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The strange pricing of meal plans

As many of you know, I’m not just a Grinnell professor, I’m also a parent of Grinnell students [1]. As a parent, I experience Grinnell in somewhat different ways. I certainly hear different things about campus culture from my children. I get to read what other parents write on the listserv, and, on occasion, respond to those parents. And, like all parents, I get to deal with some of the wonders of our payment and billing. This essay is about that last issue, particularly about our meal plans.

For background, you should know that our basic prices for walk-in diners are $8.75 for breakfast, $6.75 for light breakfast, $11.00 for lunch, and $14.00 for dinner. Lunch and dinner seem reasonable to me, given that we have to pay for a lot of infrastructure and it’s an all-you-can-eat meal, which can be a lot for a typical college student, particularly male swimmers like my children. $8.75 seems a bit less reasonable, particularly since there are times in the semester in which there are almost no real protein options for breakfast [2]. But I’m not writing about the individual meals [3]; I’m writing about the plans.

As the meal plans page suggests, there are nine plans, numbered 1 through 10 [5]. Let’s look at how they compare to buying the meals individually.

Plan 1: Full Meal Plan plus five guest meals. Let’s see … one week of meals should be 7$14 + 7$11 + 5$8.75 + 1$6.75 [6]. That’s $225.50 per week or $3,382.50 for fifteen weeks [7]. Another $70 for five guest meals [8], and our total value is $3,452,50. Hence, our price of $3,161 is a relative bargain.

Plan 2: Any fifteen meals per week, plus $241 [9] of dining dollars, plus five guest meals, which we’ve just valued at $70. The most fifteen meals can be worth is 7$14 + 7$11 + 1*$8.75, or $183.75. For fifteen weeks, the meals are $2,756.25. Adding in the $241 and $70 gives us a value of $3067.25. Our price of $3,161 is less of a bargain, but pretty close to the value.

Plan 3: Plan 2, with no dining dollars. The value is $2,826. We charge $2,920. Once again, it’s pretty close.

Plan 4: Any ten meals per week, plus $315 [10] in the marketplace and five guest meals, whose value remains $70. The ten most expensive meals per week are seven dinners and three lunches. So one week of meals is worth 7$14 + 3$11, or $131 per week. For fifteen weeks, that’s a total value of $1,965. We add in the $315 and $70, for a total value of $2,350. What do we charge for this plan? We charge $2,977.

At this point, you should be asking yourself What are they thinking? Why is there a surcharge of something like $600 for this meal plan?
My family asked the same thing when we were doing planning for our children living on campus, who need to do plan 1, 2, 3, or 4. I’d hope that as a faculty member, I could get a sensible answer. I tried asking dining services. They said something like the following:

The charge for a single meal at the door, what we call causal meal rate is just that - an occasional meal for a guest. The causal meal rate does not include any overhead costs of the college, e.g. supplies, benefits, wages, utilities, equipment, repairs, building upkeep and a host of other costs to the college to provide a dining program.

Okay, that response is troubling in multiple ways. First, why do we expect the students to bear the overhead costs, but not the guests? That seems inappropriate. Second, it ignores the issue that the casual rate actually predicts the meal plan rate very closely for Plans 1 through 3 and, as we’ll see, for the other plans. My guess is that at some point, someone transposed digits in the pricing and it has continued from there.

So I tried pointing out these issues and asking through our faculty rep on the Dining Services committee. She got the same response. I tried asking our Controller. She got the same answer from dining services. I know my faculty rep thinks the answer makes no sense. Where do I go next? Well, I’m writing this essay. In the new year, I’m sending the question back to our Controller to see if she can garner more information. I’ll probably also ask our Cashier’s office [11].

Anyway, back to our choices. The remaining choices are for students who do not live in campus housing.

Plan 5: Any 80 meals plus $142 [15] worth of dining dollars. Okay, this one is easy. We will assume that all eighty meals are dinners, worth $14 each. Total value, $1,120 plus $142, or $1,262. We charge $1,212. A slight bargain, but still withn range.

Plan 6: Any 65 meals plus $179 worth of dining dollars. Total value, 65*$14 + $179, or $1,089. We charge $1,071. Another bargain.

Plan 7: Lunch every weekday for the semester. Fifteen weeks, five days per week, $11 per meal. Total value? $825. We charge $767. This plan is another nice bargain. As the page says, A great low-cost option!

Plan 8: $100 in dining dollars, available as an add-on to any of the previous plans. Yup, $100 is worth $100. I’m not sure why anyone would buy this plan; it’s much like a full-price restaurant gift card. Why not just use cash?

Plan 10: No board. Fortunately, we don’t charge students who live off campus to skip board.

So, we’re back to plan 4. As I suggested, plan 4 is the only one that isn’t in line with the casual dining rate. What is going on? Is plan 4 a test, one in which anyone who selects it gets suspended from the College for lack of common sense? That’s my only guess.

Note that Joe Wlos wrote a similar article in The Gum in May of 2014. It’s sad that the problem has been around for so long, and that no one has addressed it. But it sounds like the Any 15 meals plan (Plan 3) was equally out of line back then, and they fixed that one. I wonder if I should create a modified copy of his spreadsheet when I send my note to various folks.

[1] At times, I’ve also been a kind of Grinnell student. During my last sabbatical, I took a few classes in our Art department. Some time earlier, I sat in on Vida Praitis’s Genetics course and Ira Strauber’s Constitutional Law course.

[2] I know this not only because my kids complain, but also because I’ve been to some of those breakfasts.

[3] Middle son would call me remiss if I did not mention that when students trade in meals (e.g., to support a cause, as in Fogfast, or to go to a department picnic), the College only provides $2 or $3 in return. He’s more upset about it than I am [4], since I acknowledge that they still have to provide infrastructure.

[4] I am, however, unhappy that dining services decided to cancel the picnic option, in which students traded in meal plans for food for department picnics, and didn’t bother to tell anyone they’d cancelled it. Their replacement choices? We can either pay $12 per person for a catered picnic, and get $2 credit, or we can ask students to bring outtakes to the picnic. Neither is a particularly good option.

[5] There is no Plan 9. Ed Wood would be sad.

[6] There is no breakfast on Sunday. There is only a light breakfast on Saturday.

[7] We have fourteen weeks of the semester, plus finals week. I’m not sure that students can eat at the College for all seven days of all fifteen weeks, but it’s close enough for estimating. I also think some meals are available during spring and fall break.

[8] We’ll assume that all the guest meals are dinners.

[9] Isn’t that a fascinating number?

[10] Isn’t that an equally fascinating number?

[11] Hmmm … it feels like I know some folks in that office pretty well. I wonder if any of them read my essays, or have partners who read my essays and would pass this along to them as a kind of CC [12]?

[12] Carbon copy. A term based on the time when people made copies of letters by putting a sheet of carbon paper between the original and the copy before typing. There’s a wonderful story about how the founders of Xerox proposed their technology to one of the Arthur consulting firms [14] and were told Why would anyone need more than a few copies? Carbon paper suffices. I should reread Fumbling the Future and dig out the full story.

[14] Arthur Little or Arthur Anderson or some such.

[15] At this point, I’m going to stop making comments about the strange amounts they choose for dining dollars.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-23.