All first-year students are required to be on one of Penn’s dining plans: Away from Kitchen (240 swipes per semester and 140 dining dollars), Balanced Eating Naturally (170 swipes and 225 dining dollars), or Best Food Fit (138 swipes and 400 dining dollars). But even those who have the dining plan with the fewest swipes are left with an excess at the end of the semester, and unable to carry their swipes over.
The only real way to avoid this is to convert the swipes into dining dollars, as they not only are easier to spend — you can buy groceries in addition to already-prepared food — but the food typically tastes better than the food that is served in dining halls. However, Penn’s conversion policy is severely flawed.
The pitiful conversion rate from swipes to dining dollars results in students losing a lot of money. Due to all three plans costing the same, making the only difference the distribution of dining dollars and swipes, the fewer the number of swipes in your plan, the more each swipe is worth. Depending on the plan, one swipe may be worth $11.06, $15.12, or $17.36. However, when the swipes are converted into dining dollars, each swipe is worth a mere $4.87. This seemingly unfair rate — with students getting as little as 28 percent of what they originally paid per swipe — has existed for quite some time, and even was petitioned against two years ago. However, the administration did not improve the conversion rate, and in fact, has since increased the annual price of the plan from $5,249.00 to $5,590.00.
Another problem is that students are limited to converting up to 30 swipes to dining dollars, which is only a maximum of about 23.4 percent of swipes if students choose the dining plan with the fewest swipes.
Additionally, the system is set up so that once students pick a certain number of swipes to convert, they cannot go back and convert more later. Similarly, students can only convert swipes to dining dollars at a specific time in the semester. If students need more dining dollars before the conversion period starts and are not able to hold out, they have to pay extra to add more dining dollars to their plan. Last semester, for instance, students could only convert swipes to dining dollars from April 3 to 17, leaving them very little time to actually use their newly-converted dining dollars, and resulting in the semester ending before all of their dining dollars were used. Students were not refunded for those excess dining dollars and ended up losing money.
And, as if the policy isn’t unbelievable enough, in order to convert swipes at the end of the spring semester, students have to have signed up for a dining plan for the upcoming fall semester — a process only advertised as part of the housing application, which only 21 percent of juniors and 23 percent of seniors (as of 2017) fill out. The housing application’s early deadline — February 18 this past year — coupled with it forcing you to choose whether or not you want a meal plan in order to have a chance to select a room — didn’t help matters, as many students likely did not know what they would be doing for food six months down the road, and thus chose not to without realizing the implications on their current meal plan when conversion time rolled around. Not to mention the 44 percent of Penn students who opted to live (and eat) off campus the following semester, and therefore didn’t fill out the application, who also were unaware of how this decision would affect their ability to convert swipes.
While it is clear that the administration is trying to incentivize students to purchase a dining plan, the students feel scammed. There are other ways to incentivize students that don’t result in students losing a lot of money. The plan is already so expensive, and punishing students who either cannot afford it or don’t want it the following year by not allowing them the opportunity to convert is outrageous.
To fix some of these problems, and prevent students from finishing the semester with excess swipes, the conversion rate should be better, students should be able to convert more swipes into dining dollars, and students should be able to do the conversion whenever necessary, without being required to sign up for a plan the following school year.
Or, at the very least, if Penn is going to force incoming first-year students to be on a dining plan that does result in students having excess swipes, it should advertise that they can go to good use with Swipe Out Hunger, a charity students can participate in once per semester by donating up to five of their swipes to students who ran out. Make all Penn students aware that their swipes don’t have to be wasted and can be used to help students who need them.
At the end of the day, Penn already makes $5,590 off of every first-year student who can pay it in full, so why can’t students use their swipes and dining dollars as it suits them?
Don’t be greedy, Penn Dining. You know what to do.
ILYSE REISMAN is a College sophomore from Millburn, N.J. studying English and Music. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.