Rethink the point system
When freshmen are required to purchase meal plans from Dining Services at Wash. U., the choices seem meager and insufficient. However, at the end of the school year, many freshmen find themselves frantically trying to raid Bear Mart or sell large chunks of points in an effort to get rid of extra meal points.
This issue seems to apply mainly to freshmen, who are required to purchase a full meal plan. Since freshmen generally only have access to the information Wash. U. provides about the meal system, many of them end up buying large plans—so large that it is not feasible for most students to use efficiently. A popular freshman year choice is the “Meals Plus Plan,” which in the 2008-2009 academic year costs $4,048 and comes out to 2,920 points per year (1,460 points per semester).
At first, the number of meal points students are allotted always seems insignificant, but as the year goes on, lots of freshmen have too many unused points. This problem is so common that almost all students are familiar with the situation. On the other hand, some of the athletes and students with higher metabolisms find that even the larger meal plans are not enough to sustain them throughout the year. So, the problem is not that Wash. U. is goading students into purchasing larger than necessary meal plans, but the lack of information students receive about their options.
Once on campus, students quickly learn that the finances of the meal plans don’t work the way most plans do.
Normally, when you buy in bulk you save money, but at Wash. U. when you buy your food in bulk you actually lose money. This is because at the beginning of the year, when you purchase a meal plan you are paying money toward both the food you will eat and also toward the services and facilities required to have that food option available. Every point in the meal plan, then, costs more than $1.00, but later on in the year, when adding meal points, you only pay for the food and are not charged any overhead fee. Points that you add later on are only $1.00 per point.
The cheapest way for students to eat on campus is always to buy the smallest meal plan possible and add points to the plan as she needs them. This strategy has two benefits. First, it allows students to gauge how much they are actually eating and the food they are eating and second, it is just plain cheaper no matter how much food you consume.
It is irrational for someone to choose any other meal plan, which begs the question of why students choose to pay for the food in any other fashion. For freshmen, the answer is obvious: they aren’t provided enough information to know the economics of meal plans and how adding points works. To help ensure students are making the best decisions, Dining Services should provide better descriptions of the meal plans and also explain how points can be added in the event that a student’s meal plan choice is insufficient.
The logic for how a student can save the most money using campus dining is clear, and the best meal plan for every student is the smallest one no matter what her eating needs are. This raises the question of why Wash. U. allows students to buy any other meal plan, and particularly raises the question for why Wash. U. describes the less economical plans as better than other plans for some students. One possibility is that Wash. U. wants to make sure that the students who are eating on campus the most are paying the most overhead for the facilities and the staff that cooks the food. But, by creating one standard amount of overhead that students pay per point, the University can still dole out responsibility for overhead to the students using the facilities the most because the students using the facilities the most will spend the highest number of points.
Whether intentional or not, the way the meal plan system is currently implemented takes advantage of students who are not informed about how it works, particularly freshmen. It is time to change to a system that has the students’ best interests at heart—one that charges them equally and appropriately for the amount of the food they eat—not a system that preys on the uninformed.