Letter to the Editor: For-profit meal plans: What are we paying for?

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We’ve all complained about the dining options and meal plans here at DePauw at some point. Whether it’s the difficulty of using up all of the swipes in the larger meal plans, to the cost of items in the cafes or c-store, most everyone has at least some minor complaint about dining services on campus.

Since my first-year, I have been concerned with how much money students lose to dining services each semester. Mostly, I was focused on the fact that unused meal swipes completely disappeared at the end of the week.

As I knew many students on the 18 swipe plan, this was a constant complaint that I heard and, at $7 per swipe, the amount of money that students were just unable to spend could be a significant amount. If a student failed to use just one of their meals swipes per week for a semester, that’s well over $100 of loss for that student.

While this particular aspect of the meal plan still concerns me, I may have stumbled into an even larger loss for students.

Next year, the meal plan prices are as follows (per DePauw’s website):

18 swipes, $200 flex: $3,085

14 swipes, $400 flex: $3,085

12 swipes, $200 flex: $2,575

10 swipes, $300 flex: $2,575

4 swipes, $100 flex: $900

3 swipes, $200 flex $900

Winter Term (18 swipes, $40 flex): $575

By doing some rather simple math, I noticed something. The cost students appear to be paying for each individual meal swipe is much higher than the $7 value that swipe is assigned in the c-store and, in fact, it is seemingly impossible for a student to get what they actually paid for at the start of the semester. Let me explain:

Next year, the fall semester has 18 full or partial weeks, while the spring semester has 17. I did the calculations for both, but, for my purpose here, I will use the fall semester numbers, as, from a business model standpoint, I can understand not altering prices from semester to semester.

We will begin with the infamous 18 swipe meal plan. The first step is to subtract out the flex and $50 in community plus that is included in every meal plan. That leaves us with $2,835. This means that, if you divide by the number of swipes offered, you should theoretically be given the cost of an individual swipe.

As I stated previously, there are 18 full or partial weeks in next year’s fall semester. Multiply that by 18 swipes per week and you get 324 swipes that are loaded onto the card over the course of the semester. By these numbers, each swipe would cost $8.75 each.

However, this number is not entirely accurate. As I mentioned, some of the weeks are partial weeks due to breaks. I looked at next year’s academic calendar and determined how many days students would be on campus during those partial weeks and, based on the four swipe per day rule, calculated how many swipes students could actually use in the time they had on campus. Because I evaluated the weeks with the meals resetting on Fridays, as they did this year, I came up with four partial weeks (for upperclassmen who arrive on campus later than freshman there are five partial weeks, but because the freshman are the primary users of this meal plan we will use the four partial week number) 14 full weeks times 18 meal swipes is 252 meal swipes; add in four swipes per day for the partial weeks and you get 294 meal swipes.

Using the same method as before, you can calculate that the cost for a single meal swipe is $9.64. These numbers already seem high when you consider that a swipe’s value in the c-store is $7 and that swiping at Hoover costs a maximum of $9 (at dinner and late night).

However, it gets worse. I used the same process to calculate the swipe values for each of the meal plans offered here at DePauw. Here is what I came up with:

18 swipe plan

Treating all weeks as full weeks: $8.75 per swipe

Max swipe usage during partial weeks: $9.64 per swipe

14 swipe plan:

Treating all weeks as full weeks: $10.46 per swipe

Max swipe usage during partial weeks: $11.36 per swipe

12 swipe plan:

Treating all weeks as full weeks: $10.76 per swipe

Max swipe usage during partial weeks: $11.63 per swipe

10 swipe plan:

Treating all weeks as full weeks: $12.36 per swipe

Max swipe usage during partial weeks: $13.24 per swipe

4 swipe plan: (Since all swipes can be used each week there is only one number for this plan) $10.42 per swipe

3 swipe plan: (Since all swipes can be used each week there is only one number for this plan) $12.04 per swipe

Winter Term plan: $9.22 per swipe

I do not claim to understand or know the inner working of the DePauw-Bon Appetit relationship, nor do I claim to know how to run a business. It is entirely possible that my numbers are completely unfounded, however, from my position as a student, there is no way for me to know that. These meal plans are (from my findings) overpriced.

I understand the convenience aspect of being able to have pre-cooked meals on campus and that there is usually a premium for convenience, however, these meals plans are also mandatory. It is my belief that because of this, there should be much more transparency in regards to why prices are the way they are, or where our money actually goes (i.e. who gets these alleged profits? Is it DePauw or Bon Appetit?).

Want to know more? Senior Mansi Parekh and I are investigating the other ways in which value is diminished for students in terms of the meal plan in a small video documentary (to be released May 9 at 11:59 p.m.) which we will be posting to the following YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbwhHkOzajdx77RXDIbIWVA