Student-Led Debate over Meal Plan Fairness Grows After Facebook Posts

In the wake of campus discourse over meal plan pricing, Spencer Papciak ’18 uses $13.62-valued swipe for Commons’ chicken farm dinner on Tuesday evening. Courtesy of Laura Dunnagan.

By: Jonathan Lee ’20

Staff Writer

Recent posts in the Davidson College 2017-2018 School Year Facebook group sparked a schoolwide debate about meal plan pricing.

Marc Todd ’20, one of the Facebook posters, complained that “our food options are expensive and limited… Food is a fundamental issue,” he remarked. “[And the administration] is not listening to us.”

Some think the administration is not being transparent. Bristow Richards ’19, who began the conversation about individual swipe value with his post, complained that “it’s misleading that it’s not made explicitly clear to students that they could be getting a lower plan and paying cash and saving money that way.”

In his post, Richards explained that the meal plan system is set up so that students often cannot get all the value, in dollar terms, from what they pay for the total cost of their plan. The average cost of one meal swipe on most plans is often more than the school-determined value of each swipe. At Commons, the school values a swipe at lunch or dinner at $13, but only $8.70 at Davis Café. The average meal swipe value, determined by total meal plan price divided by the total number of swipes, ranges from $9.32 on the 21 meal plan to $12.21 on the 90-block plan.

Richards created a graph demonstrating the average value of meal swipes based on where they are used. Photo by Bristow Richards ’19.

Todd noticed that many students either don’t even spend the full $8.70 at Union or “buy food they don’t want” to maximize value. “It makes no sense that you’re swiping for the total value as opposed to paying the exact amount than what you get is worth.”

Additionally, most students will not use all their meal swipes over the course of a semester. “Historically, the participation rate is higher on smaller plans, and the bigger plans tend to have lower participation rates. Those range from around 68% for the biggest plan to 90% for the smallest plan,” explained Director of Auxiliary Services Richard Terry ‘81. “That’s very similar in most schools.”

Davidson’s Auxiliary Services determines meal plan prices. According to Terry, the department’s purpose is “to provide quality services to students and faculty and to generate net revenue that goes to the general budget of the college.”

“There are a couple ways to support a dining program. One of them is how much you charge, and the other is to what extent you require students to be on the meal plan,” he added.

Money made from meal plans, including money from unused meal swipes, contributes to this net revenue. “The budget is set up with the expectation that there will be money left over from auxiliary services,” clarified Terry. “Virtually all schools around the country have their auxiliaries make net revenue.”

Terry contended that “between running a break-even operation and raising tuition versus keeping with the status quo, the net effect would be the same.”

Davidson’s Dining Services are atypical. The department is institutionally run, not outsourced to large third-party contractors. Terry explained that an in-house system allows greater control and flexibility. He emphasized that Davidson also has a relatively low meal plan participation requirement, as “some schools require students to be on a full meal plan all four years.”

“This year has been a big review year for Auxiliary Services,” remarked Terry. Prior student concerns have not gone unheard, and the administration has considered changing how Auxiliary Services operates. Last fall, Auxiliary Services hired a third-party consultant to audit Davidson’s Dining Services.

The consultant concluded that the “return we were getting financially from our dining program was very strong and the quality of our program was very strong compared to outsourced options,” explained Terry.

To more directly respond to students, Terry said that Auxiliary Services also conducts an “annual spring survey of students about all the auxiliaries…it tends to be heavily weighted towards dining. There’s always free response answers, and we go through those.”

Some students are especially concerned that the profit motive, instead of student well-being, is the more important concern for Auxiliary Services. “The point of Auxiliary Services is to help the students,” said Todd. “Where is that money really going? This shouldn’t be a dollar issue, it should be a student well-being issue.”

“Now is a good time to look further into this issue and figure out if we can lower those prices,” said Alex Soltany ‘18, former SGA President. Even so, he acknowledged that “colleges have to generate revenue somehow, especially if we are continuing to make the push to fund more opportunities for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to come.”

A comparison with peer schools found that Davidson’s meal plans were more expensive. Davidson’s 21 plan costs more than the most comprehensive plans at Wake Forest, Duke, Furman, Washington and Lee, Rhodes, and the University of Richmond, most of which provide students with unlimited swipes.

Todd warned that comparing meal plan prices to those at peer institutions outside the south is misleading “because it doesn’t take into account the cost of living for where the school is located. The cost of food up north isn’t equivalent to the cost of food down here.”

However, meal plan statistics from other schools are not very transparent. Terry contended that “those schools that we are compared with that have cheaper meal plans aren’t going to say how much of that money goes to their general budget. If they have a lot less that goes back to the general budget, their prices can be a lot lower.”

Edward Henderson ’18, last semester’s Auxiliary Services SGA Liaison, contended that “a lot of the stigma around the cost of the meal plan comes from the school not providing a lot of the background information on why it costs what it costs. Dining Services needs to communicate with the students that the high prices come from higher quality, locally sourced ingredients, and the fact that we pay our workers better, not from trying to increase profit.”

Soltany agreed that there is a lack of communication, but stressed that “lines of communication between the administration and students aren’t as difficult to achieve as you think. And the administration is very aware of what the students do,” he added. “They care about what students think. Richard Terry emailed Bristow [Richards] a day after he posted on Facebook.”

Students looking to save money without demanding institutional change can opt for the 75-block meal plan and use cash at Union and the Wildcat Den, as Richards and others have done.

Terry concluded that though his department always has students’ best interests in mind, it operates within restraints that can make it challenging to do everything they would like. “We are really trying to do the best that we can and at the same time meet budgetary expectations.”

Marc Todd ’20 (L) and Bristow Richards ’19 (R) pose outside of Vail Commons. Photo by Erin Gross ’18.

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