Here is a WSO discussion about the economics of meal plan choice. Since these threads sometimes disappear, I have copied David Moore’s ’10 excellent summary post below the break. (Future historians will thank me.) What meal plan choices did you face during your time at Williams?

Your numbers are a bit off. There is a savings, but the deal isn’t quite as good as you think it is (primarily because meals in dining halls don’t cost a uniform \$8.5). Since students living in co-ops do have the option of going off the meal plan, these calculations have been near and dear to my heart over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d post the numbers for the benefit of anyone else trying to figure out their meal situation.

Basically, students spend about 32 weeks on campus in an academic year (14 per semester and 4 over winter study). Over that period, if you eat every single meal you’re entitled to in dining halls (meaning you never go away for a weekend, never eat at a restaurant, never skip a meal, etc.), then it breaks down like this:
– 21-meal plan: \$5110/(21*32) = \$7.6/meal
– 14-meal plan: \$4770/(14*32) = \$10.6/meal
– 10-meal plan: \$3900/(10*32) = \$12.2/meal
– 5-meal plan: \$2060/(5*32) = \$12.9/meal
– 50-meal block: \$625/(50) = \$12.5/meal

If I recall correctly, the cash prices of dining hall meals – if you pay at the door, without a meal plan – are \$6.50 for breakfast, \$10 for lunch, and \$13 for dinner. So the meal plans are actually priced pretty fairly, from one perspective. Dining Services assumes that people on the 21 aren’t always going to eat all 21 meals, and that some of the meals they eat will be breakfasts, which are relatively cheap, so they can afford to charge less per meal. As you move to the lower meal plans, the price per meal increases, because it’s assumed that you’re much more likely to actually use all of the meals, and also much more likely to tend towards dinners and lunches rather than breakfasts (I think those reasons account for more of the differences between plans than simple bulk discounting, although that may be in play as well). The 50-meal block is a bit of an outlier in that it’s actually cheaper than the other low meal-plans. It turns out that if you have the option of going off of a meal plan but you still want to eat in dining halls, the best strategy is buy 50-meal blocks, use them exclusively for dinners, and pay for lunches and breakfasts in cash. This saves you a bit of money relative to the 5- and 10- meal plans (exactly how much depends on which meals you tend to eat most in dining halls), but the 21 is still a better deal if you actually plan on making full use of it.

As for the broader question of why on-campus students are required to be on a meal plan, I think Dining Services has reasons of their own which probably make sense from a higher perspective but aren’t much comfort to individual students looking to save money. Williams likes to be able to guarantee to parents that students are eating well, and they don’t expect kids to be able to cook consistently in dorm kitchens. As a residential school, dining halls provide a source of campus community and interaction which only works if people actually eat in them. Also, Dining Services needs to know that it will be serving some minimum number of students in order for it to remain financially viable to keep four dining halls open and running. If they allowed students to pay by the meal, it would introduce a lot of uncertainty and instability into their financial planning and possibly (if it led to more people eating off campus) result in one or more dining halls having to close, which I think we can agree is not a desirable outcome.