Comparing Meal Plans: Where Do College Students Eat Best?

Amherst College’s Valentine Dining Hall.
Courtesy of
Apparently, not every liberal arts college student dines like Swatties do at Sharples. Vassar and Sarah Lawrence College have varying meal plans, menus, and facilities, despite their similar demographics and geographic locations.
Vassar is located in Poughkeepsie, New York. Although it serves 2,300 undergraduate students, it has only one dining hall, called the ACDC, or the All College Dining Center. The Retreat is the closest thing to Swarthmore’s Essie Mae’s — hamburgers, salad bar, soups, muffins, and doughnuts are served almost all day. The UPC Cafe, open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., is a late-night version of the Kohlberg and Science Center coffee bars, and The Kiosk serves the same purpose during the day. On weekdays the school serves bagged lunches (on meal equivalencies), but, unlike at Swarthmore, Vassar has a coffee bar in the library.
The Poughkeepsie college’s four different meal plans are all set up with a particularly strong focus on points. The “Plus” meal plan, which is “recommended for students with big appetites” grants students 226 meals and 494.50 “dining bucks” per semester. This averages out to 15 meals and 33 dining bucks a week and costs $3,045 per semester. The “Minimum” meal plan, which is “recommended for the lighter eater and students who eat more than a third of their meals on their own” (or outside the college’s system) has 165 meals and 259 dining bucks per semester, which comes out to a weekly usage of approximately 11.7 meals and 22 dining bucks. It costs $2,370 a semester. These, and the two other meal plans in between, all come with 25 guest meals per semester to be used in the ACDC.
The main difference here is that Vassar’s meal plans all have a set amount of meals per semester, rather than per week. This way, students do not lose meals when they dine out or leave for a weekend. While the meals do not roll over from semester to semester, unused points do roll over from fall to spring (but not spring to fall).
According to Executive Assistant for Facilities and Services at Swarthmore Paula Dale, “Meal plan points cannot roll over from fall to spring [at Swarthmore] because the current calculation of meal plan points, like the meal plan itself, is based on one semester’s use.” The fact that many students leave or come in mid-year before or after going abroad makes it hard for points to carry over from semester to semester.
Swarthmore’s meal plans are all $40 more expensive than Vassar’s “Plus” meal plan (the most expensive of the four), which makes it apparent that Swatties get less bang for their buck. The 14-meal plan, which is the most comparable to the “Plus” plan, gets one fewer meal a week (on average) and 324.50 points fewer per semester to spend at the snack and coffee bars. Because they carry over from one semester to the next, Vassar students also have fewer chances of losing their points.

Vassar students, like many Swatties, are not crazy about the food on campus, though.

“The food is decent,” said Vassar student Teddy Fenster ’16. “There are lots of options so that’s fine … [But] everything there [at the main dining hall] is pretty bland.”
According to Fenster, however, the Retreat has basic, but fresh and delicious options. He is on the “Standard” meal plan, which has an average of 11.7 meals and 22 dining bucks a week.
Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York, has a total of approximately 1,400 students and one dining hall (Bates Common Dining, or BCD). Hill 2Go “offers quick-pick salads and sandwiches, prepared take-out/reheat meals, and cooking ingredients,” working as a kind of grocery store. The Pub sells short-order food items, and the Atrium Café offers espresso, salads, sandwiches and sweets (much like Swarthmore’s coffee bars do).
Sarah Lawrence offers 5 different meal plans. The first includes every meal offered and the second two meals a day. The other three plans offer different combinations of weekly meals and points – ten, seven, and one meal a week, combined with 275, 150 and 375 points per semester, respectively. The plan with one weekly meal is usually for students who live in housing with full kitchens and want to cook for themselves. Although the first two meal plans do not offer points, all of the facilities on campus take meal equivalencies as payment. And while there is nothing too different about the way in which SLC’s meal plan works, the most expensive meal plan is almost $600 cheaper than Swarthmore’s. In essence, for 600 fewer dollars per semester, students can eat up to 21 meals a week. If students are not interested in eating that many meals, plans are even cheaper.
Sarah Lawrence dining is well-liked among many of its students. “The dining hall provides a variety of options, a salad bar, pizza, international dishes, burgers, a vegetarian main dish and a meat main, which are all available every day,” said SLC student Zeneva Schindler ‘13. “For the most part, the quality of the food and cooking is great, especially for a dining hall.”

Schindler is on the plan with 10 weekly meals. She uses her (275) points to buy “cheaper items like coffee” when she does not want to spend an entire meal, but sometimes she just uses her points to get into the dining hall.

Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, has a total of approximately 1,700 undergraduate students and one dining hall (Valentine Hall). Frost Cafe and Schwemm’s Coffee House are coffee bars, open on some days until two in the morning, and others until 10 and 12 respectively.
Only two meal plan options are offered at Amherst. Under the “Full Meal Plan,” students have unlimited access to the dining hall all week during breakfast, lunch and dinner hours. Under the “Lunch & Dinner Meal Plan,” students have unlimited access to the dining hall only during lunch and dinner hours (hence the name of the plan) and are given $100 in “bonus bucks,” or points. Two guest passes are allowed on both meal plans.
Amherst has the closest meal plan option to Swarthmore in this sense. Although students can swipe an unlimited amount of times during breakfast, lunch or dinner hours, the plans compare nicely to the 20 and 14 meal plans. All Amherst is missing is a plan similar to Swarthmore’s 17 meal plan.
Reviews about dining at Amherst are mixed. College Prowler, a website for and by college students, outlines almost all universities in the country – it gives school descriptions ranging from academics to housing to dining to night life (and even gives girls and guys grades in terms of attractiveness). Although Amherst dining received a B (Swarthmore’s is a C… ouch), students’ reviews complain that the one and only dining hall is not only bland but lacks variety. While many agree that students “will survive,” most of them are not happy about the food and recommend getting the plan with the most amount of points.
Swarthmore recently implemented changes to the meal plan, adding 20 points and 3 guest meal passes to every student’s plan.

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