JACKSONVILLE — It's more expensive, but a meal plan is better than eating Ramen noodles.
That's the consensus shared by a handful of students at Jacksonville State University, where this year freshmen who live on campus are required to purchase a meal plan for $1,100.
For students like Austin Phillips, 18, that's a bargain.
"I can eat all I want for free," he said, munching on fries at Hopper Dining Hall on Friday, a plate of mashed potatoes and beef tips up next.
Hopper Dining Hall offers a variety of food options this year. There are sizzling salads and international cuisines and a lot more space to eat them in.
JSU's food service provider Sodexo paid for the renovations. The company spent $2 million on improving the dining hall and adding new eateries and coffee spots across campus. And there's more to come, including a Baha Fresh Mexican Grill and a sandwich shop.
No tuition money paid for the new perks. But students — indirectly — are footing the bill.
In tacking on the mandatory meal plan, Sodexo agrees to reinvest its money on campus.
Joe Whitmore, director of institutional support services, said that JSU had been the only public university in the state that did not require a meal plan.
"The thought behind this is to create more of a social environment, more unified environment," he said, adding it gives students more things to do on campus.
That leads to happier students, which means more students graduating from JSU.
Final numbers aren't in, but Whitmore believes more than 1,350 purchased a meal plan this year. That's a jump of more than 400 students.
"We're very excited about the feedback and where we are right now," he said.
But it's not just freshmen purchasing the meal ticket. Blake Seguin, a 21-year-old business major, said the new options made it worth the money for a meal plan. He said the dining hall rivaled that of any university in Alabama.
Next year, most freshmen (except those from a handful of surrounding counties) will be required to live on campus.
The dining program isn't directly related to that, but it's part of a master plan of improving retention rates and bettering student life.
Freshman Page Harris said she doesn't get up to eat breakfast. But after classes and track practice, she eats at the dining hall. The food is OK, she said, but it's better than eating fast food.
"In here, you don't have to eat all that nasty stuff," she said.
Matt Justice, 19, of Cedartown, Ga., said that when he realized he had to purchase a meal plan, "I was really kinda happy. I didn't have to cook noodles all the time. I could just come in here and eat."