Cost Transparency vs. Comfort: You are Neo.

Celia Wright is the current student body president at The Ohio State University

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back,” says Morpheus. “Take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

When I was first watching this scene of the Matrix, I didn’t imagine that it would apply to the work that we do in student government; however, I have found some similarities in our work and the idea of ‘taking the blue pill.’ Sometimes we uncover inconvenient truths and are responsible to take care of them.

One of those inconvenient truths that we found at OSU is around hidden fees in student meal plans.

We have an issue at OSU with meal plans. The meal plan structure wastes $3.8 million among OSU freshmen alone each year. Food sold on campus costs 82% more than identical options available across the street. Meal Plans are available in $5 “Block” units, and polls indicate that 11% of all Blocks are wasted. Blocks don’t roll over between semesters. We estimate that about $550 is wasted per student annually. All 7,000+ first year students at Ohio State are required to purchase the meal plan, with sophomores slated to be included in this requirement by 2016.

We responded to widespread student outrage by benchmarking meal plans at other Universities and polling students to direct our advocacy toward a preferable meal plan. The favorite? One that allows more flexibility in plan sizes, no pre-set “Block” units, rollover from semester to semester, and even small discounts to students on the meal plan. The catch? A hefty, though practically invisible administrative fee. I contacted the student body president at this school to inquire about it. She didn’t know the fee existed. She didn’t even seem concerned.

We learned that there are other options for meal plans and as a student government we still haven’t decided how to move forward. Because we don’t have absolute control over the conversation, it will be important that we listen to student concerns going forward. We are collaborating with Dining at OSU, who has hired consultants who are helping us find the most affordable and transparent meal plans.

I believe that, unlike the Matrix scenario, it is the “blue pill,” the comfortable option that is irreversible. In the moment that we opt for a hidden, less bothersome fee, we nearly surrender our ability to chase it down, dissect it, and identify whether it’s the most affordable option for students. Choosing a more accountable system, however, demands tireless, potentially bridge-burning advocacy to control costs and keep students happy.

 

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