We, the undersigned, fully endorse this letter and look forward to changes in University policies that will enable the Princeton undergraduate experience to continue to achieve its full potential. We are all prepared to work cooperatively with the University to achieve the vision articulated in the recently released task force report on the relationship of the University and the eating clubs.
Robert Casey ’67
Cannon Dial Elm
Thomas Fleming ’69
Cap and Gown Club
John Beers ’76
Caroline McCarthy ’06
Angelica Pedraza ’12
Dominic Moross ’90
Dinesh Maneyapanda ’94
Robert “Hap” Cooper ’82
Michael Matejek ’74
Unintended consequences of certain well-intentioned University policies are negatively impacting the undergraduate experience. The University generously increased the financial-aid package for juniors and seniors to fund most of the additional cost of eating clubs. These funds are available to students whether or not they choose to join an eating club, eat in a residential college or a co-op, or become independent. But as any upperclassman on financial aid receives thousands of dollars in cash to spend as they choose, the financial-aid package as it currently exists is unintentionally a powerful incentive not to join a club or sign a University full meal contract.
Report looks at changes at the clubs; new admission process to debut
The University wants students to make market-based decisions among alternatives, but at the same time, it distorts the process by heavily subsidizing certain ones at the expense of others. Rather than making necessary adjustments to their policies, the University has placed the burden on the clubs to provide solutions, which is not realistic and cannot by itself solve the problem.
The University is justifiably proud of the fact that the number of Pell Grant-eligible (“PGE”) students has tripled to 23 percent in 10 years. Combining the existing policies (as outlined above) with a rapidly changing demographic implies:
– Financial aid students are incented to not join or to drop out of eating clubs and residential colleges, which negatively impacts their:
- Nutrition decisions
- Social option
- Community and networking opportunities.
The impact of this shift means that:
– Residential colleges will not reach their full potential.
– More eating clubs, particularly ones with open admissions, will fail.
– Opportunities for synergies between clubs and colleges will languish.
– Some alumni, who eagerly contribute to annual giving to fund financial aid, might withdraw support when they learn some of their donation dollars are funding non-Princeton expenses, which includes sending money home.
Detailed Analysis of the Problem
Eating Clubs: Valuable Princeton Asset
Each spring, the University conducts a mandatory poll of graduating seniors. Among the questions asked are those that measure satisfaction with the undergraduate experience. Year after year, members of eating clubs are the most satisfied with their Princeton experience.
Happy undergraduates become supportive alumni, and Princeton alumni support is the envy of other universities. Not only do the clubs enhance the undergraduate experience, but they also continue to provide a welcome link to alumni through graduate communications and by providing a meeting place for alumni returning to campus.
Health and Safety:
The clubs are centrally located, enabling students to easily walk there during both academic and social hours. Students do not need automobiles for social options or to purchase food. The health and safety of members and the broader Princeton community is enhanced with the clubs’ professional management, strict grad board supervision in close partnership with the University, and co-ed membership.
The insurance industry validates how these attributes impact risk. Our insurance broker has told us that a Princeton eating club pays less for $12MM of strong liability coverage than a typical fraternity on other campuses pays for $1MM of weaker coverage.
The clubs, most of whom pay significant property taxes, have also facilitated the University objective to be good neighbors to the town. Truck Fest, an undergraduate initiative of the clubs, has raised in five years over $120,000 for local charities, while providing family entertainment for town residents. Community service chairs in each club have also organized numerous individual club efforts. Many visitors have taken advantage of public tours of our historically significant buildings
Diversity Equity and Inclusion:
Clubs, independent of the University and independent from each other, have been able to provide these benefits to students, alumni, and the local community for generations because we have evolved with a changing university and a more diverse student population. Eleven clubs, five using open admissions and six with a selective process, are not the optimal dining and social alternative for 100 percent of undergraduates, but they must be accessible to all who want to join regardless of economic background. The clubs are continuously working to create a fully inclusive club system, but a significant barrier to achieving such a system is economic.
Problematic Princeton Policies:
Current University policies provide a clear economic incentive for all students, but especially those of lower socioeconomic status, to choose other options.
