On the Saturday after finals week of her freshman year, Yuki Klotz-Burwell tried buying two venti drinks at the campus Starbucks for a friend and herself. Klotz-Burwell handed the cashier her ID to pay with her Panther Bucks, but the card was declined.
Klotz-Burwell forgot that the semester had ended the day before. Although she had money left in her account, it was worthless to her because the Panther Bucks had expired.
“I was mad because it was $40 that I could’ve spent. I tried to pace myself throughout the semester just so that I wouldn’t use them all at once,” said Klotz-Burwell, a sophomore public relations and advertising major.
Panther Bucks are non-refundable and expire at the end of every semester. Similarly, meal plans also expire every Thursday and begin a new cycle, regardless of leftover meals.
At the end of last spring, 43 percent of students with meal plans that included Panther Bucks had balances remaining, leaving $22,388.78 leftover, said Harold Hewitt, executive vice president and chief operating officer. The total Panther Bucks remaining balance makes up less than 1 percent of the semester’s entire meal plan revenue, Hewitt said.
The amount that students pay for meal plans and Panther Bucks covers employee wages, equipment, maintenance, licensing fees and all other costs for services in addition to the food that is available to them, said Hewitt.
“We have full-time employees, and we pay the benefits, and we try to treat the employees of Sodexo with some respect in terms of the compensation structure,” Hewitt said.
Chapman has a “board plan structure,” which doesn’t allow students to get refunds on unused meals from the Randall Dining Commons or leftover Panther Bucks at the end of the semester, Hewitt said.
“We’ve opted for (this structure) instead of a return at the end of the semester, because we have a limited number of students at Chapman, compared with major universities, so we can’t spread the cost so far,” Hewitt said.
The structure enables Chapman to cover all the costs involved in operating dining services on campus, he said.
“I wish that Chapman would be more upfront about where the money is going because although (the non-refundable policy) makes sense, it would be nice to know exactly,” Klotz-Burwell said.
While some students think that the number of Panther Bucks in their account reflects the exact amount spent on their meal plan, this isn’t the case. According to Hewitt, Panther Bucks are like virtual money: It’s not dollar for dollar, and it’s part of the meal plan.
“Even if the students were given 400 Panther Bucks, they weren’t billed $400 for that. It’s a broken-down, mathematical equation and it’s very complicated,” said Eric Cameron, general manager of restaurant services.
Leftover meal swipes cannot be donated because each swipe does not have a numeric value attached to it, said Cameron. The cost of meals for those who have a meal plan are different from the walk-up prices because students commit to a plan that gives them a discount, and does not allow a swipe to have an exact value.
Cameron adds that the amount of Panther Bucks offered is based on historical data.
“We use (historical records) to guide the way we price the plan in perspective. Like any other average methodology, there’s going to be some people that don’t eat it all, the majority who are covered and some who eat more than the expected average,” Hewitt said.
Board meal plan rates range from 10 to 19 meals per week and include different numbers of Panther Bucks. Regardless of the number, all plans are $4,734 for the school year, according to the Chapman website. Commuter meal plans range from $130 to $1,066, depending on the number of meals and Panther Bucks a student wants to purchase.
Last year, sophomore pharmacy major Carli Ing had a plan of 14 meals a week with $300 in Panther Bucks. She said that she would have about five extra meals at the end of the week.
Students are only allowed to change their resident dining meal plan during the first three weeks of every semester, according to the Sodexo website. As the number of allotted meals per week increases, Panther Bucks decrease for each level.
For Ing, it was difficult to know within the first three weeks whether she had the right meal plan to fit her needs, she said.
“Sometimes, I would start really early and I didn’t want to wake up earlier to get breakfast, or I would wake up at 10 a.m. and I would miss breakfast altogether. Other times, I wasn’t in the mood to eat caf food,” Ing said.
As for Panther Bucks, Ing didn’t run out until the last few weeks of school, she said.
“Panther Bucks are more valuable to me because the caf gets boring and it can be inconvenient, as opposed to going to the different food places that are on campus,” Ing said.
For others, the non-renewable Panther Bucks allow students to splurge on items before the last day of the semester.
Jeffrey Zimberoff, a sophomore business administration major, had leftover Panther Bucks in the spring of his freshman year, so he bought three mugs at Starbucks.
Zimberoff doesn’t agree with the board plan structure, but he understands why Chapman has it.
“It was disheartening (to lose my Panther Bucks), but at the same time, I understand why they don’t carry over. If they just let them carry over, no one would continue to buy meal plans because a lot of people probably wouldn’t use all the Panther Bucks during the time period,” he said.
Hewitt said that the structure and costs come down to serving the students and fulfilling their needs.
“For a university of our size, it’s unusual to have that many high-branded alternatives to just the dining hall. The reason we do it is so that we can satisfy students. The reason we retain balances is because we need to have a predictable and stable flow of revenue to cover all those expenses,” Hewitt said.