Insufficient aid deters sophomores from joining clubs
"My parents were pretty clear: They want me to have a great time at Princeton, and it was big enough of them to let me go to Princeton despite the cost," Klein-Cloud said. "Adding an extra $1,000 or $2,000 to the mix is just unacceptable ... I've got to make my share of sacrifices because my parents are making their share."
This past week, hundreds of sophomores bickered or signed in to eating clubs. But for others like Klein-Cloud, financial concerns prevented them from participating in one of the University's oldest traditions, though many receive the financial aid grant for board.
The University currently provides upperclassmen on financial aid a board allowance equal to the average cost of an eating-club membership. This allowance does not include social fees, which are typically hundreds of dollars.
Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Robin Moscato said she believes the increase in board allowance has largely eliminated financial concerns for sophomores' eating choices.
Still, students receiving financial assistance who have decided against joining a club cited insufficient aid as the primary deterrent.
A stressful decision
"The entire sophomore class is having a giant seizure," Klein-Cloud said of the decision-making process. "Everyone's doing something different."
"People are more interested in eating where their friends are eating and joining the clubs that they like rather than [in] how much the club would cost," Klein-Cloud said. "Most people don't really consider [costs] until they have to start paying for it."
Klein-Cloud said that he is leaning toward going independent or staying in his residential college next year.
Some students said that they knew that they would not be able to afford to join an eating club upon arriving at Princeton and receiving their financial aid packages.
"[Financial aid] still does not cover enough, and as a result it's a difficult decision to make because of the personal responsibility to my family," Qin Zhi Lau ’11 said. "It would seem very callous of me to sign up for a meal plan that makes me pay more and more money."
Lau said money was the biggest factor in his decision since he would have had to work more hours to cover the cost of a club. After a month of deliberation, Lau explained, he decided he would probably go independent next year.
He described the transition from having a fully covered meal plan as an underclassman to joining a club as an upperclassman as "a jarring change."
Many undergraduates said they knew other students who had considered joining eating clubs but were deterred by the extra fees, though pamphlets placed on residential college dining hall tables this week stated that "all dining options will be covered by financial aid."
Moscato said that though the board allowance allotted was "not individually negotiable," she encouraged students on financial aid to speak to an aid counselor if they felt they could not afford a particular dining option.
"I'd suggest they make an appointment ... That type of thing indicates a lack of resources somewhere else in the financial aid picture," Moscato said.
The University currently provides $6,760 for upperclassmen on financial aid to finance their eating choices. For the 2009-10 school year, this amount is projected to increase to $6,960. The University first increased this allocation to reflect eating-club costs in 2007.
"I think what [the increase has] done is that it has substantially removed financial barriers and allowed students a broader range of choices when it comes to dining options for their junior and senior year[s]," Moscato said.
Deborah Chang ’10, however, said that her decision to join the Brown Co-op last year was largely influenced by financial concerns.
"Finances were a big part of my decision to join Brown," Chang said in an e-mail. "While Princeton's financial aid policy is generous, it would not have covered all expenses connected with eating clubs."
One sophomore, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said that though she had initially wished to experience eating-club life, the sophomore fees associated with the clubs discouraged her from doing so.
Currently, financial aid does not cover any sophomore fees.
"[My] financial situation really did impact the whole ‘Try it out sophomore year, then drop it,’ " she said. "I don't have $400 at the moment [for] the sophomore fees."
The social fees for clubs that are not covered by the University may cause students to make decisions based on their financial situations, indirectly leading to socioeconomic segregation among the dining options.
Some students said they feared that socioeconomic divisions on campus might worsen as those who can afford the clubs and those who must choose cheaper eating options are forced to live in different buildings.
The sophomore who spoke anonymously said that the impact of the national economic recession on her family played a large role in her decision to go independent. Her mother and brother were both asked to work fewer hours, and she said she fears that they may become unemployed.
"Under normal situations, they would have told me to join a club, but it's really tough right now, and we have to save all the money we can," she said. "[My brother] didn't say ‘Don't join a club,’ but he wasn't very enthusiastic about it, either."
Jessica Lander ’10, who is not on financial aid, said that her decision to join the Brown Co-op was partially influenced by an inability to justify the cost of an eating club when a large fraction of membership fees are spent on alcohol.
"I didn't want to pay for people to get trashed," Lander said. "I realize that [eating clubs] are great for many people, but I didn't like that they're sort of created through your socioeconomic status," she said. "They have a lot of advantages for many students, but there are definitely restraints for kids who are on financial aid or those who aren't but have to worry about spending $7,000 [per year]."
Lander said her social life was "lively" even without an eating-club membership, but Klein-Cloud said he believed eating clubs were a crucial component of a Princeton student's social life. He added, though, that he believed he could "survive socially" next year, though most of his friends are joining clubs.
"An eating club is all about choosing where your friends are going, because you eat meals with them and your social life is predominantly based around the clubs that you go to," Klein-Cloud said.
Different residential options associated with eating choices may exacerbate divisions among friends, some students said. Housing policies, which are in part determined by eating plans, can prevent friends with different meal plans from living together and may play an important role in sophomores' decisions regarding whether or not to join a club.
Confusion regarding options
Though the eating club registration website for sophomores lists the costs of eating clubs, Cap, Cottage Club, Ivy Club and Quadrangle Club provide incomplete information and do not disclose their full membership fees.
Lau said that the University should put more effort into informing sophomores about the different eating plans and their associated costs.
"Particularly for financial aid students, the choices are less clear," Lau said. "The University should detail each plan and clarify the ramifications of each choice."
He added that, though the increase in board allowance provides another option for students on financial aid, the additional choice might actually magnify the problem.
"Now we do actually have that option [of joining an eating club], but at the same time that entails a lot of self-sacrifice and perhaps working more hours," Lau said.
Moscato said that students choosing to go independent were likely making the choice based on preference and not the belief that it is the only option they can afford.
"There's no data indicating that the increase in the board allowance has actually worked in reverse and deterred students from taking an eating-club contract," Moscato said.
Moscato said that an e-mail would be sent out next week referring all rising juniors to a website regarding eating-plan options and financial aid. It will also encourage students to call or visit the Undergraduate Financial Aid Office if they had questions, she added.
Lau suggested that the University should cover the full average cost of membership, including the social fee, so that it represents more accurately the actual cost of eating-club membership.
Moscato explained, however, that excluding social fees was a decision made by the Priorities Committee.
"Our job was to cover meal costs, and we decided we would not be including social fees," Moscato said.
Moscato said that she believes the University had achieved a nearly ideal scenario where University students could choose their eating plans regardless of cost.
"I think we're as close to that as we can possibly get," Moscato said.
Klein-Cloud said that the University continuously increasing the upperclassmen board allowance for students on financial aid could never be a permanent solution. "The eating clubs would just keep raising their prices and the University would have to follow that," Klein-Cloud said. "Each solution brings up more questions."