The cost of eating clubs is around $9,500 per year including social fees. The University generously provides approximately $2,000 in additional funding per year, over what students received as freshmen and sophomores, to all juniors and seniors on financial aid to cover most of the additional cost of clubs. For a student on full scholarship, this translates to around $8,000 of the cost being covered by financial aid, leaving the student and her or his family to find another $1,500 elsewhere. If they decide not to join clubs, they can use that $8,000 for feeding themselves, as well as whatever else they choose, including sending money home. For PGE students with an average family income of $30,000, the pressure to use this money for other objectives, including potentially to send thousands of dollars home, as opposed to finding an additional $1,500 to join a club, can be overwhelming.
The University has the laudable objective that students should make market- based decisions. The problem arises when it:
– Uses its $25 billion endowment and exemption from property taxes to subsidize University offerings.
– Expects privately owned, thinly capitalized, property-tax-paying clubs to compete on price with these subsidized offerings.
Cost Structure of Clubs
There is no doubt that the individualized approach of eating clubs, which contributes to their unique popularity and culture, is expensive. Clubs can and should do more to decrease costs using the successful insurance purchasing effort as a model. It is, however, unrealistic to think that game-changing efficiencies are possible.
Enterprising students have calculated the per-day cost of meals in various campus alternatives. Given frequent breaks in the student calendar, high fixed costs have to be covered in seven months of operations, resulting in a per-day club meal cost of $45 including social fees. This price level makes it impossible to compete with town restaurants that are operational 12 months a year and provide no other services. The University, when it sponsors alternatives operating on the same school calendar, can charge the price it wants without worrying about covering fully allocated costs.
Of the $9,500 that club members pay, approximately $800 goes for social fees. In many clubs, $500 (or even $800) per member goes to pay property taxes. Less than a third of the $9,500 cost goes to the purchase and preparation of food. The lion’s share of member fees covers facilities that make the member experience so enjoyable and are extensively used for studying. Many of these facilities would need to be either taken over or replaced elsewhere by the University if the clubs closed.
If students choose to either not join a club or drop for financial reasons, they still have to eat and can choose among alternatives that benefit from varying degrees of subsidies.
Free Meals: Under current University policy, all juniors and seniors can have two free meals a week in the colleges. Free food offerings are also often available at seminars and other campus functions.
Free Kitchens: All dormitories cost the same, yet some have kitchens, which effectively mean that the additional space, appliances, and utility costs are provided for free. Extensive and inexpensive food offerings are available on campus, including in the old U-Store.
Both free meals and free kitchens are of little value to those students who pay for full meal contracts with eating clubs or residential colleges.
It is not surprising that co-ops are increasingly popular with students. 2 Dickinson, with a $1,200 annual cost, states on its website:
“As a co-op member you will cook dinner once a week with other members (no experience necessary!) and are welcome to eat at 2 Dickinson every night of the week. You may use the co-op kitchen any time of the day or night, or enjoy leftovers, fruit, cereal, bread and anything else from a well-stocked pantry.”
Apparently, the University provides the house and lawn, appliances, and utilities all for free.
The current full meal contract cost in a residential college is $6,840 a year. As the residential colleges operate on the same school calendar as clubs, we assume that considerable overhead is absorbed by the University and not charged to students, something the University can do with its endowment that the privately owned clubs cannot do.
Not Requiring Mandatory Meal Contracts
The University does not require juniors and seniors to have full meal contracts. The clubs believe that their value proposition is such that they can compete at current pricing with full meal contracts in the residential colleges, and nearly 70 percent of upperclassmen continue to choose clubs. When students drop their eating club for financial reasons, they usually go independent and benefit from the heavy subsidies. The clubs, in their quest to be inclusive, exacerbate the problem by a generous guest-pass system that provides all students, including independents, with extensive social opportunities for free.
Inadequate University Response
The clubs have been discussing these issues with the University for some time and were hopeful that the recently concluded Task Force on the Relationship of the University and the Clubs would make progress. The undersigned represented the Graduate Inter-Club Council (“GICC”), the association of the 11 clubs at the graduat-board level. Unfortunately, the University’s response to date has been inadequate.
Proposed Dining Plan
Early in the task force, the University shared with us a proposed plan that addressed some of the issues mentioned here. Recognizing the nutritional arguments, as well as the demand by students for more flexibility, a key element of the plan was to require a base meal contract of one meal per day for all juniors and seniors at a cost of $2,500 per year or, given the University calendar, about $10 a day compared to the current full meal contract of $6,840.
The clubs supported this plan as a positive first step because it would:
– Provide a base level of nutrition for all students.
– Decouple housing and dining, thus:
- Removing the current inequity that most of the best housing goes to members of residential colleges, not eating clubs.
