The expense of the Street
Hay said she initially signed into Charter sophomore year, but reconsidered after evaluating the difference in cost between dining hall and eating club contracts. “Looking at the numbers — how much I would pay for an unlimited University meal plan versus a Charter meal plan — there’s no way to rationalize the fact that it’s at least $2,000 more,” she explained.
“It was a money issue. It really all came down to this $2,000,” she added. “You just don’t throw that around.” For some upperclassmen like Hay, the difference in cost between meal plans in the eating clubs and meal plans in the residential colleges can be the decisive factor when choosing a dining option.
In the second Committee on Background and Opportunity survey (COMBO II), which the USG administered last spring, more than 40 percent of respondents said they were somewhat to considerably influenced by cost in their decisions regarding dining options. Nearly 60 percent of all respondents reported being on financial aid.
Hay, who noted that she considers Princeton students “incredibly lucky” for the high quality of their dining hall food, currently lives in Whitman College and has a full University meal plan. “I could have made it happen with summer earnings, even though it would have been really tight [to cover] that extra $2,000 expense,” she said. “Maybe to some it sounds like a lot; to some that’s not a lot. To me, it is a hunk of money.”
Though financial concerns dissuaded some Princeton students from participating in club life, an October 2009 analysis of the COMBO I and COMBO II surveys by the Analysis of Princetonian Attitudes Committee (APAC) showed that, between 2007 and 2009, the impact of income on eating club membership decreased. In 2007, 17 percent of respondents reporting family incomes between $75,000 and $150,000 also reported membership in bicker clubs; for the same demographic in 2009, the number rose to 24 percent.
The changes were not significant for all income brackets. Students from higher income brackets, however, were still more likely to belong to clubs, especially bicker clubs, in 2009.
In the 2007-08 academic year, the Undergraduate Financial Aid Office increased the board allowance for juniors and seniors to cover the average cost of an eating club meal plan, enabling more students to join clubs.
Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Robin Moscato said in an e-mail that the decision to increase the board allowance for upperclassmen was made “with the intention of providing broader options and choice to juniors and seniors by reducing financial barriers.” She noted that the increased amount of aid is provided for upperclassmen regardless of their dining option.
This year, the board allocation for a student on financial aid is $6,960. Any difference in cost between the aid package and the price of an eating club — a significant discrepancy for some — must be covered by the student.
University administrators said they see the increase in financial aid allocations as a positive step.
Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee ’69 said a major reason for the policy change was student interest and concern. “If there are students at Princeton who would like to be in a club and feel they can’t for financial reasons, [and] if we could make it possible for them to elect that option by removing the financial barrier, then it would be a good thing to do that,” he explained.
Another consideration was the socioeconomic demographics of the clubs’ membership, Durkee noted. “If the clubs are interested in making sure they attract students who represent the diversity of the student body, and if we could assist by altering the financial aid policy,” Durkee said, the University felt that increased aid would be beneficial.
Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson said the policy was an example of “numerous and significant steps to improve access to all aspects of the Princeton extracurricular experience.”
With the increased aid, “students get to make decisions about whether they’d like to be in a club or use the extra money they get to shop at gourmet grocery stores or save money … for study abroad or other travel experiences,” she said. “So [students] make decisions about how they use their resources.”
Hay, who is also a senior photographer for The Daily Princetonian, said the money she saves by not joining a club could be put to other uses. “I could use that $2,000 for post-grad stuff, to buy a car, to pay for rent … It could go to something else as opposed to where I could eat.”
Opinions are divided over the degree of responsibility the University should assume and whether the aid should be increased to cover additional fees.
Durkee emphasized that, though the response to the increased aid has been a “high degree of recognition and appreciation for the change,” he has also heard concerns over whether the new policy has had the desired effect of “removing financial considerations from the decision about whether to join a club or not.”
While the University recognizes that some expenses, such as social fees, would not be covered by aid, it expects that students might take out loans to cover the reduced burden, Durkee said.
“If you want to be in a club, why wouldn’t it be worth it to borrow the relatively small amount that you would need to borrow to join the club?” he explained. “The policy was adopted assuming that that’s what people would do if there was still a shortfall, and that seems to have been an assumption that has proven to be not true.”
For some students, this shortfall has proved to be a significant deterrent.
Jordan Bubin ’09 said that he dropped his membership in Tower Club his senior year, for both social and financial reasons.
“I would not have been able to join Tower were it not for the aid package, but it was still not enough for me personally to fully enjoy the benefits of Tower, the biggest part being that I needed to pay a couple thousand dollars myself,” he said, noting that his work-study job was sufficient to cover the added expenses. But, he explained, “I wasn’t going to Tower meals. I was working my job at a dining hall.”
Bubin chose the independent dining option his senior year. “I wanted the freedom of being able to eat when I wanted and not have set meal times,” he said. “I could eat a lot cheaper and have a lot more money for myself if I was independent.”
