Starting this fall, full-time commuters at Montclair State University will notice a slight increase in their bills.
This higher cost is due to the introduction of a new mandatory dining plan for commuters who are enrolled in at least 12 credit hours with one or more on-campus classes.
Although touted as a measure to assist students, I view it as an unnecessary cash grab that could inadvertently burden them.
Known as the Commuter Dining Deposit, the new dining plan will charge commuters $250 per semester and provide them with $250 worth of Flex Dollars for on-campus expenses. Any unused money will be returned as a check at the end of the academic year.
The explanation of this program, as conveyed in a video by university President Jonathan Koppell and Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Dawn Soufleris, has left students questioning who exactly is required to participate and why participation is required.
To me, the reason why feels clear. It seems like a cash grab by the university primarily aimed at encouraging students to spend more money on campus, which they might not have done otherwise.
One of the better justifications for the dining plan is based on providing immediate access to food due to university data indicating food insecurity among many commuter students. This doesn’t hold up in my opinion.
For students facing financial challenges, encouraging them to spend money on on-campus meals may not be the most practical solution. Regardless of any planned discounts and rewards, which are teased vaguely, it is still likely to be more expensive than other options available to those who commute.
It does make sense that after what appears to be a significant investment in the updates to dining facilities, they would try to increase their use. Considering that Montclair State primarily consists of commuters, a significant portion of the student body may not have traditionally used the on-campus dining services to the full extent.
But why force all commuters to put money down especially since the university plans on paying those who don’t use it back?
It feels a lot like a tactic often used by tech start-ups. Money is collected in advance, typically for a pre-order before a product is anywhere near ready for production, as a way to get interest-free funds that can either keep the company running or sit in a bank earning interest. The latter is what I expect is happening with the deposit money here.
For those of us who would otherwise be keeping this money in a savings account instead, this especially hurts because the money we would be earning in interest is now going to the university.
Despite the deposit being refunded if unused, it’s important to recognize that students might still end up paying more, whether they spend the funds on campus or not. This will largely depend on how their tuition is being paid each semester.
Students using loans may face a higher principal loan amount and increased interest as a result of the bill being $250 higher, whereas students paying in full lose access to the money until it is refunded, limiting their ability to spend it on other necessities, unless they buy them from the university or earn interest.
Those in such a situation paying with student loans could and should use their first year’s refund check of $500 to cover subsequent $250 per semester deposits, thereby avoiding accumulating additional loans and interest.
But how many students are going to realize that this should be done? Why should we have to take additional steps to justify a program we didn’t ask for?
If the university genuinely values the needs of commuter students, they should keep participation in all meal plans optional for commuters. They can still generate an interesting dining experience among commuters with other types of offers and promotions without imposing additional burdens on those who do not wish to participate.