- Paving the way for more integration of the college and club experience.
– Reduce somewhat the economic incentive to drop club membership, as the two-free-meal subsidy would be eliminated.
We did point out a major concern. The $2,500 base plan is also heavily subsidized, as its architects admitted the pricing was based on what the market would bear rather than an attempt to cover costs. If this plan is implemented, it could become the dominant plan on campus for the growing number of price-sensitive students. This will not only negatively impact the clubs and reduce diversity, but it will also negatively impact both the community aspects and the real economics of residential colleges. How many students will choose a nearly $7,000 full meal plan, when they can pay $2,500 for dinners and deal with breakfast and lunch in more economical ways? The inevitable result will be that the University will need to absorb still more residential-college overhead.
Students are busy, and meals provide the time for the sort of interaction with others that we all believe is critical to college life and for building lifelong friendships. Missing the opportunities provided by two-thirds of their daily meals is short changing these Princeton students.
Suggestions were made in task force meetings that the clubs could respond to this new plan by devising similarly flexible approaches. Clearly, clubs who are already faced with the consequences of covering the cost of 12 months of overhead with plans covering 600 meals would be hard-pressed to survive and be competitive offering plans covering only 200 meals.
When the new plan was released on campus last spring for feedback, the response was overwhelmingly negative from both independents and coop members, who would be required to take the base plan in addition to being members of a coop. The reaction was so strong that the University appears to have put it on the back burner, preserving the highly sub-optimal status quo.
Placing Financial Aid Burden on Clubs
The University wants the clubs to provide financial aid. Clubs providing aid have for the first time summarized their varied approaches on the eating club website: (https://princetoneatingclubs.org/club-fees/). The problems are several:
– An extra $1,000 to $1,500 will not be sufficient for the student expecting to use funds for other purposes.
– The financial resources of the clubs vary considerably.
– Clubs with the most economically diverse membership will have the greatest demand for aid.
– It is uncomfortable and an invasion of privacy to require students to release financia-aid data to the clubs. This information should remain in the hands of the professionals in the University’s financia-aid department.
– The reasons that students need money vary considerably, and since clubs cannot accommodate all requests, clubs are forced to make highly subjective judgments.
– The potential magnitude of the problem will force the clubs to compete with the University for funding, which runs the risk of annoying alumni who might contribute less overall when they understand the fundamental lack of logic in the approach.
– Clubs raise funds through their foundations whose mandate is to preserve the historic architecture of their facilities, not fund scholarships. The clubs want to be able to appeal to all students because it is the right thing to do; it would be tragic if certain students and the clubs were deprived of the opportunity. It is also a matter of fiscal necessity for the clubs as the rapidly changing demographics of the undergraduate population mean that clubs will not survive if they cannot appeal to 60 percent of the undergraduates who are on financial aid, over a third of whom who are PGE. The University should provide financial aid, and the clubs should focus their resources, including essential alumni support, to drive down costs to ensure our competiveness in the long run for all students.
The University has suggested a wait-and-see posture to see how these issues shake out. There are multiple negative implications in the meantime:
– Students from economically disadvantaged families are placed in an unfair position if they are forced to make a choice between helping their family financially or joining a club.
– Dining choices of independents often lack proper nutrition and waste valuable student time to purchase food and prepare meals.
– Forcing the clubs to fund a solution:
- Places additional fiscal pressure on all the clubs, particularly some open clubs already in a fragile financial situation.
- Could result in there being fewer clubs, mostly selective, appealing to the economic elite.
- Wastes valuable time when core problems are not addressed.
– Many alumni donate to Annual Giving because they want to fund financial aid. Many will be surprised and disappointed that their donations can cover non-Princeton expenses.
Mandatory Full Meal Contracts
The simplest solution is for the University to begin the transition to requiring all juniors and seniors to have a full meal contract, as is the case for freshmen and sophomores at Princeton and all students who live on campus at Harvard and Yale, both of which have vibrant residential-college systems.
The Harvard website succinctly captures their rationale:
“Many life-changing moments and memorable conversations happen over meals — exploring ideas, making friends, sharing stories. The warmth and vibrance of our dining halls foster life-long friendship networks and engender the intimate feeling of family and community.
“As such, Harvard College requires all undergraduates living on campus to have an unlimited meal plan. That way, you are able to eat all meals and participate in dining hall activities with your peers in every House.”