Yet Bianca Williams ’11, a member of Cap & Gown Club, said the increased aid alleviated the financial concerns she had about joining a club. “The expenses were definitely a big issue, so the fact that Princeton covers so much of the financial cost of the eating clubs helped a lot,” she said. “I don’t think I would have been able to join Cap if it weren’t for the financial aid program.”
Still, in light of current economic conditions, some students are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the extra expenses. Alex Man ’10, the president of Colonial Club, said a decrease in club membership is expected as “things get more expensive and people look for ways to save money.”
“I know people who really find the costs to be too unbearable right now. From a club perspective, we’re doing everything we can to make it as easy as possible,” he said, explaining that the club is looking at its costs and examining ways to reduce them in the future.
“Club membership in general is expensive, especially for people who really can’t afford it,” he added. “We want as many people as possible to have the option of being part of [the club experience].”
Man added that Colonial also re-evaluates the number of shared meal plans it offers each year, noting that the number has “been gradually increasing.”
Trevor Martin ’11 said he was unable to obtain a shared meal plan between Colonial and the University. As a result, he purchased the lowest-tier meal plan from both. “It’s an expensive decision and possibly needlessly so,” he said, explaining that he made his decision “in terms of having a good University experience.”
There are no current plans to change the policy, Moscato said, explaining that the University “is making a significant commitment of funds to maintain its existing aid policies despite difficult economic circumstances and a $170 [million] budget cut.”
The current financial aid policy does not cover sophomore fees or social fees for eating clubs. The policy change in 2007 was instituted “to accommodate dining costs, a category of educational expense already included in the financial aid policy,” Moscato said. “The financial aid policy applies only to dining costs, not social or membership fees since they are not educational expenses.”
She also said that the policy is not unique to the eating clubs, as financial aid does not cover social fees for any other student organization on campus.
In the COMBO II survey, 31 percent of students said they would have joined or stayed in an eating club had financial aid been increased to cover average social fees, while 69 percent said they would not have. The survey also reported that 69 percent of respondents would have joined an eating club had financial aid been increased to cover average sophomore fees, while 31 percent would not have.
“While the University is generous with its financial aid packages … there are some situations where cash-flow problems, particularly in the sophomore spring, may hinder new member’s ability to pay for, and in effect remain in, the club,” said Cap president Andres Perez ’10.
Man said he believes the University should consider expanding aid to cover sophomore fees. “If they accept [the eating clubs] as a positive part of the Princeton experience, they should do more to help the eating clubs, especially in light of the financial situation and circumstances of many of their members.”
Williams said she believes the University aid policy for social fees is adequate. “Honestly, I see no reason why the University should cover our social fees … I feel like there’s no reason for the school to have to pay for beer and social aspects of the club.”
The University recognizes that these added expenses are a concern, Durkee said. While the increased aid “responded to what students were asking for,” he said, “we have heard from some students that there are some costs that it doesn’t cover. But finding additional funding in the current financial climate would be very difficult.”
Though changes in the aid policy might not be feasible right now, students do have other options, including financial aid provided by some of the clubs.
“I encourage students who don’t think that they are going to be financially able to join a club to go and talk to the club presidents, to talk to the graduate board, to the house managers,” Interclub Council adviser Tim Prugar ’06 said. “There are real human beings that run these clubs and are always working to make it a financial possibility for students to join the clubs.”
Aran Clair ’10, president of both Cloister Inn and the Interclub Council, said he thought an expanded aid package for the clubs would be a “good idea.”
“In regard to the longevity of the eating clubs, I think it would be great if financial aid packages could be expanded to accommodate individuals who want to be a part of one of Princeton’s best aspects but are unable,” Clair said in an e-mail. “I know firsthand that a number of people dropped out of the club system across the whole street because of financial hardships.”
Calling the eating clubs an “integral part of the Princeton experience for a majority of students,” USG president Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10 said, “I believe the onus falls as much on the University as it does on the clubs to ensure that the eating club system is as accessible and enjoyable as possible for all those involved.”
Prugar commended the University’s aid policy. “I think the University has done an outstanding job in providing resources so that students can join eating clubs if they want to,” he said. “I think that [financial] resources obviously have an impact on a student’s ability to join a club. Anything the University can do to make it so that those financial considerations are not a problem is a positive move.”
Offering the increased aid was “definitely a good decision on the part of the University, just because so many of the students here want to join eating clubs,” Williams said.
“I don’t think finances should be the major deciding factor,” she added. “Everyone should have the same opportunity to enjoy this social aspect of Princeton.”
Bubin said that, though he was grateful for the additional aid, he did not think the University was responsible for subsidizing eating club fees. “It’s a very nice thing they do, and it gave me the chance to do what I did,” he said, but he explained that he thinks the University has no obligation to “give me money to go join Tower, any more than they give me money to go to Triumph or something.”
Bubin added that it might be unfair if, without the aid policy, financial disparities only enabled some students to join clubs. But “on the same token, half the student body can’t really just take a date to, say, Mezzaluna every Friday … due to financial resources,” he said. “And no one can say that’s unfair.”
This is the first article in a five-part series on the eating clubs and the COMBO data.