Penn requires all freshmen to purchase a meal plan, yet according to a Daily Pennsylvanian unofficial survey of 290 freshmen, nearly 80 percent of respondents wish they did not have to be on a meal plan.
Student respondents answered a survey posted on the Class of 2019 Facebook page. The University has taken the position that meal plans are so essential to the freshmen experience that they should not be optional.
“Dining is a big part of being a freshman,” Director of Business Services Pam Lampitt said. "It’s about bonding, it’s about developing relationships, it’s about seeing familiar faces, it’s about the fact that no freshman is alone.”
While many freshmen agree that eating at dining halls can be helpful for students trying to make friends, many freshmen argued that the dining plans should not be a requirement, mainly citing pricing, poor food quality and inconvenient dining hall hours.
“I completely understand that eating at dining halls is part of the college experience, but it shouldn’t be required when the whole system is this broken,” College freshman Jonathan Chen said.
“I’ve talked to tons of other freshman about this and no one is happy. 'The dining halls are good' is never something a Penn student would ever think," he added. "I can’t believe we are forced to purchase such expensive plans when absolutely no one wants to eat in the dining halls. It just feels like we are forced to flush money down the toilet.”
While the quality of Penn’s dining halls is hotly contested, poor food quality was almost always the first reason mentioned by students interviewed for this article when they explained why they did not want a dining plan.
“If Penn had good food, I’d understand requiring freshman to be on the plan, but since the food is often so terrible, it doesn’t seem right," College freshman Carl Fulghieri said.
Niche, a popular online college review and ranking website that polls students, gave Penn a B- for dining, worse than all other Ivy League schools.
Many freshmen contested the cost of dining plans, arguing that Penn should not mandate the purchase of expensive plans. This year, incoming freshmen could choose from one of three dining plans for the 2016-17 academic year — all with a different ratio of swipes to Dining Dollars — for $5,086.
Bryan Williamson, a Penn Law student and graduate advisor, reasoned that if it weren’t for the price, students would be content with their dining plans. Despite the high prices, 20 percent of freshmen still believe the dining plan should be mandatory, according to the survey.
“I was really shocked when I came to Penn. I haven’t heard anything good from my 29 freshman residents about dining,” Williamson said.
“I did my undergrad at Cornell, which also requires a meal plan, but they were much better priced. It’s such a shame at Penn," he added. "I think they realize that if they don’t require freshman to be on a dining plan no one would go to them. It’s all financial. Instead of making better food, which to be frank, pales in comparison to every other college I’ve visited, they force students to buy meal plans that are way too expensive.”
Despite calls for smaller and less expensive dining plans, Campbell Grey, a residential faculty advisor in Kings Court English College House, insisted that you could not put a price tag on the value of dining halls.
“Sitting over dinner and talking about stuff is a great opportunity to put in practice what you are learning in classes, but it is also just a really affirming way to share this experience," Grey said.
“The college houses that freshmen live in are not conducive to cooking on your own, so without a dining plan where is everyone going to eat?" he said. "I’m sure if you tried to eat out for every meal, you’d end up spending much more than you do on the dining plan."
However, many freshmen frustrated with the meal plan argue that eating out does not only provide much better options, but is in many cases less expensive than dining halls.
“It’s a blatant lie that the dining plans are cheap. It’s a real problem when eating at Chipotle is way less expensive than eating at Commons,” College and Wharton freshman Scott MacGuidwin said. He also expressed frustration that major dining halls were not open late on weekend nights, a common sentiment among other students interviewed.
The numbers actually do indicate that Chipotle is in many cases less expensive than eating at a dining hall. Since the meal plan costs $5,086 a year and Penn students spend approximately 31 weeks of the year at school, the weekly cost for a dining plan is a approximately $164, enough for 24 chicken burritos at Chipotle or 33 foot-long sandwiches at Wawa.
“I don’t have any idea how they got their prices,” Chen said. “It all just seems like a shady operation, and I wish it’d be more clear.”
When you break down each of the three dining plans available to freshmen, it turns out each one charges a different amount per meal swipe, depending on the ratio of meal swipes to Dining Dollars. For example, the Away From Kitchen plan, which comes with approximately 16 swipes per week, values each meal swipe at an average of $9.77. However, the Best Food Fit plan, which comes with approximately 8 swipes per week, values each meal swipe at an average of $16.34.
Even stranger for students is the process of exchanging meal swipes for Dining Dollars in the two-week window where this is allowed for a maximum of 50 swipes. While Dining Dollars are purchased at a cost of one dollar per Dining Dollar and meal swipes range in value from $9 to over $16, students only get 4.87 Dining Dollars per meal swipe.
However, for students like Engineering freshman Anvi Dalal, who finished last semester with over 120 meal swipes because she didn’t think the dining halls offered sufficient vegetarian options, the exchange is better than nothing.
“I just wish Penn would leave it up to us to decide if we want a meal plan. I’m not saying it’s a bad option for every student, but having everyone purchase a meal plan is ridiculous,” MacGuidwin said.
“I could rant on for hours," he added. "I really hate it.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.