Princeton’s flexible approach seems to be closer to Cornell’s, where a recent New York Times article chronicled the senior year of a Guyana-born student.
“Facing mounting costs at Cornell, Samuel Issiah Williams decided to skip a meal plan his senior year and think creatively to get by. ... After class, he cooks simple meals for himself. His favorite childhood foods — like Guyanese cook-up rice — are too challenging and expensive to make, so he often relies on pasta, canned beans, and chicken tenders. He watches a GroupMe message channel on campus that points students to free food and shows up to those events. ‘I always find a way,’ he said.
“Mr. Williams says that he does not often talk about his financial struggles with his classmates. But hunger is a pervasive problem across college campuses, affecting millions of students, according to a survey released this year by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Of the 43,000 students at 66 colleges surveyed, 36 percent had trouble getting enough to eat on a daily basis.”
Co-ops, which can provide a community experience, could qualify as full meal contracts as long as their pricing reflects fully allocated costs.
The clear value proposition of the clubs has allowed us to compete with full meal contracts in the colleges while still funding most of the social life of the entire campus through our generous guest-passes system. Neither the clubs’ nor the colleges’ full-meal contracts can compete with either no contracts or heavily subsidized base contracts.
Clearly, something has to give, and it should be an easy decision to maximize community experience through colleges, clubs, and co-ops at the expense of independence. After all, students with the fewest options and the most struggles will be hit the hardest.
The proposed solution addresses all the negative implications mentioned in the previous section and creates additional opportunities.
Residential College/Eating Club Synergies
Informed consensus is that the college system at Princeton has not reached its potential. The position of the clubs on campus initially led to the creation of two- year colleges before adding four-year colleges. The University has just announced the formation of Perelman College to respond to the increase in undergraduate enrollment and has plans for yet another four-year college in the coming years. Steps will also be taken to transform existing two-year colleges into four-year colleges.
Requiring a full meal contract while imaginatively looking at how students can reap the benefits of both being a member of a four-year college and an eating club will strengthen both the clubs and the colleges and provide an unrivaled undergraduate experience. Suggestions in the task force report – which include examining whether students could eat breakfast in their colleges and lunches and dinners in the clubs, as well as possibly closing the clubs one night a week so that all college members could dine together – are good beginnings. While these suggestions will not lead to major cost savings, they can provide students with an optimal experience once transfer-pricing details are worked out.
Facilitating the Transition from Sophomore to Junior Year
Currently, in addition to the conditions leading to the “sophomore slump” prevalent on all campuses, Princeton sophomores face important decisions. In addition to choosing a major, they must decide which dining and social option to choose for the next two years, a choice that can be anxiety producing. Having the opportunity to continue in their college and still join a club should provide a seamless transition from sophomore to junior year.
Typically, grand solutions to big problems are costly and require funding. In this case, requiring full meal contracts saves Princeton money as it reduces expensive subsidies. It simply asks financial-aid students to use Princeton-supplied funds to pay for Princeton-related expenses. If the University trustees choose to use some of the savings to fund other educational expenses for the most needy, that can be done in ways that do not negatively impact nutrition and community.
Princeton detractors often point to the eating clubs as evidence of the elitism of the University. The reality is that the clubs represent the great demographic diversity of today’s University, a sharp contrast to the elitism of Harvard’s Final Clubs and Yale’s Secret Societies, as well as the dominant Greek culture that continues to exist on many selective college campuses.
It is imperative that we find a solution. Otherwise, the club system at Princeton will have a handful of selective clubs catering of necessity to the wealthy, an outcome that is equally unwelcome to both the University and the clubs.
The solution of mandatory full meal contracts is simple and economical. Something has to give in the University’s quest to provide maximum flexibility for students, and it should be reducing the economic allure of independence at the expense of residential colleges and eating clubs. People come to Princeton to be part of vibrant and diverse communities, not to microwave noodles in their dorm rooms.
Princeton is currently funding a first-class dining and social experience for all Princeton juniors and seniors but simultaneously providing economic incentives for students to miss out on other available opportunities. This has to stop.
GICC Representatives to the Task Force on the Relationship of the University and the Clubs
Thomas F. Fleming Jr. ’69, Chair: GICC and Cap and Gown Club
Charles C. Freyer ’69, Chair: Princeton Prospect Purchasing Group; Vice Chair: Cannon Dial Elm Club; Treasurer: GICC
Angelica Pedraza ’12, Chair: Colonial Club; Secretary: GICC