A couple of weeks ago, the Argus printed a story titled “WSA Targets Meal Plan: Unused Meals and Points Estimated at $1 Million,” along with an editorial (cache) about the usefulness of the WSA’s analysis of meal plan usage. Despite the potential for serious reflection on the meal plan and student dissatisfaction with their options, the Argus went the way of criticizing the mathematical limitations of the analysis and defending the current system as the administration’s best possible effort. If someone had told me that Dean Rick Culliton himself wrote the editorial then the Argus’ stance would make a little more sense to me. As it is, I’m going to have to assume that whoever wrote/approved of the article and editorial either did not understand what was presented in the memorandum sent out to members of the administration or simply missed the point.
Wesleying has gotten a copy of the analysis (available here, courtesy of the WSA) and, after a conversation with WSA President Mike Pernick ’10*, I think I have gotten a pretty good handle of the key points and implications of the analysis. Quite a few of you must agree with the perspective the Argus took, but I am taking this as an opportunity to look at the data from the perspective of a frustrated student.
*Our conversation clarified the analysis itself and what the WSA’s biggest concerns were. Opinions in this post are entirely mine.
Before I go over the analysis itself, I should point out a few things about the numbers and how some of the WSA’s estimates were derived:
1. Anecdotal evidence is not enough to dismiss the numbers. It is partly true, as the Argus states, that “a footnote about the $1,000,000 estimated loss cited the use of ‘anecdotal’ reports as the basis for the approximation.” Here is the full footnote to which they are referring:
Annualizing the value of unspent meals ($359,448 × two semesters) would yield a total of $718,896. Specific data on the utilization patterns of points are not available to us. On the basis of anecdotal accounts given to the WSA by students, we can make a very conservative estimate that the average student has at least 55 unused points as they approach the end of each semester. Therefore, we can conclude that students purchase an aggregate of at least $308,000 each year on points they have no intention of using. Given these conservative estimates, we can project that the total amount of money students spend on meals and points they never use is over $1 million every year.
Nevermind that the Argus makes use of anecdotal evidence to counter this claim in the editorial, the footnote is clear that 55 refers to the average student. The average of 55 implies that many students complained about running out of points at the end of the year and many others complained about having a significant amount left over. In other words, having heard about students who run out of points is not enough evidence to conclude that there are not just as many students who do not run out of points. Student complaints to the WSA are evidence enough of this. It is really disconcerting to me that, in light of student complaints, the Argus editorial worries about how it’s “unfair to expect the administration to be capable of devising a meal plan that would function perfectly for everyone.” I don’t think anybody expects perfection, but complacency with widespread dissatisfaction is unacceptable.
2. The WSA is being impressively transparent. Below is the focal point of the memo:
|Meal Plan||Class Year||Percentage of Meals Used||Average # of meals used per student||Average # of unused meals per student||% of students in class year on plan||# of students on plan||Aggregate # of unused meals||Students’ total cost of unused meals|
|135 Block||2013||80.40%||109||26||68.40%||510||13,483||$ 116,228|
|165 Block||80.50%||133||32||18.20%||136||4,363||$ 37,606|
|210 Block||69.30%||146||64||11.30%||84||5,427||$ 46,784|
|285 Block||70.70%||201||84||2.10%||16||1,306||$ 11,261|
|105 Block||2012||78.20%||82||23||81.30%||576||13,176||$ 113,573|
|135 Block||80.40%||109||26||10.40%||74||1,948||$ 16,794|
|165 Block||80.50%||133||32||8.30%||59||1,891||$ 16,298|
|210 Block||69.30%||146||64||0.10%||1||46||$ 393|
|285 Block||70.70%||201||84||0.10%||1||59||$ 510|
|Total number of unused meals in one semester:||41,699|
|Total value of unused meals paid for by freshman and sophomores combined in one semester:||$ 359,448|
As explained in the footnotes, the data in the columns Percentage of Meals Used and % of Students on Plan were provided by Director of Usdan University Center Michelle Myers-Brown. The rest of the numbers are derived from these and other well-known bits of info (e.g., class sizes, average meal costs, etc.) to estimate the total cost of unused meals in each plan. The calculations are explained in the footnotes and make sense to me (though I’m pathetically bad at math). Anyone who is good at this stuff should comment with their impressions of the math done here and how sound it is. The point to be made here is that the writers of this analysis were completely transparent in how their calculations were made and where the numbers came from. Although there is a fair amount of estimation, it is not put forth in such a way as to conceal shortcomings in the analysis. This is especially commendable considering the next point.
