April 25, 2014 by Kim Post
It is no secret that the Handschumacher Dining Center, Sodexo and the entire Drexel Campus Dining establishment are unpopular with students. Forgetting previous Triangle articles and the occasionally reported bout of food poisoning, it is clear to see from the increasingly defensive posture advertisements in the Hans have taken — “We ARE sustainably focused,” reads a passive-aggressive sign.
But this article is not about the problems with on-campus food vendors. Rather, it is about the root of why these problems persist — the fact that all freshman students chafe under the tyranny of the mandatory Meal Plan. The mandate forces students to add at least $5,685 to the cost of attendance, regardless of their actual food needs or desires. The requirement, along with the set-up of the Meal Plan, causes all sorts of perverse incentives in the campus economy.
Primarily, students are discouraged from making smart food choices. It is possible to eat at a much cheaper rate than $1,895 per term by buying groceries and preparing meals on your own, and this will tend to be healthier as well. It is what many upperclassmen do, but it makes no sense for freshmen, for whom any spending on groceries comes in addition to the fixed Meal Plan charge.
The distinction between “meals” and “Dining Dollars” is also problematic. Because of meals, which are provided in a system independent from Dining Dollars (which, with apologies to the Parker Brothers, I shall henceforth call “Monopoly Money”), the Hans is not economically held accountable. Because of this students cannot take business away from the Dining Center in response to poor service and give to Subway or Currito, because the currencies are not convertible to each other and meals are in larger supply even under the Blue Plan. This problem could be easily solved by abolishing “meals” as a unit, adding the appropriate amount of Monopoly Money, and charging students Monopoly Money for entry to the Hans at the same rate as people without a Meal Plan are charged in Real Money.
As you might be able to tell by the “Monopoly Money” sobriquet, Dining Dollars themselves require a redesign as well. With Monopoly Money, Drexel has invented a curious machine that converts legal tender to a currency which can be spent at only a handful of locations, is not available during term breaks, and which is confiscated at the end of the spring term. Surely no one would voluntarily put their money in such a plan.
Now, if these flaws appear as the deliberate designs of a malevolent institution that wishes to limit college attendance to students with healthy trust funds, I apologize. Though discussing them in frank terms may make them seem that way, I recognize that Drexel had some legitimate goals when instituting current policy, however misguided its eventual decision may have been.
For example, the transition between high school and college is difficult for many students, and a prepaid meal plan that guarantees availability of food makes this easier to manage for freshmen. Additionally, it is good for new students to explore all the options available to them on campus, so that they can make more informed choices as sophomores and beyond.
However, there are better ways to attain these goals. We might consider redesigning Monopoly Money so that it becomes a budgeting tool: simply money that is set aside for food. Students pay in Real Money and get equal credit in Monopoly Money, which can be spent at approved food vendors (including the Hans). At the end of the spring term, the remaining balance is converted to Dragon Dollars, which can actually be spent in a variety of useful ways and which can be converted to cash upon leaving the University. To achieve the previously stated goals, freshmen could be required to deposit at least a certain amount of money per term into the system.
Such a system would provide a means of guiding students’ food purchases while making college more affordable and giving each vendor on campus economic incentives to improve its service. Additionally, it is simpler than the current system and rewards smart spending with a refund, rather than highway robbery. Change is long overdue.
Kim Post is a copy editor at The Triangle. He can be contacted at Kim.firstname.lastname@example.org.