This past year, the North Carolina state legislature made taxable purchases which previously hadn’t been. Most relevant to those of us who sleep, study and eat at Duke University, they made food sold to students at institutions of higher education taxable. This means that all food sold to Duke students is taxed at a rate of 7.5 percent, and the difference between food points and real money comes down to a $75 dining fee and a requirement that you purchase a minimum number of food points.
It’s hard to justify requiring students to purchase a meal plan from a student perspective. Why throw away the $75 when you could just swipe a credit card the next time you eat at ABP? Why restrict yourself so you have to spend at least $2000 at those same five campus eateries that you like? The classic response is to guarantee business for the eateries that come on campus. It costs Duke to keep up with facilities, which in turn means that eateries on campus have to pay contracting fees. It’s certainly important for these eateries to turn a profit. It’s also nice for students to have a stress-free venue to turn to—somewhere they can grab a lunch or dinner without taking time away from meetings or studying.
But would a non-mandatory meal plan mean eateries would disappear? Even without a mandated amount of money to spend each semester, students still make up a captive audience. They still don’t have time to run off campus for all three meals every day, or run back to apartments and dorm kitchens to cook something. Most students would be willing to pay a high price for food on campus in the name of convenience, and those eateries which are actually appealing to students (not only appealing because Pitchfork’s fryer is broken) will remain afloat. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to push on campus eateries to compete with off campus options. On-campus eateries already have a leg up based on location, is it bad to push them to compete in other ways with an option like Chipotle? Or Harris Teeter? To me, mandating a dining plan purchase seems to express an unwillingness to work to present students with dining options that appeal to them beyond convenience and location. If an on-campus eatery is well-liked, it would turn a profit, mandatory meal plan or not.
In 2010, a lawsuit was brought against three public universities in Alabama (University of Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Auburn University) for very similar dining practices. At Auburn where the suit originated, on-campus students were required to purchase a $995 dining plan each semester while off-campus students were required to purchase a $300 dining plan. This works out to between $6 and $9 per day in food expenditures, whereas most residential students ended up spending about $24 per day at on-campus eateries. (Compare this to the Duke meal plans. The minimum plan for West Campus residents gives you about $18 per day.)
The attorney bringing suit argued, “These fees are not tuition and not related to class instruction. Instead, these food fees are mandated because these state schools have agreed to give certain food vendors exclusive control over these student food purchases in exchange for millions of dollars being paid back to the school.”
In Alabama, the three universities being sued were public universities, and the issue being contested was an anti-trust one. At Duke this is not the case. When our administration requires the purchase of a meal plan and hands this business to the select restaurants it contracts with, it is not a matter of the state of North Carolina handing over sole rights to our business. Still, while there is no legal basis for arguing against a mandatory meal plan at Duke, I think the administration ought to do its due diligence in attempting to best meet the needs of its students.
Beyond just the basic, “I would like to choose what I eat and how I spend my own money” sentiment, I think there’s an aspect of real-life experience that you eliminate when you force students to buy meal plans. Duke cannot be considered to be representative of “normal” life. There is a definitive division between things that have value in and of themselves at Duke (friendships built, knowledge acquired) and those that detract from Duke students’ abilities to be successful post-grad. “A food point saved is a food point to figure out how to waste later,” as I always like to say.
There’s this huge upfront cost each semester for meal plans (at minimum $2000 if you live on West Campus), and then we’re able to forget that this monopoly money ever cost us real money at all. Few people I have met actively budget their food points to make it through the semester, and scores of people have so many that their focus is upon spending in order to make real use of their investment. It’s not a set of circumstances that begets experience in financial responsibility, and it’s not an experience that promotes personal choice. It’s hardly damaging to take a little bit of the real life experience out of Duke, but when it comes to personal nutrition and huge sums of money, perhaps it’s best to lose the Dukeopoly vibe and stick to the real world.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.