New minimum meal plan to include more meals, fewer dining dollars

Students voice concerns over increased cost, reduced flexibility, lack of student input

The minimum required meal plan for upper-level (2nd, 3rd, and 4th year) students living in dining dorms has been changed to include 150 meals per semester, instead of the previous 125. The amount of dining dollars in the meal plan has been reduced to $100 per semester.

The cost of the new meal plan will be $2,225.50 per semester, as opposed to $1,950 for last year’s 125 meals + 290 dining dollars per semester plan. This meal plan will be mandatory for residents of dorms with dining halls: Simmons Hall, McCormick Hall, Baker House, Maseeh Hall, and Next House.

However, students have expressed doubt about the plans. Some key concerns were the decrease in dining dollars, lack of flexibility, increased cost per meal, and wasting of extra meal swipes.

In a survey of Next House residents conducted by Next Exec, 93.9% of the 49 respondents said that they were not in favor of the change, while no one responded that they were in favor. “I do think last semester's meal plan wasn't ideal—it had too many dining dollars for the limited selection of food and grocery options you could use it on for on and it was quite expensive—but this one is not any better,” wrote Thomas Adebiyi ’21, a resident of Next House, in an email to The Tech.

According to a Rate Increases FAQ document released March 22, changes to housing and dining policies were implemented by the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation in accordance with inputs received from the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (CUAFA), the Enrollment Management Group (EMG), and the Division for Student Life (DSL). However, in a statement emailed to The Tech, the CUAFA declined any input in this particular change.

The FAQ document says that the new plan is meant to “ensure students have no fewer than 10 meals per week.” The document says that “data and direct inputs from students and faculty” indicated that students on the 125-block plan did not eat adequately due to worries about running out of meal swipes.

Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining, told The Tech in an interview that concerns were first raised in McCormick Hall last October. “The Head of House noticed that the breakfast participation was going down,” said Hayes. “We met with about 15 or so students ... we talked through some of those concerns.” However, Raul Radovitzky, head of house for McCormick, wrote in an email to The Tech that the issues which came up in the dorm had “nothing to do with the new changes that we are just all learning about.”

According to Hayes, the concerns were also based on data from the Fall 2018 semester which indicated that total meal swipe usage across the dining halls had fallen by 11% compared to Fall 2017. The 125-block plan was not offered in Fall 2017, with the minimum commitment at that time being a 10-per-week plan. The new plan is intended to bring the minimum commitment back to that level.

Reduced Dining Dollars

Some students are concerned that reducing dining dollars reduces flexibility. “We’re generally adults who can make our own choices … choosing a certain dorm doesn’t mean: MIT Dining, I want you to regulate my meal habits,” said Annetoinette Figueroa ’21 in an interview with The Tech.

“They say ‘dining plans are built around choice,’ but now I feel like I'm being forced to eat in the dining hall even more than before,” Cory Lynch ’20, a resident of Next House, wrote in an email to The Tech.

Hayes said that dining dollars were no longer serving their original intent. According to Hayes, dining dollars were intended to allow students to use their meal plan in east campus in case it was inconvenient to come back to west campus during class hours, but data from the last year showed that over two thirds of dining dollars were being used for lunch at the Student Center.

Hayes also said that adding more dining dollars to the 150-block plan would have increased the price of the plan beyond the current increase.

Increased Price Per Meal

“Taking into account the dining dollar subsidy, we'd be paying over $14 per swipe, which is more expensive than paying for any meal directly at the register,” wrote Adebiyi. “This just seems unfair for the people in dining dorms forced to get a meal plan.”

Hayes acknowledged that the new plan’s price per meal was higher than the sticker price for the past year. However, he also noted that the sticker prices next year might be higher. “We haven’t established prices for this year yet,” he said.

The FAQ notes that “in comparison with peers and other institutions, MIT’s dining rates are low.”

Financial Concerns

Some students are concerned about the increasing cost of meal plans. Jessica Tang ’20, president of Next House, said in an interview with The Tech that people were concerned the cost would cause people to be split into dorms based off of financial background, reducing the diversity in dorms.

Peter Cummings, an administrator from the Division of Student Life, told The Tech in an interview that financial aid would be adapted to cover rising costs of housing and dining. “The effect [of financial aid] is on an individual, but it’s handled on sort of a group basis. MIT always needs to do its best to support the students on that macro-basis,” he said.

Cummings acknowledged the impact of prices on students, and attributed the increased costs to multiple factors, including worker wages, labor costs, and “financial sustainability” of campus dining.

“I think that if dining halls are such a big issue to maintain, and if you are getting such negative feedback about dining halls, then it’s definitely a fantastic idea to minimize the influence of a dining hall in new dorms and future dorms,” said Maya Levy ’21, a resident of Simmons Hall, in an interview with The Tech.

The new Vassar St. dorm is currently set to be a dining hall dorm, and will provide lunch as well.

House Environment

Hayes and Cummings also mentioned that the dining plan change may get students to “refocus back on the house experience.”

“That’s kinda the purpose of the meal plan, to have students come back or stay in their houses for as many meals as they can,” said Hayes. He added that this would supplement efforts by Heads of Houses to create a community in the hall.

“Honestly, that’s not a real response,” said Levy. “There is no issue with students hanging out in dining hall dorms.” Levy said that students come together to work on problem sets, form study groups, play video games, and for a variety of other activities. She also said that students not going back to their dorms for dinner is often due to busy schedules, and dining dollars are more convenient in those cases.

Communication and Student Involvement

“A lot of people are also upset that this change was made without warning,” Tang said.

“The UA was not involved in this decision,” Alexa Martin ’19, president of the Undergraduate Association (UA), wrote in an email to The Tech. “There are students on the house dining committee including a dining chair from every dining hall dorm. To my knowledge none of them were involved in the decision to change the meal plan ... however, in previous semesters, including a 150/semester option was discussed.”

Hayes said that the decision was rushed due to the concerns raised in October, and hence communication with the student body was compromised. He said that working groups consisting of administrators, faculty, students, and Heads of House have been formed to evaluate both meal plans and overall campus dining for next year, to avoid lack of communication in the future.

“I think that we [students] should try to work with admin. At the end of the day, we need to work together, because the dining halls are not going away, the meal plan is not going away, and there’s a lot of people that enjoy using the meal plan,” said Levy.

A meeting to discuss the dining changes, which will include the house dining committee, will take place today.

Update 4/21/19: The article was updated to reflect that meeting with students in McCormick was the basis for concerns about students on the 125-block plan eating inadqueately, rather than the basis for the meal plan change decision itself.