Upon entering college, I expected my financial situation to fit that of the “broke college student” I had heard was the norm. The absurdly high cost of tuition at colleges and universities in the United States places a heavy financial burden on families, with 69% of college students in the class of 2019 taking out student loans and graduating with a debt of $29,000 on average. This obstacle within the college experience has given the average American college student the stereotype of being “broke.”
I soon came to see that this stereotype did not fit the average University of Michigan student, as the median family income on the University’s campus is $154,000. This stands significantly higher than the national median household income of $68,703. Staple parts of life for many U-M students — at times, myself included — are allowances, Canada Goose jackets and even a parent’s credit card on hand. Wealth inequality is one of the most pressing issues facing America. On a smaller scale at the University, however, I have noticed this inequality manifesting itself largely in the food scene.
Last year as a freshman living in the dorms and this year as a sophomore living in Greek life housing, I have paid for meal plans. While the meal plan I am on now does not offer dinner on Saturdays or breakfast on Sundays, I often find myself spending money on food even on days when my meal plan does offer food.
In best college town rankings, Ann Arbor is almost always in the top three, offering amazing food options for takeout and dine-in experiences. Therefore, food in Ann Arbor is at the center of social life for many U-M students. Especially during the pandemic with social events being limited, getting food with friends or going out to eat are some of the easiest options for socializing and changing up your daily routine. Because the average median income at the University is so high, many do not understand that centering socializing around spending money on food puts students that are more financially conscious in uncomfortable situations, having to choose between spending time with friends or saving money.
Further, when students choose to spend money on food while having meal plans purchased, this increases food waste because meal plans produce enough food for everyone with a plan to be served. Nine-hundred twenty-five million people in the world are considered starving while 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted annually — this is enough food to feed three billion people. By increasing food waste, students are exacerbating inequality in an extremely unnecessary way.
University President Mark Schlissel has stated that the University is seeking to “welcome students from all communities and backgrounds who have the talent and desire to be Michigan Wolverines.” However, for the University to become a truly welcoming campus to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the culture around spending money among the students themselves must become more considerate and aware of the financial burdens others may be facing.
Student spending in the city of Ann Arbor, not including groceries and housing, is estimated to be at around $94.9 million annually. Food is at the center of Ann Arbor’s economic success and students are an integral source of income for many Ann Arbor businesses. Therefore, students who can afford to spend money on food and enjoy doing so should continue giving Ann Arbor restaurants business.
However, students must put more thought into deciding to eat out. Not only is there the larger issue of food waste, but by constantly centering socializing around spending money on food, students are creating an exclusive community that perpetuates socioeconomic divisions within the student body. While it may feel at times that everyone can afford to spend money on food, the typical college student faces extreme financial burdens from the high cost of tuition. When social life is centered around spending money, our community will never be welcoming to everyone.
Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.