Anthony Hennen of the Martin Center highlights little-known facts about UNC System student meal plans.

College meal plans can help students avoid buying groceries and cooking for themselves—but they can also cost thousands of dollars each semester. In the University of North Carolina system, some students get a relative bargain, but others pay 60 percent more with fewer spending options.

Even though some UNC campuses take in hundreds of thousands of dollars in unspent funds from meal plans, most students can’t opt out.

A Martin Center analysis of the five largest public North Carolina universities—UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, UNC-Charlotte, and Appalachian State University—found that ASU offers a fair deal, but other campuses make saving on meal costs difficult. Some simple reforms could benefit students, but universities would have to forfeit an easy source of revenue.

For cost, flexibility, and lost funds, Appalachian State serves its students best—by far. Meal plans are required for on-campus students, who choose among four options, from a “low” plan ($1,055) to a “super” plan ($1,917). Plans work on a declining balance system (like a prepaid debit card). Food is priced a la carte and ASU lists average meal costs online based on past purchases. However, freshmen cannot purchase a low plan and many of them buy a standard plan ($1,357), the cheapest alternative and 73 percent of all plans purchased in 2017-2018.

Compared to other UNC schools, ASU’s $208,000 received from unused student funds looks high. However, that is because other schools use meal swipes for primary food spending and flexible spending for additional food purchases, but ASU’s meal plans are flexible spending only. Thus, the cost of a lost meal swipe at other schools is harder to see than in ASU’s flexible spending system.