Sunday, June 11, 2017


Why is it that meal plans covered by financial aid at elite universities, but cafeteria meals at community colleges aren’t?

Sara Goldrick-Rab has been asking lately why the free lunch program in public K-12 schools doesn’t extend to community college.

She has a point.

We know that students who are distracted by hunger can’t focus as well as students who are fed.  We also know that substantial numbers of community college students are only precariously housed, often couch-surfing or bouncing from one bad situation to the next.  We know from national data that significant percentages of community college students skip meals because they can’t afford to eat.  

I’m thinking that it might actually be easier to implement in this setting than in K-12.

Most college students don’t attend class five days a week.  Even full-time students frequently only come to campus three or four days per week.  Assuming that four lunches are cheaper than five, that cuts the per-student cost significantly.  

And at this point, most community colleges have accounts by which students can pay for food in the cafeteria with their ID’s.  That means that a student who gets a free (or reduced price) lunch with her ID looks exactly the same to everyone else as a student who doesn’t.  The stigma of standing out is removed.

Tying the free lunches to continued enrollment can provide an incentive for struggling students to finish their semesters; dropping out would mean losing access to food!  

The details would take some tweaking, since most colleges have outsourced their cafeterias to various for-profit companies and run them as auxiliary moneymaking enterprises.  But that doesn’t strike me as a deal-breaker.  If the cards were loaded with x dollars per day, for instance, they would work perfectly well with outsourced enterprises.  The key would be ensuring that the allocation is reasonably related to the cost of food.  

Residential colleges, including some very expensive and high-toned ones, routinely include the cost of a meal plan in the total cost of attendance, and students can use financial aid to cover it.    Why meals can be covered at, say, Harvard when they can’t be covered at Bunker Hill Community College isn’t entirely obvious.  

Or maybe it is.  But I prefer to think it isn’t.

To be clear, when I say “lunch,” I actually mean “food.”  That could mean breakfast or dinner.  The key, I think, would be some sort of reasonable per diem on the ID card that students could use at the campus cafeteria.  Because it would be a dollar figure, we wouldn’t have to get into the bureaucracy of deciding which items count and which don’t, or when breakfast ends and lunch begins.  We could make it simple.  Alexis gets, say, $7 a day to use on campus towards food.  How she uses it is up to her.  Keeping it simple would keep administrative costs to a minimum, allowing more of the money to go directly to food.  Each day could be “use it or lose it,” so it would only cover the days students are actually on campus; that would keep costs down, and would provide an incentive to show up for class.  

The actual cost would be fairly low, given that most students would only get three or four meals a week on campus.  

It’s far cheaper than free college, but it would make a real difference.  Students would know that they could get lunch in between classes, even when they’re otherwise broke.  They could focus on their work, and maybe have some relaxed time with friends between classes.  It’s the sort of thing we subsidize routinely at Stanford and Williams.  Why not here?