Nassau Hall unveils new club financial aid plan
The University has taken a major step toward bolstering the four-year residential college system, announcing proposals yesterday to make club membership more financially accessible and allow upperclassmen to affiliate with both club and college.
Nassau Hall said it will provide larger financial aid grants for all upperclass students and offer a number of shared meal plans — the total number determined by individual clubs — that will allow students to split their meals between the clubs and colleges.
The moves are the culmination of more than a century of attempts to reform the eating club system, long considered divisive and damaging by administrators. After months of planning, the 10th and final eating club finalized an agreement with the University on Tuesday morning, prompting the afternoon announcement.
The development ostensibly delivers a coup for both sides, with club officials praising the University's aid in making the institutions more accessible and University officials winning club support for the new four-year colleges.
The goal all along — administrators, club trustees and student leaders said — has been to give students greater freedom in choosing how to navigate Princeton's dining and social system.
"The most important aspect of this for students is that it is putting choice in the hands of students," President Tilghman said in an interview. "What we have always said about the creation of the four-year college system is that we were interested in giving students as many options as possible, including the clubs."
Beginning with the 2007-08 academic year, upperclass financial aid grants will increase by $2,000 to account for a board rate set at $6,300 — the average price of club membership. Students will enjoy the change regardless of whether they choose to join a club, eat exclusively in the colleges, have a shared meal plan, join a coop or be independent. (Read about each of the options in detail.) The grant total will be adjusted annually as membership fees change.
For the shared meal plans, students will pay for the full membership fee and clubs will transfer a portion of that fee to the University, which will offer students 95 meals per semester. Each club has its own agreement with the University on how shared meal plans will work and how much of a member's annual fee will be paid to the University. Administrators declined to disclose the specifics of these agreements between the clubs and the University.
Increased financial aid
Since former University president Woodrow Wilson, a member of the Class of 1879, failed in the early 1900s to create a residential college system, every Princeton president has tried to foster a more inclusive dining and social atmosphere for students. That has usually included attempts to shift the focus of undergraduate student life away from the clubs, or at least to bring the clubs under the aegis of the University administration.
In recent years, at least 70 percent of students have joined a club for some or all of their sophomore, junior and senior years. The relative high cost of club membership, however, has deterred some students from joining.
"One of the choices students on financial aid often thought they could not make was to join an eating club," Tilghman said, describing what she had heard in discussions with students.
But now, she said, students can "approach their decisions about junior and senior years without financial concerns being the driver of those decisions."
In board grants for the current academic year, students receive $4,315 for a standard dining plan. That leaves upperclass students on financial aid with a discrepancy of $2,000, on average, between the full board grant and the average price of a club membership.
Some students have been forced to take out loans to pay the difference between what their financial aid packages provide and what their clubs charge. By eliminating these loans, USG president Alex Lenahan '07 said the change will "help the eating clubs reach a lot more people."
University Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee '69 said that students who opt not to join a club will be able to use their board grant money "to make whatever arrangements they choose to make ... It will give them some additional dollars that they could use for some other expenditures if that's what they choose to do."
The increased grants will also provide an "opportunity for greater diversity," Tower Club graduate board chair Greg Berzolla '87 said. "If students are not joining clubs because of financial concerns, this should help."
Grant Gittlin '08, the junior class president and a candidate for USG president, said he sees "something historically pertinent" in sharing meals. "Anything that lowers a limitation of breaking bread with someone is truly, truly an amazing thing. When the financial burden is removed from the decision, people can make an economically unbiased choice as to what they would like to do — that is amazing."
The other candidate for USG president, current USG vice president Rob Biederman '08, spoke on a similar note. "The absolute worst thing about eating clubs is that people were excluded based on family situation and I think that is going to change," he said. "Now students will be able to bicker or sign in to clubs that they wouldn't have been able to before."
Shared meal plans
For Tilghman, the students who will have shared meal plans are "the glue that holds the colleges and clubs together."
"We're not talking about a large number of students," she said, alluding to the fact that only a limited number of shared meal plans will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. "But they're important students because of how they'll bring the systems together."
The shared meal plan system will give juniors and seniors the option of being full eating club members and also holding a 95-meal-per-semester dining plan.
Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, the University's chief architect of the plans, said he expects "no restrictions on either side, so that a student with a shared meal plan would be a full member of, say, Mathey College and 'X' Club." A student could opt to eat exclusively at University-owned dining facilities one week and an eating club the next week, or, ideally, strike a balance between meals in colleges and meals in clubs.
Berzolla, the Tower graduate board chair, said his club will pay the University "in the neighborhood of about $1,000" for each club member who opts for shared meal plan. But, he added, the amount paid to the University for shared meal plans "varies by club."
The rest of the cost of the Dining Services meal plan will be subsidized by the University as a way of encouraging upperclass involvement in the colleges.
Several graduate board presidents declined to provide details on their agreements with the University. Others did not respond to requests for interviews.
Burstein said "the relationships between the clubs and the University are private" and would not disclose data or general statements about the arrangements the University has made with clubs. "Clubs are in different financial situations with different needs and concerns. It would be inappropriate to say more."
Reporting for this article was contributed by Brett Amelkin, Mike Shapiro, Kate Carroll, Ross Liemer and Viola Huang.
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