Last semester at Texas A&M, millions of dollars were left on the table when thousands of meal plans expired at the end of the semester. Freshmen and sophomores forced to buy food from a private vendor are particularly upset with what they feel is wasted money.
It's not just students who are adjusting to a new way to dine on campus. A&M administrators and employees of Chartwells, the private company that took over dining in 2012, are still making changes to one of the largest outsourcing contracts at a public university. Last semester was the first time that Aggie underclassmen living on campus were forced to buy Chartwells' meal plans comprised of individual meals, called meal trades, and dining dollars, which act like gift cards.
An assessment by The Eagle of that semester found that more than one out of every five meals purchased, which expire at the end of the semester, went unused. That's about $2.7 million in unclaimed meals purchased by Aggies or their parents. The Chartwells data, obtained by The Eagle through Texas A&M, shows that 9,002 students purchased $11.8 million worth of meals. Texas A&M requires on-campus freshmen and sophomores to purchase a Chartwells meal plan, meaning if all 7,650 on campus did so, then 85 percent of business came through the mandate.
Chartwells representatives said expiring meals at the end of each semester is part of their business model and is an industry norm. A spokeswoman said the reasons for this vary, but include a large number of students leaving at the end of the semester, administrative hurdles and forecasting problems when planning for renovations and improvements.
The price of the meal plans range from $1,240 a semester plus tax, for 119 meal trades, 12 guest passes and 100 dining dollars, to $2,090 per semester plus tax for 300 meal trades, 30 guest passes and 400 dining dollars. There are four plans, each with folksy A&M names -- Howdy, Fish, Gig 'Em and Reveille. The meal trades are predetermined combinations of food and drink and can be used at select on-campus locations. The students can use four meal trades per day and are restricted to one trade per meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night.
The dining outsourcing is championed by A&M System Chancellor John Sharp and is a piece of a multimillion dollar outsourcing contract to North Carolina-based Compass Group USA that also privatized Texas A&M landscape management, custodial services and building maintenance. Sharp said the purpose of the outsourcing is to save money from non-education related tasks and redirect it back into the classroom. The mandate that freshmen and sophomores who live on campus purchase meal plans, which will eventually be phased in to include juniors and seniors, was promulgated in 2010 by now departed university president R. Bowen Loftin. Officials said dining lost $1 million per year before the decision was made.
Although the outsourcing and requirement that students purchase meal plans were rolled out simultaneously, university administrators have repeatedly stressed that the changes are independent. A&M's contract with Compass Group USA does not mention mandatory meal plans.
'Grease on cardboard'
Freshman Jonathan Weeks bought the largest plan possible at 300 meal trades his first semester in College Station. In December, about 120 of those, or $615 worth, expired.
"That [money] just goes away -- they're taking it and I'm not getting anything for my money," Weeks said. "You look at your account and, 'Oh my God,' there's so many left over and that's so much money and you realize that Chartwells isn't going to give you anything back."
Students don't use their trades for a number of reasons, Weeks said. They get tired of eating in the same places, want to use meals during time-restricted periods and that students adjusting to college life will sometimes prioritize studying or socializing over food. He said students, especially freshmen, should have been informed better about how the meal plans could be used.
"The quality of the pizza and pasta isn't great -- the pizza tastes like grease on cardboard," Weeks said. "So, it's not like we're getting some top-notch food. I talk to my friends at Baylor and Texas Tech and UT and they tell me about the food they have on campus with options and good food and it's a stark contrast."
Freshmen Rachel Rosenberg purchased about 100 meals, or $680 worth, that she didn't use. She originally bought the cheapest meal plan but decided to upgrade to the third largest a few weeks into the semester after talking it over with her parents, who paid for it. They thought she would need more meals, but by the end of the semester she said she was giving them away to friends, and even complete strangers. Unlike Weeks, Rosenberg said the quality of the food was fine.
She said she didn't use the meals because on-campus eateries didn't always accept the meal trades for the type or combination of food she wanted to eat. Rosenberg said crossing campus to get to a place that would accept the type of meal she was looking for was sometimes problematic.
"[My parents] aren't super mad about it -- it's not a huge deal," Rosenberg said. "It was just deceiving. There was no opportunity to fix it when we realized we got too big of a plan ... Something a little bit more flexible would have been so nice because $600 is a lot of money. That's a couple hundred cups of coffee or all the music you could ever want on iTunes."
Both Weeks and Rosenberg dropped to the plan with the least amount of meals this semester. The students were united in their frustrations with dining, but split on what exactly they wanted from A&M or Chartwells. Some want Texas A&M to roll back the mandatory requirement and others see it as a safety net.
"It has been probably the most talked about thing on campus consistently since fall semester," said Student Body President Reid Joseph of the dining changes. "We get emails. We hear students talking on campus. We get phone calls from parents and students alike. It is something everyone is very aware of."
Joseph said he appreciates Chartwells' loosening of some restrictions last semester and the infrastructure upgrades. Still, he said, the amount of money in unredeemed meals is significant.
"I know a lot of students, like myself, are funding our own education and every dollar counts," Joseph said. "I know a lot of students who work two part-time jobs and are full-time students and $600 is a substantial amount."
Joseph said he is going to meet with Interim University President Mark Hussey in the next few weeks to talk about dining pricing and quality issues and to hopefully get some changes made for the fall.
Change on the menu
Top Texas A&M administrators say more changes are coming.
"Mandatory meal plans are not tied to the outsourcing of dining services and those issues are separate," said Hussey in an emailed statement. "I have already started to engage student leadership as well as members of my administrative team on the question of mandatory meal plans for students. I will look into the issues associated with mandatory meal plans and then determine an appropriate course of action."
Chancellor Sharp similarly gave his first response to the negative student feedback.
"I fully support Dr. Hussey's initiative to offer various dining options to our students for the fall semester of this year," Sharp said in a prepared statement.
Chartwells representatives were not available for interviews. A Compass Group USA spokeswoman said questions for the company needed to be submitted in writing.
"At Texas A&M students are able to rollover unused dining dollars from fall to spring if they have a spring plan and the dining plans start at just one meal per day," said Chartwells spokeswoman Gina Capetanakis in an emailed statement. "In addition, unlike most universities, our meal trade options are abundant throughout campus and have very few restrictions, making it very easy for students to not have unused meals should they so desire."
The company pointed out the changes it made in the fall semester, such as opening eateries on the north side of campus for longer periods during the weekends. Chartwells received more than 5,200 responses to a fall student survey launched after initial complaints.
"The survey results also led to several dining plan policy changes throughout the fall 2013 semester, each of which remains in effect this semester; this includes additional meal trades, weekly meal rollover and the elimination of meal trade zones," Capetanakis wrote.
B.J. Crain, A&M's vice president for finance and administration, described dining services as still evolving and responsive to student input.
"We're in the second year of this partnership and we've seen a lot of improvements over time, especially this fall when they brought in their new resident director," Crain said. "This is all new to us, so last year we had an annual review with them ... For now, going forward we plan to do those semester by semester."