March 2010

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During the past 18 months of budget discussions on campus, the most common request I heard from students, aside from preserving the academic excellence of the College, centered on dining.

We converted the use of one of the three large dining halls from meal plan use to daily language table use and special event use, which means students all now dine in Ross and Proctor, both enlarged in the past year.  Though some bemoan the loss of convenience of having fewer options for where to eat (mostly students living in the Atwater suites since first-years in Allen never knew of the convenience), and wonder whether the servery area is larger enough to accommodate the 15-minute rushes at lunchtime, a surprising number like fewer dining halls as they can see more of their friends more frequently.  In fact, a major criticism of the original commons plan (1998), which proposed having five (yes 5) separate dining halls, was that we would be carving up the campus and students would see less of their friends than before during a crucial (for Middlebury) social event—lunches and dinner.  Moving from 3 to 2 dining halls, then, at least addressed this issue.

But the BIG issue students raise with me is the unique meal plan we have and have had for more than a decade.  We have no 21-meal, 16-meal, 12-meal options, or weekday versus 7-day options either.  We have one plan: all meals all the time.  That is, students can eat all they want, and do it at both Proctor and Ross, even during the same meal period.  They can meet with friends at Ross, have an early dinner, and then meet other friends 90 minutes later and have dinner again.  In addition, there are no “checkers” at Middlebury, which means students come and go without having to swipe an ID or be checked by anyone and so friends visiting their Middlebury students can eat as guests of the College (at no charge).

From a strictly business perspective this seems ludicrous…and some have said as much.  There is an extra cost to this kind of meal plan.  Yet students, and I mean a lot of students, and a good number of parents, have stated over and over how important an element of the Middlebury experience our unique (and more expensive) meal plan is: through it, students argue, meals remain a central part of their experience here.  Students tend to linger far longer over meals than would be the case if we had the typical kinds of restrictions one finds elsewhere and therefore our students engage their peers and quite often faculty and staff who join them for meals in ways that are very valuable and important to the overall educational experience.  Having taken many lunches in Proctor this year (and some in Ross), I can affirm this observation.  I have been to enough dining halls elsewhere to see the difference and believe the students (and parents) who make this argument make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, the question is whether all that this meal plan brings is worth the premium.   More directly, I would love to know, in specific ways, what about our meal plan do our students love most, and what about it should be preserved, and preserved above other aspects of Middlebury that are going through budgetary review.

  • Is it the freedom to come and go without having checkers so the dining experience feels more like home and not a college dining hall?
  • Is it the freedom to eat multiple times and eat all one wishes to eat at every meal?
  • Is it the freedom to bring friends along and not have to worry about paying for them?
  • Is it is something else?

I would love to hear from as many students as possible on this issue to get a better feel for what we need to consider preserving; budgets continue to be scrutinized in our efforts to retain our balanced budget and to help us allocate resources to those things that are truly institutional priorities, so please send your thoughts.  I get the “official” or administrative view on this, just as I get the official/administrative perspective on other issues, during administrative meetings.  I need the “unofficial” view, too.

It would be most helpful if you at least identified your class (’10, ’11, ’12, or ’13, with Febs adding the appropriate “.5” as desired), or how you are associated with the College if you are not a current student.

I look forward to hearing your views.

It has been a while since I posted, but my silence was not because there was little about which to communicate; just the opposite.  Much has gone on since my last post, including another great Winter Term (highlights to come), the start of the “spring” semester, the trustees’ annual February meeting, Winter Carnival, which coincided with the Vancouver Olympics, where Middlebury alumni excelled and garnered silver, and great athletics performances by our winter sports teams.

Though I hope to write on a number of these happenings over the next few weeks, the one issue that has generated more e-mail and telephone traffic to my desk was my proposal to limit comprehensive fee increases at the College to “CPI + 1,” which means increases of up to 1 percentage point above the consumer price index as reported each December prior to the next academic year (so that next year’s comprehensive fee would be based on the December 2009 CPI).  The proposal was part of an address I gave on campus on February 12.

Quite frankly, I am surprised this proposal has generated such publicity; I have received many, many e-mails and interview requests, and both Inside Higher Education and the New York Times’ “The Choice education blog have covered the proposal.  For those not familiar with the issue, or the trend in comprehensive fee increases during the past few decades, here is the context: last year our comprehensive fee increase was 3.2 percent above the previous year.  That increase represented the lowest increase in 37 years.  The increase came following a year (as measured in December of 2008) in which the consumer price index increased +0.1%, or was almost flat.  Thus, our comprehensive fee increase was 3.1 percentage points, or 310 “basis points” above the CPI.  What I am proposing is that we set our comprehensive fee increase to be within 100 basis points of the most recent CPI, which, given the CPI of 2.7% measured this past December, would mean our comprehensive fee for next year would have a ceiling of 3.7%.  Or, had we decided to do “CPI + 1” last year, the comprehensive fee would have increased up to 1.1% and not the 3.2% it did.

How much of a change would CPI + 1 be for us going forward?  During the past 18 years, Middlebury raised its comprehensive by more than 100 basis points (or greater than 1 percentage point above the CPI) 14 times, and the mean annual increase over the 18-year period was 2.36 percentage points, or 236 basis points, above the CPI.

The purpose of restricting our fee increases relative to the CPI beginning this year is in recognition that the price to attend Middlebury has grown far faster than inflation, and such increases cannot continue without a negative impact on the institution.  Although the demand for a Middlebury education is stronger than ever (we received a record number of applications this past year—just shy of 8,000), one has to wonder how much families will be willing to pay for a four-year education, and how many excellent would-be applicants have already decided, or will soon decide, not to apply due to the escalating price.

Critics of this “CPI + 1” approach argue that the demand for an elite, private liberal arts education is less elastic, or more inelastic, than I may think.  They also note that all students already receive a $30,000 scholarship to attend colleges like Middlebury (since the true “cost” of educating each student is closer to $80,000/year with the endowment and annual gifts funding the difference), and that many families are willing to accept the high annual increases that have been the norm for a better part of 35 years.  Finally, some also argue that we will put ourselves (unnecessarily) in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis peer institutions because they will charge more and therefore have greater annual resources with which to enrich their students’ experiences.  I believe it is time to limit our fee increases and force ourselves to make more thoughtful and consequential decisions regarding the resources available to us.  I am curious to hear your thoughts.

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