Legal Question: Can my college zero my account balance at the end of the year?

I live in Washington state. My (state) college requires all freshman to pay at least $500 per quarter into a meal account. We are given a card that allows us to purchase food and household products from several on-campus vendors. The account is in dollars with a declining balance, and prices for purchases with the meal card are the same as for purchases with cash or credit, except that no tax is charged. The rub is that no refunds are allowed past 30 days, and refunds within 30 days are charged a 10% “administration fee.” Additionally, any remaining balance is forfeited at the end of the academic year.

So, my question is this: Is it legal for my college to zero my meal account balance at the end of the year? The most analagous situation that I could think of were gift cards, where you also pay a certain amount of money and get a card with a balance. My understanding is that the US Supreme Court ruled that gift cards can never expire, but can become the property of the state they were issued in if they go unclaimed for a certain amount of time. Washington state law prohibits this, saying that gift cards remain the property of the owner forever. State law also prohibits charging of fees and inactivity or dormancy charges for gift card accounts.

I’m not sure that the gift-card analogy is the right one.

Basically (as I understand these things), what you’re talking about is what my uni calls a “flex” account. You start with x dollars and spend it down as the semester progresses.

I’m thinking a better analogy would be one of those prepaid cell phone accounts, which can and do expire, regardless of how much money you have left. These are legal.

All I can say is to spend all your money before the end of the year. :slight_smile:


Just curious, how does the college justify this? Is it supposed to be a way to make sure that freshmen have food money, or to encourage them to eat in the dining halls (where presumably they’ll make new friends etc.)? Or is it just a mandatory payment for a term’s worth of meals, but they don’t want to call it that? Does it apply to students who don’t live on campus? A required fee is one thing, but a mandatory non-refundable flex account just sounds a little strange. Do most people spend the full amount during the term?

In my experience, colleges differ on who is required to buy their meal plan. Sometimes it’s anyone who lives in the dorms, sometimes it’s all first year students (usually when first-years are required to live in the dorms).

At Indiana University, all first year students were required to live in the dorms (unless you lived with your family in town, or there were some other special circumstances) and were required to buy a meal plan of a specified size (or bigger). After that, if you lived in the dorms, you were required to buy a meal plan, but they had them as low as $2,000.

Most people spend the full amount – but usually only by being immensely generous to their apartment-dwelling friends near the end of the year.

I have worked in the cafeteria of large university for a few years now. All students who live in residence are required to buy a meal plan of at least x amount; greater if they like. This meal plan gives them 50% meal purchased in university food service establishments, as well as no tax. They can use this money on off campus sites, though they get no discount and have to pay the tax.

If these students have money left at the end of the term it remains on their cards. However, it is no longer considered ‘meal plan’ money and they do not receive any discounts or tax benefits any longer.

I do not know how your cafeteria system works, but students with lots of money left on their cards at the end of the term come through and purchase boxes of bottled drinks, chocolate bar, etc (all at 50% off) using the remainder of their money. Personally, I do not see how your school can presume to steal money you placed on your meal account, or how your student council has not dealt with this situation already. You could always run for student office otherwise on this exact platform; if it is really an issue.

Ah, they should just imitate the simple wisdom of my alma mater, and make the dorm cafeterias all-you-can-eat buffets. One flat fee at the beginning of the term got you twenty squares a week, all you wanted of whatever was there.

Yes, my college experiences made me the man I am today. Specifically, a very, very large man. :smiley:

They don’t really justify it at all. Privately, I’ve been told it was because they couldn’t get a food service provider without the guaranteed captive income this provides. Most people do spend the full amount during the term, but there’s a LOT of last minute splurging on cases of drinks and such. There’s also a group that brings local homeless people down to eat in the school cafeterias on the students’ meal plans.

My uni will allow students to use meal plans for Family Day and other “special” events. Occasionally, they’ll have a hunger awareness thing and allow students to donate meals from their plan.

As a data point, I’m not required to buy a fixed meal plan. (x meals per week) What I do have is the “flex” arrangement so I can get drinks and snacks and the occasional meal. Last semester, I spent approximately $300. The last week of classes, I had about three bucks left. I splurged on a cup of coffee and a muffin.

My uni justifies not returning excess flex money by citing the accounting and personnel costs of cutting two- and three-dollar checks to about six thousand students. Basically, it would cost them more to cut those checks than the checks are worth.


This sort of problem arose at my work and was stopped because the university was fined. Since you are a student you are not paying taxes on your meals, however, once you purchase a meal for somebody else the government is losing the tax income from that meal. I’m not completely sure how this works in other jurisdictions, however, in Ontario, campus’ have put an abrupt stop to this practice.