It's an archetype of the American college student, the notion that their quest for knowledge is rivaled only by their quest for the free and the cheap: the two-for-one, the Thirsty Thursday, the all-you-can-eat.
When I attended the University of Minnesota back in ancient times, I had a list of the daily restaurant specials that ranged from the $1.99 breakfast to the occasional splurge on the $5.99 steak that was as tough as a calculus exam in Chinese.
Turns out I had it good.
According to a recent analysis, a U student in 1975 (before my time) could make tuition by working six hours a week at a consistent, year-round minimum wage job. Today, it's 32 hours by one recent calculation.
So it's no surprise that organizations and associations looking to lure students to events have taken notice of tough times and student appetites, plastering bulletin boards with offers of free lunch for a little face time.
And, in a sign of the times, it's also little surprise that a couple of brothers noticed the trend, and started a website to help their fellow students find a free meal.
Zoltan and Gregory Kiss (U.S.-born children of Hungarian parents) founded freefoodumn.com to offer a calendar of cheap eats for broke students. All you need is an indiscriminating palate, an open mind and a flexible schedule.
For example: "Dec. 7: Lunch and Learn, eat and learn about brain injury," read one entry on their site. "Cardiometabolic status in childhood cancer survivors, light lunch provided," said another.
Or how about the Dec. 9 offering: "Gender Euphoria, Queer Crafts and Pizza (vegan and gluten free)."
Even a public review of the school's budget, the thing that has caused tuition to soar here and elsewhere in the first place, needed to grab attention by advertising, "Pizza and cookies, while they last."
Sitting at a Japanese restaurant last week (yes, I bought), Zoltan said he and his brother came up with the idea after noticing fliers from organizations trying to lure people with food. They coaxed organizations to join the site as members or send events to post online.
Gregory went three weeks without paying for food. "I was disappointed that I didn't make the full month, but I'd say three weeks is still pretty impressive," he said.
Gregory did get some tasty Korean barbecue by sitting through a lecture on evangelical Christianity, and he scored free burritos by feigning interest in cell regeneration.
The brothers were mentioned recently in the Wall Street Journal, which did a story on rising expenses, tuition and bureaucracy at U.S. colleges, focusing on the U. A lot of the material has been covered by this newspaper, but the overall impression left by the WSJ was a system and institution bloated by administration and trying to cinch up its belt.
Among the eyebrow-raising numbers from the WSJ analysis: The U added 1,000 "administrators" since 2001, growing twice as fast as the numbers of teachers and students.
The U counters that the analysis doesn't explain some of that administrative growth, needed for increased student services and managing technology.
"It's clear tuition across the country has become more of a challenge to poor and middle-income students," University President Eric Kaler said in an interview. He said he is determined to hold costs and tuition down, but there is also a need to increase financial aid to those in need.
The cost of in-state tuition in 2010-11 was $12,288, and 63 percent of students have a debt that averages more than $28,000 when they graduate.
The Kiss brothers are toward opposite ends of the spectrum on the value of their expensive education. Gregory, a sophomore business major, says the U is a good school and still a good value compared to some other schools.
"I think my business education as a whole will be invaluable in my future endeavors as an entrepreneur," said Gregory.
But Zoltan graduated with a degree in math and computer science and doesn't have a full-time job. "Sadly, I'm afraid it's not practical to have a degree in a field that is changing so fast," he said. "It's not the U's fault they didn't prepare me for a job because it's changing so fast, and they need a steady curriculum."
If he had to do it over, Zoltan said, he'd likely have put the money into a startup company in a developing country, and he's currently looking for opportunities.
As for the escalating cost of school that made his website possible, Zoltan quotes entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who predicted an "education bubble," comparable to the housing bubble, that may drive potential students out.
Until that happens, he and his brother are looking for other ways to capitalize and inform, somewhat like how Abby Hoffman's "Steal This Book" taught young people how to find freebies in 1971.
"Our mission is to help reduce some of the financial difficulties of students," Zoltan said.
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