Penn announced on Feb. 15 that sophomores will be required to purchase a dining plan beginning this fall — prompting confusion, backlash, and petitions for the University to reverse its plans.
The policy will begin with the Class of 2024 in fall 2021, as sophomores will also be required to live in on-campus housing as part of Penn's Second-Year Experience program. Sophomores must choose from three dining plans — the two existing first-year plans and a cheaper second-year dining plan with fewer meal swipes per week.
Under the new policy, sophomores will have fewer plans to choose from than in the past — a change that has frustrated some students, including College first year JJ Gluckman.
“They are limiting our options in terms of what dining plans we can choose, and limiting our options to encourage us to use the dining halls more than other places that accept Dining Dollars,” Gluckman said.
This spring, sophomores had the ability to choose from six undergraduate dining plans, several of which cost less than this upcoming fall's first-year and second-year dining plans. Plans available to sophomores this spring offered as many as $1,500 Dining Dollars for the semester — whereas the plan with the most Dining Dollars this fall will only offer $400 per semester.
College first year Aditi Doiphode said she also found it inconvenient that Penn decreased the number of dining plan options for sophomores.
“If they were going to force students to buy a dining plan and make sure that they're not food insecure and have reliable meals, they should give more options,” Doiphode said.
In an email to first years on Feb. 15, Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli cited alleviating food insecurity on campus and creating a sense of community around shared meals as motivations for implementing the new policy.
Pritchett and Carnaroli wrote that the policy was based on discussions with students on the Penn Dining Advisory Board — but one of these students, Wharton sophomore Joel Olujide, said some students on the board did not support requiring sophomores to be on a dining plan next semester.
“I don't think it's very popular that people have to be on a dining plan next semester,” Olujide said. “I'm on a dining plan right now, but I’m on the cheapest option, which is different from what the lowest option is for sophomores next year.”
Hundreds have taken to a Change.org petition to voice dissatisfaction with the policy. A petition calling for the cancellation of the policy, created by Wharton first year Faith Bochert on Feb. 15, garnered more than 400 signatures as of the evening of Feb. 16.
“This is a pathetic attempt to pull the wool over our eyes; we are hard-pressed to believe that a dining plan that costs more than groceries is helping students struggling with food insecurity,” the petition states.
Bochert said she feels the dining policy is a “blatant cash grab,” as costs for a meal plan may exceed costs for purchasing groceries instead. College first year Julia Pfrommer similarly said that Penn's meal plans are “absurdly expensive.”
“I lived off campus this past fall semester, and the grocery costs were so low compared to the dining costs this semester and even next semester with the $4,000 dining plan. That’s a crazy high number,” Pfrommer said.
The second-year dining plan for the 2021-2022 academic year will cost $3,996, whereas both first-year plans, which are available to sophomores, will cost $5,952 for the year.
“Asking [students] to pay three grand a semester is not helping anyone who's struggling financially to obtain food," Bochert said. "It's making it harder on them because you're making it so that people who weren't food insecure in the first place have a harder time going to school because [dining plans are] incredibly expensive."
Doiphode added that food-insecure sophomores have previously been able to opt in to one of the upperclassmen dining plans at a cheaper cost, which will no longer be possible under this policy. The cheapest upperclassmen dining plan for the next academic year will cost $2,530 — significantly less than the $3,996 second-year dining plan.
Students also cast doubt on the University's claim that the policy is intended to create a sense of community among students eating in dining halls.
Doiphode doesn’t think this will be the case, especially given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unclear what safety measures will be in place in the fall and whether dining halls will be open for in-person dining. Dining halls are currently offering grab-and-go services this semester.
“I just don't think it's worth paying $4,000 to build community bonding, especially if we don't even know if indoor dining in the dining halls will even be available next semester, so it's just a complete waste of money,” Doiphode said. “I feel like there are definitely more effective and cheaper ways to foster community bonding, instead of forcing students to get a dining plan."
College first year Isabelle Weiss echoed Bochert’s sentiment, adding that she is unlikely to go to a dining hall when she wants to hang out with her friends.
Pfrommer added that she understands that the University may be trying to make up for some of the traditional experiences the Class of 2024 has lost as a result of starting their Penn careers during the COVID-19 pandemic — but she thinks there are better ways to build a community within the class, like holding more events similar to New Student Orientation.
“It seems kind of out there to say that the dining plan will build community," Pfrommer said. "[Dining halls] could be like what we had this semester, and there’s certainly very little community in going and picking up your food and leaving.”