No free lunch: end compulsory dining


It originally struck us as odd how people on meal plans think of them as stipends - even referring to it as "Monopoly Money," but as we've progressed through school it has made more and more sense. After the funds are deposited into the "Tiger Account" by students or their parents at the beginning of the school year, that money in many ways transforms into unlimited spending.
Dining at campus restaurants becomes "free" while the decision to eat elsewhere is still subject to the laws of economics. Of course, the school and its food provider retain every penny of the student's initial deposit so if people stop eating there because of high price or poor quality, it is no skin off their backs. Students do not just have the incentives of quality and price driving them to the Hub, but also the disincentive of spending dollars with "real" value elsewhere. When the problem is viewed in the framework of "free money" vs. "real money," it becomes clear why students buy meals for all of their friends or buying cases of Gatorade at the end of the year when no rational consumer would do so otherwise.
That is, students weigh the cost of the product against the opportunity costs of the rest of their "Monopoly Money" rather than against the opportunity costs of spending a real, green American dollar.
We're not suggesting that DePauw doesn't provide good, nutritious food at fair prices, but it does raise a question of simple economics. Wouldn't it make sense, as a means of ensuring the optimal variety, quality and prices, to open the student dining market to outside foodservice providers?
If our current campus dining system is considered ideal for the student population, then it should have no problem fending off competitors willing to pay more for kiosks in the Hub. On the other hand, perhaps if students were forced to view a dollar as a dollar, a greater variety would find its way to Greencastle. Maybe the market demands a Panera, a Chipotle or a Chop't.
Rather than allowing the school to do the bidding for each of us, why not open the choice to students, who can attract and drive out restaurant concepts as they wish by nature of their lunch choice?
At the very least, perhaps the dollar amount of the original deposit could be rolled back to give it meaning similar to the "laundry money" now, rather than a magic wand.
Examples abound at airports, malls and other public venues where choice has dramatically improved the dining options available to the consumer. Those institutional food providers that can adapt and compete have survived, but those who can not or will not have been replaced with quality market-driven restaurant concepts.
We learn throughout our lives - and in our economics classes - that allowing individual choice provides the highest possible satisfaction for the greatest number of people. This simple idea boils down to producers responding to consumers.
If student demand cries out for quality, nutrition or change, and food providers are incentivized to respond to that demand, students won't need to complain about the food because their dollars will have voiced their opinion.

- Kirkpatrick is a senior from Overland Park, Kan., majoring in political science. Burns is a senior from West Lafayette, Ind., majoring in political science.