GW to combine points, debit dollars

GW will combine meal points and debit dollars into a “plan dollars” system next year, which will allow students to purchase items at all venues that currently accept points and debit dollars with a single meal plan.

Plan dollars, which has not officially been named, will broaden students’ spending options and hold campus vendors more accountable for quality service, University officials said.

“The impetus is to provide students with the utmost flexibility,” said Michael Peller, managing director of business services. “Students want more choices. Plan dollars give them the opportunity to go more places with their meal plan.”

The new system will be required for all students living on campus and will be made available at a dollar-for-dollar rate during housing registration. A system for purchasing additional plan dollars is still in the works.

GW’s current meal plan offers students points that allow them to make tax-free purchases at on-campus venues, all of which are operated by Aramark. A separate debit dollars account that does not offer the same tax benefits is available for laundry services, vending machines and a number of off-campus merchants.

Officials said plan dollars will force Aramark, which profits from all students’ points spent on campus, to better respond to student complaints or risk losing business to other vendors.

“On the meal plan we have now, students spend all of their points at Aramark,” Peller said. “Therefore, with plan dollars, their sales will not be the same.”

The University collects a “fixed commission” on points from Aramark. Providers on debit dollars pay the University a fee, which varies from venue to venue, Peller said. He declined to release the figures.

Associate Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Michael Gargano said he doesn’t think Aramark will lose revenue with plan dollars, but it will have to offer better services.

“This holds the service that the student is using to a greater accountability,” Gargano said. “If students don’t like the food or service they’re receiving, they can go somewhere else. It’s going to raise the level of service and quality for students.”

Although the change in dining plans will “certainly have an effect on the amount of points retained in University dining, Aramark is confident that the University’s decision … (will) strengthen (their) partnership,” said Aramark resident district manager Terry Merriett.

“Sure it will have an effect, but by offering students what they are asking for where it’s convenient, the population will remain loyal to GW’s tried and true concepts,” Merriett said.

He also said it is “premature” to speculate on its financial effect. Aramark’s contract with GW runs through June 2004, and Peller declined to comment regarding the future of the partnership.

Peller said plan dollars would put GW ahead of other universities in terms of providing dining services.

“We look at what others are doing with their meal plans, and we’re at the forefront,” Peller said. “Now we’re going for complete flexibility for students in terms of venues. This puts us on the cutting edge of meal plans.”

Food items will not be taxed with plan dollars, but it is likely that off-campus, non-food purchases will still be subject to standard sales tax charges.

“Details are still being worked out,” Peller said.

Peller said negotiations are underway to increase the number of vendors that will accept plan dollars, including proposals for three new venues in the new Elliott School building on E Street.

Some area vendors said the plan dollars would increase business.

Noel Esmilla, head manager and part owner of Coney Island in 2000 Penn, which currently accepts debit dollars, said he had not been informed of the new system but liked the idea.

“That’s amazing that that’s happening,” Esmilla said. “A lot of students see the sign (for debit dollars) but turn away because they only have points on their card. If this happens, we could see a lot more business.”

Ryan Geist, director of the Student Association Dining Services Commission, said he felt plan dollars would make the city a greater part of campus life.

“The lines between on-campus and off-campus are really blurred under this new plan,” Geist said. “It’s going to integrate the school into the city. Dining is going to be really different now.”

Students said they liked the idea of having more spending options with the same payment system.

“I think it would be easier to keep track of,” sophomore Heather Martin said. “Also, since we have so many points, it would be nice to be able to use them at more places.”

Sophomore Keith Arscott said while he would probably eat off campus more than he does now, he would still frequent the J Street venues.

“This is still a little more convenient,” said Arscott while finishing off a sandwich from Montague’s Deli. “If it’s the end of the day and I don’t have time to go off campus, I can always stop by and pick up something here.”

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