Dining halls typically contain several stations with different kinds of food available at a buffet-style counter, and you can eat as much as you want. Some meal plans count entries; others are unlimited.
The system has its drawbacks, but keep in mind that:
- Dining halls primarily serve students who do not have access to (reasonable) kitchens. Forgoing dining halls would mean increasing the sqft/person ratio of the housing system.
- It is probably best that students with low discretionary income aren't in a position where they feel obligated to skip meals to save money.
- Dining halls are paid for by their customers. If you move to an off campus apartment (or even on-campus apartment-style housing), you are no longer obligated to pay in to the campus dining system.
The biggest offense, to me, is that dining hall systems are usually contracted out to huge corporations like Sodexo and Aramark. Dining plans can average to $12/meal, but the quality is several times worse than what I could buy at a restaurant for $12. My dining halls also employ (generally poor) adults from the neighboring community. While I guess this is nice, it's a little weird that we're the ones eating and they're the ones being served.
I'd much prefer that my university run its own dining halls, employ students to staff them, and not ask us to pay somebody's profit margin.