The independent news organization of Duke University

What's in your wallet?

The last of the holiday lights are coming down, and yet you may find a gift that keeps on giving lodged in your back pocket. This gift is, of course, your DukeCard.

The real world analogy of the DukeCard is the prepaid gift card. You don’t have to pay bills, and a simple swipe gets you exactly what you want. It’s magical, empowering and easy. You don’t see the money exchanging hands in the moment of the transaction, so there is little or no consequence for spending (unless you run out of “points” at the end of the semester).

Although it’s troubling that some of the main monetary transactions that students make on this campus may not be fully internalized, it is more disturbing that money is called “points” in our system.

Changing money into points warps the act of buying. First, it creates the impression that consuming on campus is a game of no consequence. It lends an inappropriate lightheartedness to the use of money that does not reflect money’s true value or a need for fiscal responsibility. Furthermore, the points make the buyer even more distanced, physically and mentally, from what are really monetary transactions. The student consumer now isn’t even spending money electronically—they are spending points. At least Monopoly’s fake currency looks and feels somewhat like American money; Duke food points are amorphous and intangible units.

In defense of the Duke food points system, it was created 25 years ago with practicality in mind. Thanks to the system, students don’t have to deal with money, and can spend more time taking advantage of Duke. Additionally, the pay-up-front method allows Duke to help its restaurants stay afloat, by requiring students to have a certain number of food points to spend on campus.

There are also reasons for the use of the “points” terminology. Rick Johnson, assistant vice president for housing, dining and residential life, suggested in an email that money is instead converted to points due to an effort to get tax exemption for the University’s meal plan. He noted that “Several states had enacted legislation that exempted ‘meal plans’ from state tax, so if a plan was called points, it may better fit the original intent of the legislation.”

There may be those who argue that the use of points doesn’t greatly affect the spending habits or actions of students. Still, prices are always listed in stores and restaurants on campus. Students receive receipts for their transactions. Best of all, students have access to online guides to spending that show how many food points students should have left at various semester benchmarks based on their plan.

Regardless, even if it’s possible to process prices and use guides to make purchasing decisions, students are still forced to use Duke’s currency of points rather than real world dollars. It remains that it’s easier to spend recklessly and carelessly with points rather than real money—and easier not to realize the value of cold, hard cash.

Supposedly we’re in college to prepare for careers and lives in the real world, and yet we live on a campus that consistently suspends reality for its students. The use of points rather than money is a manifestation of a desire to place its students in a playpen., Administrators create a space that revokes student responsibility in preferring not to deal with students’ mistakes. After all, few games have real-life consequences.

Perhaps the administration could take a first step towards fostering responsibility for it’s students by calling these points “dollars.” Students would be confronted with their purchases in a more tangible way. In turn, students should realize that Duke is not a playpen, but rather an incubator for talent across disciplines, and remember that these points are indeed real money.

If students became more responsible both fiscally and socially, they may be able to connect better to the outside world. You might be aware that most people living their lives outside of Duke actually have to deal with things like bills and mortgages.

We should also remember that reality is sparse in a place like this, simply by definition. There’s nothing real about a wonderland—especially a Gothic one.

Ellie Bullard is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.


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