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Meal or points?

By Alex Schneider

Section: Features

March 5, 2010

Last semester, Adrienne Karlovsky ’12 ran out of points. Over the semester, she would stock up on various snacks while still paying for meals with points; as Karlovsky explains it, “I was trying to double up.”

By the end of the semester, her combo meal plan point allowance of 525 was gone.

On Feb. 21, Josh Goldman ’11 was charged a penny to his All Points declining balance meal plan. According to Goldman, he had instructed the cashier at Sherman that he wanted to pay in points, but the cashier instead swiped the card as a meal. The penny was deducted because of the mistake.

Similarly, Nora Mitnick ’12 and Amanda Feldman ’11 were also incorrectly charged a penny at Sherman. Both were unaware such a charge had been made.

Last week, Ben Henig ’12 visited the Upstairs Café for the first time, bought a sandwich and a drink, and asked to pay with a meal. Later, though, he realized his points balance had fallen by almost 10. Instead of charging him a meal, the register had deducted points.

Everyday, students at Brandeis who use meals, points, dining dollars or WhoCash hand their campus ID–or WhoCard–to cashiers to pay for items such as food or books, or services such as library printing or dorm laundry. Every swipe of the card represents value deducted from funds already paid to Brandeis in the form of fees or, as is the case with dining dollars and WhoCash, discretionary money deposited for convenience into an account.

Tracking usage of this money has typically been difficult. Until recently, WhoCard usage data was only available if a student requested information from administrators in the Campus Card Office.

Now, the data is available through netcardmanager.com, a Web site hosted by the Ithaca, N.Y., company CBORD Group, which provides Brandeis with its magnetic stripe card equipment. Students can access the site–which is currently riddled with error messages–with their single sign-on UNET ID at https://sys.brandeis.edu/offsitesso/cbord.

Faulty Charges

None of the students listed above brought the extraneous charges to the attention of the Campus Card Office. Campus Card Office Director Muriel Bolio said “very few” students visit the office to lodge any official complaints regarding their campus card usage. “I’ve had students question [their balance],” she said, but the number of corrections she has seen made amount to “three or four” cases since the beginning of the year. Most changes involve library copiers that incorrectly charged students.

Bolio did note that students may also consult dining hall managers or cashiers for refunds.

Still, students like Henig never thought to complain until shown the online data. Henig thought he had been charged incorrectly, but the online data confirmed his case. He says he still will not ask for a refund, but that now that the data is online, “I’d be more likely to complain [in the future] because I have proof.”

Student Trends

Nora Mitnick ’12 claims to “live in the [Shapiro] theater.” A carpenter for the Undergraduate Theatre Collective, Mitnick often finds herself working long hours in the Shapiro Campus Center. Sometimes, fellow theater crewmembers order take out from various eateries in Waltham and treat the rest of the theater crew.

At other times, Mitnick reciprocates by treating her friends to food from Einstein Bros. Bagels.

As opposed to the spring 2009 semester when she ate at Einstein’s only 5 times spending 11.90 in points, since August, Mitnick has visited Einstein’s 79 times, spending a total of 345 points. The difference? Now, according to Mitnick, with classes in the Shapiro Science Center, multiple late nights working in the Shapiro Campus Center, and the All Points plan, Einstein’s makes more sense.

Feldman returned from study abroad last semester and now lives in the Village. She prefers the Village meal plan to her former All Points plan, though she wishes it could have more points and cost much less money.

“Since I cook around three nights a week in the Village, and also have leftovers a couple of nights a week, I do not need all of the meals/points on the Village meal plan,” Feldman said.

Feldman added that she and her friends “prefer the freshness, quality and variety of home cooking to most things offered in any of the dining halls.”

With All Points, Feldman used to eat at the Faculty Club or Stein for “variety,” spending nearly 19 percent of her points there last year. Now that she does not have as many points, she used points at the faculty club only once.

Feldman, Mitnick and Tommy Arnot ’11, all have spent most points at the P.O.D. market.

Arnot spent 51 percent of his Combo meal plan points at the P.O.D. since January 2009, making 93 visits to the store in total.

Similarly, Mitnick spent 87 percent of points at the P.O.D. when she was on the combo meal plan last year. Now on the All Points plan, she spends 38 percent at the P.O.D., still more than at any other location. Feldman spent 36 percent of points at the P.O.D. when she was on the Combo meal plan, but now on the Village plan, she only spends 9 percent at the P.O.D., reserving most of her spending – 30 percent – for Einstein’s

“[Einstein’s] is close and convenient to grab something on the go,” Mitnick explained.

Goldman spent the most points–36 percent–at Einstein’s as well with his All Points plan.

“I live in Ziv, have all of my classes in Slosberg, [the International Business School] and Spingold, and none of my friends live farther than Rosenthal,” he said. “Einstein’s is the best place for me to get reasonable quality food for points conveniently.”

Students surveyed overwhelmingly used WhoCash for laundry rather than food. Arnot and Goldman never used WhoCash, Mitnick used it exclusively for laundry, and Feldman spent 54 percent of $48 total of WhoCash on laundry, reserving the rest for small expenses, the largest of which was a one-time visit to Sherman.

Even Teresa Hashiguchi ’13 – who is on the 14 Meal plan, has spent a total 84 cents of WhoCash on food as compared with $22 in laundry since the beginning of the academic year.

Costly Meal Plans

According to a survey by the College Board, fees for room and board have risen for private, not-for-profit four-year colleges such as Brandeis by $377 since the last school year, a change of 4.2 percent. Accounting for such changes, the current average cost for room and board is $9,363. At Brandeis, a student living in a double and buying the Combo meal plan is charged $11,016.

Dining plan money then sits in an account until students choose to use the money. At the end of the academic year, all unused funds are lost, except WhoCash, which carries over from year to year and can be withdrawn at the end of a student’s time at Brandeis.

The new online system for checking balances enables students to plan ahead and budget their spending, so that they make full use of the money they have already paid.

As Karlovsky pointed out, she would sometimes ask for her account balance at the checkout line, but the value often sounded meaningless to her. A running tally of her points usage, she said, would have helped her budget her points so she would not run out too early.

“Yes. That would really help me,” she said. “Its always easier to [use] a running balance to think ahead.”

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