College: the helicopter parent – Meal plans expose the College’s paternalistic nature

When I came to college in 2012, I was particularly looking forward to independence. My life prior to college was pretty routine and controlled from day to day. And while I’m not going to ignore the fact that well-rounded parental security is a privilege that comes with more benefits than its opposite, I did want to make decisions on my own for once. Maybe I was arriving a few years late to the teenage ritual and rebellion stage that other people generally go through around the age of 15, but I was more than ready to declare agency over my individual personhood. Thus, what I was excited for, more than the prospect of rampantly available beer and college parties, was my own personal mailing address and the illusion of having to take care of myself.

After mulling over the role of independence at the College these past few years, however, I’ve decided that we should be granted a bit more of it. As with life at home, it’s obviously preferable that the College, as a broadly defined “parent” figure, would skew towards overbearing rather than neglect. I would argue, however, that the way the College plays the role of overbearing parent is oddly paternalistic. I further would argue that the College does students, particularly first-years, a disservice by restricting them to certain lifestyle choices that it predetermines are best, like some magnanimous Orwellian spirit.

Take our swipe system. I find the College meal plan to be strangely constructed and technically restrictive. The 21 meal plan, to which all first-years are limited, permits access to 21 meals per week in any open dining venue and 10 free guest meals each semester. Only one swipe per system-designated meal session, across dining venues, is permitted. This theoretically ensures that all students will get exactly three meals a day, seven days a week, with each meal falling between specific, pre-approved hours of the day, with some flexibility provided in late-night snack bar hours but only if one skips a meal elsewhere. This is reinforced by the fact that unused swipes don’t roll over to the next week, so that if you don’t use them, about $9 per swipe of your semester’s meal plan vanishes into thin air, effectively punishing you for failing to conform to mealtime standards. Upperclassmen are reluctantly permitted to wean off the College teat and reduce their meal swipes per week to 14, 10 or five.

Compare this to the system at Amherst, which is not based on numbering and is noticeably more flexible. Their full meal plan consists of unlimited access to the dining hall seven days a week, while the lunch and dinner meal plan consists of – you guessed it – unlimited access to the dining hall during lunch and dinner hours only. Dining hours extend slightly longer than ours do for each meal too – allowing students more room for choice and variation, without the punishment for wasted swipes lingering over your head.

Of course, it’s also notable that Amherst’s primary dining hall, Valentine Dining Commons, is the only true dining venue available to Amherst students, while we Ephs have the luxury of choosing between three or more options, depending on the day and meal. Look further into the dining customs of other peer institutions, and I think you’ll find a similar give-and-take, but one that ultimately reveals the rigidity inherent in our swipe system.

I’m certainly not saying that the College fails to provide adequate dining options or that access to them is prohibitively limited. Rather, I believe that our meal swipe system reveals the College’s paternalistic attitude, one that assumes students need a lot of rules and supervision. Why only allow seniors to opt out of the meal swipe system? Why make meals increasingly and absurdly expensive as dependence on the swipe system decreases? Why confine first-years to a rigid meal schedule, rather than trusting them to figure out what works for them?

Consider the different lives people come into college having experienced. To assume that all students need to be corralled into eating at the “correct” times each day, with the occasional day off for a fun little drunchies snack bar transgression, seems condescending, particularly towards students who learned to feed themselves long before they came to college, but also towards students who are treated as if they won’t be able to learn how to do this otherwise.

It’s easy to criticize students as living in a bubble when, in many ways, we do – a privileged bubble overflowing with resources that are visible to everyone except us. It becomes just slightly easier to realize how privileged we are, as individuals, to be at the College once you try to buy your own almond butter or quinoa, the same ones that are regularly available in magical bottomless silver tubs at Mission or Whitman’s. These foods are freaking expensive, guys.

College is a place where we come to grow and learn, and I don’t think it would hurt for the College at large to coddle its students less. We are here, in many ways, to become better adults, and we deserve to be treated as such.

Rachel Lee ’16 is an English and studio art double major from Yorktown Heights, N.Y. She lives on North Street.

Comments (3)

  1. Sure, student flexibility and responsibility. But I’d be curious to hear what Food Service would think of such a plan. I cannot imagine it is easy planning meals for 1,500 or students each day. I would imagine its even harder not knowing if — on any given day or meal, for that matter — the actual number is 500, 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000.

    At least when I was there, the dining halls didn’t serve “leftovers” too often.

    MRL ’91

  2. “…it’s obviously preferable that the College, as a broadly defined ‘parent’ figure, would skew towards overbearing rather than neglect.”

    Every generation from the 1960’s until you millennials would vehemently disagree with this statement. What makes this current generation of students so emotionally needy and wholly dependent on constant “adult supervision”?

    1. Hi,

      But did you read the rest of the article? This entire piece is about how the College is a “helicopter parent” (see the title?), so meticulously overbearing and controlling about students’ meal plans that it restricts them from growing into more independent adults. Ms. Lee is arguing for more freedom for students to make their own dietary decisions, not for “constant ‘adult supervision'” because she’s “so emotionally needy”, because she’s–God forbid!–a millennial. She’s arguing for the exact opposite of “constant ‘adult supervision'”.

      See: “College is a place where we come to grow and learn, and I don’t think it would hurt for the College at large to coddle its students less. We are here, in many ways, to become better adults, and we deserve to be treated as such.”

      Don’t write off an entire generation of people when you’re the one not doing the work to listen.

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