SUNSHINE WEEK 2012: At some university dining halls, eat your hamburgers or watch the money disappear

A visit to the dining hall is a daily part of the college experience for most freshmen. Parents buy a meal plan at the start of each term with the idea that it’s a down payment on food for their eager young scholar. But what new students and their parents may not realize is that much of that money often goes unspent – and in many cases, there are no refunds.

In cooperation with student journalists in several states, the SPLC used public records to sample the dining card practices at major universities. The purpose of the unscientific sampling — done as a part of “Sunshine Week 2012” — was to call attention to the growing practice of “cashless” campus transactions and the issues raised when students are required to prepay for goods or services they may not use.

Our findings revealed students forfeit many thousands of dollars every year in unused meal money – though what the school does with that money varies widely by location.

At the University of Nevada-Reno, for example, students left more than $47,000 in campus dining value unspent in 2009 alone. At Washington State University, students left $43,000 unspent during the 2009-2010 school year – at rival University of Washington, students forfeited more than $90,000 during the same time period.

Exactly what happens to that unused money varies from school to school. WSU says it uses the money “in support of Housing and Dining operations,” for example.

Rutgers University allows students to receive refunds of unused balances in excess of $25, for as long as 18 months since the last use of the card. At the University of Wisconsin, students automatically receive a refund for unused dining dollars over $20. Balances under $20 are transferred to another account on the student card – which operates similar to a debit card.

In fact, many schools have multiple accounts linked to a single student ID card. Most have dining accounts linked to prepaid meal plans, in addition to a debit account of money that can be used at other locations on campus. Some of the schools, including WSU and Georgia Tech, have agreements with off-campus vendors to accept these “student bucks” as well.

It appears far more common that unspent money in “debit” accounts is transferred into holding accounts as unclaimed property.

None of the schools we’ve looked at so far used outside contractors to manage their card or dining account systems, though some did charge outside vendors a fee for the right to accept student account money as payment.

Student journalists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill conducted their own investigation and found that 25 percent of all meals purchased through dining plans went wasted each semester. In fact, a school official suggested to the Daily Tar Heel that the university actually budgets around the idea that meals will go unused.

Scott Myers, UNC’s director of dining and vending, told the Tar Heel that if students were to eat every meal they purchased, prices would go up.

Of the 13 schools to whom the SPLC sent public requests in mid-February, six had filled the request as of this writing. Others said they were still processing, needed clarification or wanted payment in advance – of several hundred dollars in one case.

The requests sought contracts and financial records associated with “stored value cards” issued to students, including the amount of unspent money for the past two fiscal years.

Look for a full story in the Spring 2012 issue of our magazine, the SPLC Report.