Students frustrated by doubled flex dollars

Lily Burris

The mandatory meal plan dollars per semester has increased from $150 to $300 for full-time undergraduate students at WKU.

As a part of WKU’s contract with the Aramark Corporation food service, students not participating in a meal plan must have a certain amount of mandatory meal plan dollars, more commonly known as flex dollars. 

When the contract started in 2017, the fee was $75 per semester. For the 2018-2019 school year, the fee was $150 per semester. For the upcoming school year, it is $300 per semester, and it will stay at that rate until the 2021-2022 school year. 

The fee will increase to $325 per semester for the 2022-2023 year and increase again to $350 for the 2026-2027 school year. It will stay at that rate until the 2036-2037 school year when the contract ends. 

Jessica Kiehnau, a junior international affairs and Chinese major from Cleveland, Ohio, described the increase as “insane.”

“I just feel like it’s too much money to force people to have some money just in case they want to buy food,” Kiehnau said.

Kiehnau hasn’t been on a meal plan since she was a freshman. She didn’t even realize that the current increase had occurred. She struggled to use the $150 per semester from the previous year.

“Don’t they realize that most students who choose to opt out of a meal plan, they’re doing so for a reason?” Kiehnau said.

The money was mostly spent on snacks or the occasional bite to eat, Kiehnau said. She usually makes her food because it’s easier and healthier. She said she gets better variety this way. For her, the cooking and grocery shopping is very empowering. 

“I just don’t like the idea that they’re forcing us to pay for something we didn’t really want in the first place,” Kiehnau said.

One issue that some take with this situation is the fact that some students could use this for things they feel they need more than flex dollars, such as books, school supplies, and car payments.

For Katy Kirkpatrick, a senior organizational communications major from Elizabethtown, these flex dollars equal one month of rent.

“I’m basically having to adjust my budget to make sure I can cover that basically pulled out month of rent,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said she previously worked for Aramark setting up tables and selling meal plans, so she felt like she understood the plans and the increase. She originally thought the total increased each year and not each semester, but she found a previous Herald article saying the increase was for each semester.

“The main upsetting point for me was the lack of communication that took place,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick is putting herself through college and works three jobs to pay for it, one of which is for WKU. When this bill hits, it’s going to be pretty tight for her. She knows that some students don’t have the flexibility for this kind of increase in their bills, and she thinks it’s unfair to them.

“I think that forcing students basically to take out that money is not fair because college is already expensive on its own,” Kirkpatrick said.

The only way for Kirkpatrick to spend her money last year was to force herself to eat on campus where she only really eats Chick-Fil-A. She occasionally gets coffee or groceries from Pod Market, but she feels like sometimes the prices at Pod Market are ridiculous. 

“I don’t want to spend $300 and just kind of eat the cost on that,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t really want to do that, but I also don’t want to spend $300 for Starbucks.”

Kirkpatrick attempted to be exempt from flex dollars and said that when she spoke with WKU Dining and the ID Center, they told her she could be exempted because she lives off campus, is over 21 and will graduate in December. 

She sent her boyfriend, Robert Lewis, a senior political science and corporate and organizational communications major from Springfield, Ill., who is in the same place as she is, the exemption form so he could fill it out. Both of their forms were rejected.

“The fact that these are called flex dollars and you’re stuck spending them on campus, I think is, for me, another big part of the issue,” Lewis said.

Lewis said that the $300 being spent on flex dollars could be spent on so many more things at the bookstore or the local farmers market. He also said that the $300 could be used on other things like rent, car payments, car maintenance, or groceries.

“We need to be able to spend these flex dollars elsewhere so we can actually get more food that is more beneficial for us,” Lewis said.

Lewis was shocked by the increase, but also not entirely surprised due to the increasing cost of going to college. He came to WKU because of its affordability, but new fees make it hard to pay. He has to force himself to eat at Chick-Fil-A or Subway or stop at Pod Market for groceries to spend the money.

“I’m very burnt out on these restaurants and if I do go and have lunch with someone, we’ll go but I’d really rather eat off-campus somewhere than on-campus,” Lewis said.

When he first heard about the contract, he was upset. He wishes that there had been more ways for the administration to negotiate or change the contract when President Timothy Caboni started. He doesn’t understand how it got to this point.

“I think this will just continue to put a strain on students that are already having financial issues,” Lewis said.

News reporter Lily Burris can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @lily_burris.