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Debit Where It's Due

By Zachary M. Schrag

LAST year in Ec 10, Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61 used a close-to-home illustration of the efficiency of free markets at satisfying consumer demand. I don't remember what his point was, but the illustration involved a student declining lunch at the Union and instead using his money across the street at Mr. Bartley's Burgers.

Of course, Feldstein pointed out, such a decision is not possible under current University policy. The current policy is inefficient at satisfying consumer demand. That's why the issue of giving students more choice in where to spend their dining dollars is an important one.

Many colleges do not bind their students to paying for 21 meals per week at campus cafeterias. Instead, students pay a certain amount of money at the beginning of the term, which is recorded on a wallet-sized card. These debit cards may be used in regular dining halls or in alternative college-operated eateries, such as delis and pizza parlors.

Harvard, of course, does not offer a debit-card system. According to an official at Harvard Dining Services, the primary reason for restricting students to dining halls is that the administration wants to promote a sense of community.

Since the 1930s, the chief instrument for building that community has been the house system. The administration believes that a debit-card system would encourage students to forego meals in their houses, thus weakening ties among house members and eroding the sense of community.

UNDER the current system, all students (with the exception of the few who live off-campus or in the co-ops) pay $2145 (about $9.25 a day) per year for 21 meals per week. Students have three options: eat in one of the dining halls, get a bag lunch or forfeit their money and go out. In practice, the average student takes 14 meals a week in the University system, making the average cost per meal $4.10.

Rather than creating a selection of university-operated eateries, as many colleges do, Harvard could rely upon the many restaurants in the Square. A debit-card system at Harvard would thus have to involve cash refunds for unused meals, so that the cash could be used at local eateries. Under this system, a student could choose between one meal at a house dining hall or $4.10 to spend at a house grill or a private restaurant.

But for all the faults of the dining hall system, a debit-card system with no restrictions would not be any better. It would probably weaken the house system, and possibly the health of students. Neither the strict dining hall system nor an unrestricted debit-card system is ideal for Harvard.

Fortunately, there is plenty of room for compromise. By making only six meals per week refundable, the University could essentially require that students eat at least eight meals per week in one of the houses. This middle course would be an excellent way to give students much more flexibility while protecting the house system.

The advantages of the limited-debit system stem from the flexibility it affords students. Everyone has a least-favorite night on the dining hall menu cycle, and a limited-debit system would allow them to avoid it. Secondly, students could avoid the endless lines at lunch-time at the Union, Adams, Quincy and Lowell. The Quadlings who must crowd into river houses at lunch would be free to choose a restaurant instead.

Students would also have more flexibility about the times they eat. The hours that restaurants are open correspond more closely than the dining halls to the 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. schedule that most students keep.

THE advantage of dining halls comes from the social cohesion of the houses--meeting new people in one's house and seeing people whom one would not otherwise see. While students may not meet a lifelong friend each time they go downstairs for Skincredibles, Harvard dining halls can be wonderful places, crammed with interesting, friendly people ready to talk about almost anything.

If I believed that a debit system would destroy the house community, I would not advocate it. But I believe that students can be given more choice without jeopardizing the house communities.

First, the influx of Harvard students could turn some nearby restaurants into student hangouts.

Second, limiting refundable meals to six per week would keep the dining halls populated.

Third, even without this coercion, many students would still prefer their house dining halls. Students are aware that dining halls are good places to meet their friends, and there are few places in the Square besides the Harvard dining halls where you can get an all-you-can-eat dinner for $4.10.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, lunch isn't social anyway. Eating lunch in a deserted Quad house isn't social. Eating lunch in a jammed Adams or Lowell House with a bunch of interhouse strangers isn't social. Missing your friends because your classes are at noon and theirs are at 1 p.m. isn't social. Because lunch isn't social, having some students desert it will not appreciably hurt the house system.

Given eight meals plus cash, most students would probably skip breakfast, eat lunch out, and come home for dinners and Sunday brunch. It is hard to get a good dinner for under $5, but getting a great lunch in Cambridge for the same amount is no challenge at all.

Under a limited-debit system, dinners would still have the same social function as before, while students would enjoy the flexibility of a cash system. An acceptable balance would be struck. If it became necessary to ensure this balance, the University could make only lunches refundable, although this measure would probably not be needed.

Although a cash system would be a boon to those who choose to eat out more often, it could also improve meals for those who stay in the houses.

Obviously, the dining halls would be less crowded for those who remained. A cash system could also make the dining services more responsive to student preferences. If students had complete freedom to choose which meals they wanted to eat in the dining halls, the most and least favorite meals would quickly become evident. Martin Feldstein would have no trouble explaining that.

As a Harvard student, I hold the house system sacred. But as an epicurean, I also hold good food sacred. The two are not incompatible, and a limited-debit card system could honor both.

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