This past Monday, the University announced that all sophomores, starting with the Class of 2024, would be required to purchase one of three meal plans. The decision to mandate meal plans for sophomores, in conjunction with Penn’s soon to be implemented on-campus housing requirement for sophomores, represents a broader trend by the administration to build a so-called “Second Year Experience,” or SYE.
According to the University’s dining website, the goal of the Second Year Experience is in part “to help students make good decisions as they face academic and social choices in their second year.” However, forcing housing and dining choices upon adults accomplishes the exact opposite. By forcing students into expensive housing and dining plans, Penn is inadvertently hurting the very sophomores it is attempting to support.
From its outset, the University’s attempt at creating a second-year experience was in part an attempt to reduce the burden on sophomores, particularly when it comes to making housing choices early in their first year. However, what the administration sees as a burden is often seen by many students as an opportunity. Indeed, many sophomores have historically taken advantage of the freedom to make housing choices, seeing the opportunities to live with friends and to have more flexibility with housing size. By postponing the chance to live off-campus, Penn is taking away freedom from its students.
With regards to a mandated meal plan, more of the same. Penn’s dining plans, while frequently criticized for both their pricing and quality, provide a sense of commonality for first-year students. However, many first-year students understandably become fed up with meal plans by the end of their first year, and seek healthier, cheaper, and more flexible options off-campus. By forcing sophomores on a meal plan, the University is requiring another year of subpar dining, decreasing the quality of their collegiate experience and subjecting students to administration micromanagement.
The harms of the proposed Second Year Experience extend far beyond reducing choice. Indeed, by monopolizing housing and dining options, Penn is preventing its sophomores from pursuing more cost-efficient and desirable options. Housing, for example, is often cheaper off campus, with students having flexibility in terms of both price and experience. On-campus housing, while having some diversity, offers sophomores fewer options in terms of both price and living arrangement.
Penn’s implementation of a mandatory sophomore dining plan suffers from many of the same problems, and may prove to be actively harmful. A key reason cited by Penn for implementing the dining requirement is the need to reduce food insecurity among its students. While this is certainly a problem the University should focus on, a mandatory sophomore dining plan may accomplish the opposite.
Specifically, many students argue that because Penn’s meal plans are more expensive than purchasing groceries, the plan will be ineffective in reducing hunger on campus. The University itself has even admitted that its dining plans are not cost efficient, acknowledging near $750 in additional expenses for purchasing an on-campus meal plan.
The “Second Year Experience” Penn is attempting to create could have other unforeseen consequences, namely making on-campus activities and clubs more financially exclusive. Most prominently, the mandatory housing policy will likely make Greek Life dues more expensive, because of the costs of having unfilled rooms normally occupied by sophomores. This ultimately makes an activity that is already often financially exclusive even more so.
The University’s attempt to build a strong second-year experience is laudable, especially in light of the uncertainty created by COVID-19. However, making housing and dining choices on behalf of students does not accomplish this goal.
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