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Over 40 percent of Penn students live off campus, almost all of whom are upperclassmen. Many of these students eat off campus too, but for years Student Registration & Financial Services estimated the same cost of meals for students living on and off-campus. During the 2016-17 academic year, that estimate was $5,086. 

Beginning this semester, SRFS reduced the cost of meals allotted to students living off-campus by a little under $600 to $4,500. 

Director of Financial Aid Elaine Papas Varas said SRFS calculated the figure by looking at what the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists as the average amount someone living in Philadelphia spends on groceries per month. This figure is then analyzed alongside the price of Penn’s less expensive meal plans.

For the 2017-18 academic year, SRFS increased the average cost of on-campus dining to $5,248 — increasing the disparity between the cost of on- and off-campus meals to nearly $750. 

Varas said the resulting cost reflects the dining habits of students who eat breakfast and lunch on campus and return to their off-campus housing for dinner. SRFS found that on average, this diet would be about $750 less expensive than paying for one of the three more expensive meal-plans.  

Varas said SRFS is now better communicating student costs and attempting to be more transparent about what a student will actually have to pay.

“Students are making decisions to move off-campus, because it’s cheaper to go to the supermarket and cook for themselves [than to purchase the full meal-plan],” Varas said. “And I think that’s great, and I think [SRFS needs] to reflect that.”

College senior Sarah Holland is one student who moved off campus and saved money on her dining expenses.

When she was a freshman and was required to have one of the three most expensive meal plans, Holland found eating at dining halls “inconvenient.” During her sophomore and junior years, Holland selected a meal plan with more dining dollars and fewer meal swipes.

As a senior, Holland rents an off-campus apartment room with a kitchen and finds it much less expensive to cook for herself.

“I did a calculation back in the summer, when I was deciding whether or not I wanted the dining plan and I found I’m saving an excessive amount of money [by eating off-campus],” Holland said.

Varas said SRFS is working to account for the different decisions students make when allotting financial aid.

“Students make choices,” Varas said. “So we want to be sure we’re reflecting that when we’re giving a student a budget.”

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