3. Really, all the data is erased? The last point that I want to make about the logistics of the analysis is that the reason so much had to be estimated was because of the unavailability of data. Of course, the reason given was that the bookkeeping “system overwrites itself and erases all data each semester” (Footnote #1). I’m not buying it. It really seems that Myers-Brown and the rest of the crew are reluctant to divulge this information. This reluctance should have raised more eyebrows when the story first came out. I can’t be the only who thinks this would be a very stupid way to do business if it were true.
So now that I’ve talked about issues with the process of completing the analysis, I want to go over a few key findings.
Things to take away from the analysis:
1. The biggest source of waste is in the most flexible plans for sophomores and frosh. As you can see in the above chart, the largest chunks of the $359,448 estimated value of unused meals in one semester comes from the 135 Block Plan for frosh and the 105 Block Plan for sophomores. The numbers themselves are unsettling but the larger point here is that this is supposed to be the most flexible plan available for students who are forced to be on a meal plan. The plan clearly isn’t flexible enough because so many meals are going unused. Students who know that they don’t need as many meals and accordingly choose the meal plan with the lowest number of meals really have no choice but to waste their money on meals. A lot of revenue is coming from this inflexibility on the supposedly most flexible end of the meal plan options.
2. You’re still personally better off on a plan with fewer meals. This is a somewhat minor point considering how few people are actually on this plan, but it seems that the largest percentage of unused meals comes from people on the 285 Block Plan.
3. Students, on average, are picking the wrong meal plan for them. From the memo:
As a side-note, for all meal plans in both years, the average student uses fewer meals than the next lowest meal plan. For example, sophomores on the 165 Block Plan only use an average of 133 meals – which is still fewer meals than they would have had if they had chosen the more flexible 135 Block Plan. This trend of the average student choosing the wrong plan carries through universally for every meal plan option.
This is very useful for anyone forced to buy meals. Based on these averages it makes no sense for there to even be a 285 Block Plan.
4. The entire system is inflexible and does not reflect student needs. The WSA analysis actually did a good job of discussing all the ways in which the system leads to waste and restricts students. One of these is by not allowing points to roll over from one year to the next or be redeemable somehow. You can add points but can’t take them away. A choice that results from this setup is that between never eating off campus or wasting money if you do. Another demonstration of the restrictiveness is sophomores who live in program housing being forced to be on a meal plan like sophomores living in dorms. This limits the program housing experience if they have to eat outside instead of with their housemates. The 4 guest meals is especially ridiculous because after those 4 meals are used up you can’t swipe more than once and spend the meals you paid for on other people.
1. Cutting waste =/= losing something else. The Argus reported that, according to Culliton, in “lowering the minimum number of required meals, there would have to be sacrifices to alleviate the added financial burden.” He also apparently went on to suggest that there would be an increase in dining fees and a reduction of services. Explaining away the flaws in the system as being “factored into the budget” does not make the flaws any less detrimental to the student dining experience or less wasteful of our money. It is possible that giving students more flexibility may require rebudgeting and taking money from other sources, but that alone is not a reason against investigating how the meal and points plans can be changed to better fit students’ needs.
2. The WSA represents students and right now they’re doing it well. While the Argus editorial writer wrongly characterized the Meal Plan Analysis as the WSA “simply complaining that the meal plan provides too little or too much food,” it’s clear that a lot of effort went into listening to and presenting a variety of student complaints to the administration. You, editorial writer, may not have anything to complain about, but a lot of people do and I’m very proud of the WSA for trying to do something about it. The first step in getting anything done is making all of our concerns heard.
3. Anyone who eats on campus should be a part of the conversation. I did agree with one thing in the Argus editorial and that was that “if students are truly outraged about issues in the meal plan and desire change, we as a student body must discuss our priorities with the administration.” I was surprised to read in the article that surveys indicated that students are more satisfied with the overall dining program today than compared with Aramark in 2005. I don’t remember taking any survey and would like more clarification about what questions were asked. The “overall dining program” probably includes a lot of stuff about food and dining spaces. I doubt there was a question that asked “Are you OK with overspending on meals and points by $X?”
Because people in the administration read Wesleying (and the comments!) this is as good a chance as any for us to conduct our own survey, Wesleying-style. Here’s the question (answer in the comments):
Are you satisfied with your meal plan and points options?
(Please give class year and meal plan.)
ETA: The WSA will soon be meeting with members of the administration to address the issues raised in the analysis. You can bet the conversation here will become a part of their discussion.