facilities, I think that passage of this bill would be a detriment to our students,” she said. “Access to the variety of food choices which a meal plan provides could not be replicated by a student for the same dollar amount.”
In other words, while Seton Hall’s students may be paying a hefty price for their food, they are at least getting multiple options. Aside from the dining hall, Seton Hall has The Cove, which offers sushi and pre-made sandwiches, and a commuter cafeteria, which has fresh-made wraps, pizza and burgers. There is also a Dunkin’ Donuts on campus.
Hart says that without the university charging for its meal plans, students will not be able to benefit from so many options. According to her, reducing such costs would do more harm than good.
“While I believe that the impulse to keep costs as reasonable as possible is an admirable motive on the part of the Assembly, the fundamental needs of students must be met in order to ensure their ability to succeed in the classroom, clinical placement, on the court or field and beyond,” she said.
Sophomore Jarett Johnson disagrees with Hart when it comes to how strong the on-campus options are. He thinks that Seton Hall students are not getting a fair bang for their buck.
“It’s very subpar, very average,” Johnson said of the school’s food. “I feel like they could do a lot better. Some days it is very good but others it is terrible. I feel that if we’re going to pay $2500 for a meal plan that we should have access to more options, as well as options that we actually enjoy eating.”
When informed of the efforts to pass Bill A2811, Johnson was supportive.
“I think that would be a great thing to pass,” he said. “So many people, especially at Seton Hall, they don’t typically eat at the cafeteria and they like to go to the other options that they have on campus. It would be good to not be forced to have a meal plan.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GPhillips2727.