Princeton likes to pat itself on the back when it comes to the treatment of first-generation, low income students on campus. Just this academic year, the University has been featured in multiple Washington Post articles and a recent segment of CBS’s “60 Minutes” in praise of the work that is being done to improve FLI students’ Princeton experiences. Despite the positive publicity, the recently proposed and now largely discarded changes to the University dining plan were just the latest evidence of the University failing to understand the outsized impact of proposed changes on the FLI community.
The proposed meal plan change would have forced independent students and co-op members to enroll in a meal plan costing $2,500. Even without getting into the rationale behind forcing a meal plan on students who have actively chosen to avoid one, the mandatory meal plan would have represented a sizable financial burden for those students forced to purchase the new plan. The only part of the proposed changes that I would welcome would be dining points that could be used at more places than just Frist Gallery, such as Café Vivian, Witherspoon Café, the C-Store, and Studio ’34, so that students can have more choices as to where they eat outside the dining hall.
Thanks in large part to the prohibitively high cost of joining an eating club and the socioeconomically elitist way in which the clubs function, a disproportionately high number of independents and co-op members are low income, meaning that this mandatory extra cost would have fallen on the shoulders of those least able to pay. One of the main motivators for people joining co-ops or being independent is due to the massive savings that can be made compared to joining an eating club, and this obligatory meal plan would have taken away much of that benefit.
Having seen the needs of FLI students overlooked with this proposal, the administration of Undergraduate Student Government President Rachel Yee and the University promised to focus on low income students’ needs when it comes to designing a modified meal plan. With that promise in mind, I have outlined five changes that could be made to the University’s meal plans to make them more equitable for FLI students and maybe encourage more FLI students to purchase a meal plan.
Firstly, the cost of the block meal plans compared to the unlimited plan currently does not accurately reflect the difference in the number of swipes. The difference in price between the Unlimited Plan and the Block 235 plan is $270. While the Block 235 plan gives students approximately 15 swipes per week, it is not unreasonable for a student on the Unlimited Plan to use upwards of 25 swipes per week: 3 meals a day plus one or two late meal swipes on weekdays and 2 swipes on the weekend. A $270 difference for what could be a 150 swipe difference — 10 extra swipes per week for 15 total weeks of the semester plus reading period and finals — is outrageous. Given that dropping down to a smaller block plan is a common step to saving money, increasing the difference in the price between the Unlimited Plan and block plans would ensure that students had an easier way to save money during the semester. The Unlimited Plan being better value for money makes sense from the University’s standpoint as a way of encouraging students to purchase the more expensive plan, but it does not take into account the need for some low income students to save money by lowering their plan and feel less anxious about finances while at Princeton.
Second, the fall break, Intercession, and spring break meal plan costs for those not on the Unlimited Plan should be factored in the price difference between plans or, ideally, taken away altogether for students whose meal plan gets covered by financial aid. The spring break meal plan this year cost $190 for 17 swipes, or $11.18 per meal. The effect is to create further disincentives to save money by switching to a lower plan, since over two-thirds of the savings accrued by dropping from Unlimited to 235 is taken away if you stay on campus over break.
Since many FLI students, especially those who live far from campus, are the most likely to stay on campus over break due to the cost of traveling home or spending a week on vacation with friends, the extremely high cost of the meal plan over break is once again most felt by low income students. At the very least, the cost of the break plans should be factored into the price difference between the unlimited and block plans, but a better solution that would have much clearer benefit to FLI students would be to subsidize the cost of break plans for students for whom financial aid covers the dining plan cost.
The third change is an increase in the late lunch and dinner allowances. Many of the staples of Late Meal, such as chicken tenders and fries, cost more than the allowance for each swipe. Whilst the extra money that gets charged to the student account may not seem too significant, over the course of a semester the charges can add up and create a hefty bill that many low income students do not have the means to pay. USG recently claimed not wanting anyone to be “excluded from the culture around Late Meal” as a reason for mandating that first years be on the unlimited plan, and thus it is imperative that the features of this culture are equally accessible to all.
The penultimate alteration is ensuring that at least one dining hall is open during “Dead Week” between the end of finals and the start of Reunions. While this week is a time for many students to go home or take part in the Beach Week tradition, FLI students are far less likely to be able to afford to take a round trip home or pay for a vacation to the beach. Not only are FLI students the least likely to be able to go home or take part in Beach Week, they are also more likely to need to stay for Reunions because of the wages that can be earned by working that weekend. Thus, the impact of not having a dining hall available is disproportionately felt by FLI students. Not having one dining option open creates a choice between the lesser of two evils for FLI students: spend hundreds of dollars on a vacation or trip home, or spend money for food to survive while on campus for the week.
Finally, a surprisingly high number of students have to stay on campus over winter break, for a variety of reasons, from not being able to afford a trip home to not having a “good” home environment to which to return. With the majority of these students being FLI students, a winter break stipend for students would massively help bridge the cost of either returning home or eating during break. The University already gives international students a $500 winter break allowance to either help cover the cost of flying home or to help with costs for students staying on campus. An extension of this program would be extremely helpful for FLI students and could be given to all students receiving above a certain amount of financial aid. While there are difficulties in delineating who needs the allowance, the University awards students receiving substantial financial aid a move-in allowance at the start of their first year, and the same measure could be used for a winter break allowance.
These changes, while clearly ambitious, are well within the capabilities of Princeton. Both the administration and USG have repeatedly spoke of their dedication to improving the experiences of FLI students, and the new dining plan creates a prime opportunity for the University to make good on this promise. Every single day at Princeton, FLI students fight a constant battle against the financial and social restraints that are placed on them. Although not a complete solution by any means, these changes to the dining plan would create a much more accessible dining experience and alleviate some of the financial worries that FLI students face.
Jack Tait is a sophomore politics concentrator from Fakenham, Norfolk, United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org