MIT offers great flexibility with its dining plan. Many other schools around the country force students to buy into a dining plan that could feed a family of four for six months. Whatever money the student does not spend on food is lost. At MIT, we instead boast a “pay as you go system” that gives students more dining options.
The above is the spiel often given at MIT info sessions and on campus tours. Too bad it’s a ruse. The mandatory “Preferred Dining” program at Next House, Baker, Simmons, and McCormick Hall is a perfect example of an inefficient and unnecessarily punitive dining program — the very program that MIT prides itself on not possessing.
The program charges all residents of the four dorms, except seniors in McCormick, three hundred dollars per term. This fee gets residents a 50 percent discount on most items in their dining halls. A cursory look at the system might make it seem beneficial to the student. However, in order for someone to take advantage of the system he or she must spend $600 each semester. Each dining hall is typically open for 60 meals in the course of a semester, so that students must spend $10 at each meal to make the program worthwhile. In addition, they must eat every meal at the dining hall.
Unfortunately, both of these value requirements are rarely met. According to Volume 126 Issue 40 of The Tech, the average check at one of the four dining halls is $8. Moreover, it is safe to say that nobody eats every meal in their dining hall — in fact, a sizeable demographic never eats in a dormitory. Those freshmen with Greek affiliations (50 percent of males and 25 percent of females) often eat meals at their respective houses. They end up paying double: at the house and through the dining halls. Also, if a resident goes out to a meal in Boston, he or she is effectively paying both $10 for the missed meal in the dining hall and the cost of what they actually eat. The assumptions made by MIT’s Preferred Dining program are simply far-fetched.
The rationale behind Preferred Dining is twofold. The first is to help subsidize campus dining and make it autonomous. MIT should not make students pay for an inefficient dining program; it should shoulder the weight itself. We pay enough tuition as it is; it is ridiculous to expect us to pay $10 every night for dinner in our dorms.
The second reason given for Preferred Dining is that it encourages students to eat in their dorms and thus builds community. In this goal, Preferred Dining fails miserably. MIT does not understand that students cannot simply be forced to interact with one another. If I have free time at dinner, I will eat with my friends. I am probably not going to approach someone I have never met before and strike up a conversation in the interest of building community. (Although if I did the topic of conversation would probably be how overpriced the hamburger we are both eating is).
There are a number of simple solutions to make Preferred Dining more valuable. Dining halls could be open seven days a week or could serve lunch and breakfast in addition to dinner. Both of these scenarios would make the program more economically feasible for students. The best way to fix the program, however, would be to make it optional. Those who eat enough to make Preferred Dining useful would purchase it and those who never use it will not be forced to pay $600 a year.
MIT seems to have an aversion to making things mandatory for students — why the exception here?
This column was first published in The Tech on February 13, 2007. Seniors in McCormick are now required to buy into the Preferred Dining program.