JSU freshman Madison Street and her stepmom, Megan Street, herself a JSU alumna, eat at Momma Goldberg's in Jacksonville.

Trent Moody spent part of his Friday afternoon in the Theron Montgomery Building food court at Jacksonville State University, putting his $1,705 meal plan to use.

“A lot of these places are convenient to eat in between classes, but I probably would enjoy it if it wasn’t like ‘you have all this money, you have to spend it on meals,’” Moody said, drinking the final drops from his foam Chick-fil-A cup.

Moody is a junior who lives on campus, so he likely would not be directly affected by a proposed new university dining hall or the possible $275 mandatory meal plan for commuting students that goes along with it after its opening.

In a meeting last month, the university’s board of trustees approved a resolution authorizing Jim Brigham, JSU’s chief financial officer, to negotiate a final deal for the hall and the meal plan with Sodexo, the university’s food services provider.

That potential agreement has been met with initial skepticism from students, sparking protest and petition from some and a question-and-answer session with Brigham, acting president Don Killingsworth and other JSU officials in an attempt to clear the air. 

Some students last week attended a protest of the dining hall proposal and the increased cost of attendance.

Moody said he feels for those students who would have to pay. He has a scholarship that covers most of his tuition costs, but he still has to pay out-of-pocket for housing, fees, books and his own required meal plan for living on campus. Moody hasn’t had to take out a loan to help him through school.

“I hear it for them, and I really don’t agree with it. If they don’t live on campus, they won’t have as many opportunities to spend money here,” Moody said. “It’s a little inconvenient for me, but at least I have the scholarship.”

Rising costs

Cody Hounanian, the program director of student advocacy nonprofit Student Debt Crisis, said that rising costs at universities catch potential students by surprise between their initial plans to attend and the time they have to pay the bills.

“This is all just part of a problem causing students and their families to underestimate the cost of their education,” Hounanian said.

Public universities like JSU rely on state funding in addition to tuition and fees from students in order to operate. With a decline in funding since the 2008 recession, the cost of attendance has grown in order to cover these costs, according to Lindsay Ahlman, the associate director of research and knowledge management at the Institute for College Access and Success

“As funding drops, universities have to look elsewhere for revenue sources to cover operating costs,” Ahlman said. 

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Alabama’s funding for higher education was 36.2 percent lower in fiscal year 2018 than in 2008, a decrease of about $4,466 in spending per student.

JSU last raised its tuition last year, a 5 percent hike that brought the cost to $324 per credit hour for in-state students and $648 for students from out of state.

As recently as 2016, student fees remained a flat $150 per semester, while fees currently start at $700 per semester for students taking six credit hours or more, and students are still subject to course-specific fees. In 2009, JSU began requiring students who live on campus to buy meal plans for its existing dining hall, at a cost of  $1,110. Meal plans for the 1,800 students who live on campus now cost $1,705 per semester, according to JSU’s website

According to Hounanian, these rising costs cause more and more reliance on loans for students to earn their degrees, a problem that is widespread across the U.S., saddling new graduates with a bill to pay. 

An ever-changing student body every few years, with new students coming in and taking out loans to pay for their education, has allowed costs to rise, Hounanian said.

“That has been a point of cover for universities for years. It isn’t just a revolving student body that are aware now, taxpayers and the public are becoming more aware,” Hounanian said. “I like to think that going forward, students will be more aware of these costs.”

According to Ahlman, universities often look at ways to mitigate costs for students when new costs go into effect.

“As a school is considering levying additional fees, it looks to make sure it has financial resources available,” Ahlman said. “For many students, that debt does pay off.”

‘Mandatory doesn’t feel good’

The JSU dining hall proposal comes at a time when universities are paying more attention to their dining offerings, both to attract more students and increase their productivity once they arrive on campus, according to Gretchen Couraud, the CEO of  the National Association of College and University Food Services.

“Dining has become more and more a part of universities,” Couraud said. “Students are spending more time in dining halls and building a community, which helps them learn.”

“Universities are saying ‘let’s get rid of these barriers to food, because we think nutrition is essential to academic success,’” Couraud said.

Couraud said she feels for students who are subject to mandatory fees.

“Anything that is mandatory doesn’t feel good,” Couraud said. “Sometimes the capital cost is so great that it needs to be a shared cost.”

As part of the proposed deal that trustees voted to authorize Brigham to negotiate, the university would pay $20 million of the cost of the dining hall, while Sodexo would foot $7 million of the bill.

While Couraud said that the mandatory plan would not be a great deal for some commuting students who tend to eat elsewhere, a new, open meeting center still provides the benefits of community building.

A community space like a dining hall, Hounanian said, is not often the subject of a lot of student ire.

Hounanian said he has seen protests of university building projects that came along with fees before, but that students usually are more upset with the addition of athletics facilities or other buildings that are not as useful to the student body as a whole, like a dining hall.

“That is indicative of students hitting a boiling point with rising fees where they feel like there are other needs at the university that are more pressing,” Hounanian said. “These students just aren’t fighting for their current situation, they’re doing this for their futures with their financed education.” 

According to Couraud, rising costs are closely watched by all parties involved.

“The rising cost of higher education is clearly becoming an issue across the country, and all of higher ed is paying attention to that as well as dining,” Couraud said. “When a cost goes up, we look at that particular cost instead of looking at the whole issue with the rising cost of attendance.”

In the question-and-answer session, Brigham stated that the money from the new meal plan could be used at some off-campus restaurants, provided they agreed to a deal with the university.

Couraud said the possible extension of meal plan use to restaurants in Jacksonville was indicative of a welcoming atmosphere, not one of a cornering market.

“The university is recognizing that local restaurants are part of the community,” Couraud said. “Well yes, you’re competing with each other, but that’s part of natural business. I’m not sure of any way around that.”

Contact Staff Writer Daniel Mayes at 256-235-3561 or danielmayesstar@gmail.com. On Twitter @DMayes_Star.