At a total cost of $59,610 for tuition, room, and board, Swarthmore ranks as one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S. This tendency toward costliness extends to our meal plans as well: the $6,600 the College charges for board is not a small fee for 31 weeks of food. As such, it can be tempting for Swarthmore students to wonder just how much they’re paying each time they hand over their IDs to be swiped into Sharples. Dining services provides no official number for the charge of an individual meal swipe, leaving the question open: what is the cost of a swipe?
“It’s relatively simple: you just divide the number of meals by the cost of board,” said one senior. Despite its apparent simplicity, however, the number seems to range widely from person to person: interviewed students who had performed the calculation themselves or heard a number from someone else cited values ranging from $12-$17, and a 2013 Phoenix article reported the number as $9.80.
This is probably due to the multitude of factors involved in the question that lack a solid definition. For example, how do you determine how many meals a student is actually purchasing on the meal plan? Seniors and first-years are both given more meals under the same plan, as they are on campus for senior week and orientation week, respectively. RAs eat from Sharples during their training, which begins before orientation week. Students who stayed at Swarthmore over Fall and Spring breaks this year were also able to eat at the dining hall. Additionally, how are differences in plans and points adjusted for? Someone on the 20-meal plan is going to have a lower cost-per-swipe than someone on the 14-meal plan, as they are allotted 6 more meals for the same charge; this gap should ostensibly be made up for in points, which also need to be accounted for.
Some of these questions can be answered with data the College provides. For example, Sharples is open for 251 days a year, which is supported by the money students pay for board. Greg Brown, Vice President of Finance, said that “not everyone is here for 251 days, but some students are here longer in the year, so the Dining Hall remains open.”
Using this 251-day figure, we calculated the cost of a swipe for students on the 14, 17, and 20 meal plans. Rather than a single number, there is a wide variation in value between the different meal plans: even with the $390 they receive in points subtracted from their cost of board, students on the 14-meal plan pay over $3 more per meal than those on the 20-meal plan. In fact, in order to bring their adjusted price per meal down to $9.20, students on the 14-meal plan would need to receive nearly $2,000 in points over the year.
“The pricing of the different meal plans as well as the pricing for cash sales are intended to allow students to make choices based on their own preferences. For students that can find the time to go to all meals, the 20-meal plan is clearly the best deal,” said Brown. “However, for many students, having the convenience of using points at off hours and in different venues is more important than having every meal at Sharples.”
These figures may seem daunting at first: even the best price, $9.20, is a significant amount of money to pay for a meal. However, administrators believe the costs are justified. Of the $7 million the College spends yearly on dining services, just over half is used for wages and benefits for employees. Food expenses account for another $2.1 million, and the remainder of the funds are used on utilities, maintenance equipment, insurance, and other miscellaneous expenses.
“We’re running Sharples and we’re running the two coffee bars and the snack bar. That takes a lot of people. Last year, just looking back on the payroll, we paid a total of 144 different people working in those units. Not all of them are full time — some of them are part-time — but you can imagine the number one expense is just pure people,” Brown said. “The College pays what we consider to be a fair wage, and our employees, of course, get benefits. That also adds to the cost, but it’s an important part of who we are.”
The potential to save $6,600 may tempt students to move off-campus, as the College does not currently allow on-campus students to not have a meal plan. This is primarily due to the number of dorm residents per kitchen being too high to provide enough space for cooking, which could become much more common if students were not required to purchase meals from the College. For example, in a Strath Haven unit, where students may be off the meal plan, there are only two or three residents per kitchen; however, that number could be in the 50-100 range in many of the on-campus dorms.
“I think that time is also a consideration. As Swatties, you know, you’re really busy — especially Monday through Friday, schedules are pretty regimented. So, thinking about and having to go shop, pay for all your groceries, then come back, cook, and find time — we do hear feedback from students that it’s not something they think they would want to add in to their schedules,” said Rachel Head, Assistant Dean and Director for Student Engagement. “We have a number of students who live off-campus who still participate in the meal plan, and we have a smaller meal plan option for students who live off-campus in case they only want a certain number of meals per week.”
One important point to note about these estimates is that they only apply to students who are paying the full cost of board; in reality, only about 50% of the student body receives no financial aid from the institution. “In theory, if more students were full pay, the cost per meal might be able to go down since the amount of subsidy would be lower,” said Brown. “This, of course, would run counter to the College’s deep commitment to providing access to a Swarthmore education regardless of the individual student’s financial circumstances.”
Despite this commitment, however, students are sometimes forced to move off-campus in order to stay enrolled at the College, as the $13,550 fee Swarthmore charges for room and board far exceeds the cost of living in an off-campus apartment.
“Sophomore year, I was considering transferring, just because my family was having a hard time being able to keep up with the tuition,” Aaron Jackson ‘16 said. “I needed to decide what possible options could be explored to try and stay here, if I would stay here. The best option that came out of that deliberation was looking at off-campus housing, which would cut off the room and board cost.”
Jackson was able to stay at Swarthmore by moving to an apartment in Morton, a SEPTA stop away from the College. He identified some positive aspects of off-campus living — his own space, more room for independence, and greater cost effectiveness — but he warned any students considering making the move about the potential isolation they may face.
“Being separated from the campus, there can be this loneliness that can fester if you don’t try and counteract it,” he said. “You want to engage and get the most out of the four years that you have […] you need to stay involved, because you’re a Swattie first.”