The Rising Tide of Inflation Arrives at Swarthmore

Upon returning to campus for the Fall 2022 semester, many Swatties were shocked by price increases at dining facilities such as the Science Center Cafe, Kohlberg Coffee Bar, and Essie Mae’s. Most items increased in price due to several economic factors, including energy costs and supply-chain breakdowns, yet there was no increase in the number of Dining Dollars or Swat Points provided in the meal plans. Andrew Sung ’23 provided some insight into his mood when he purchased coffee from Sci at the beginning of the semester.

“A double shot of espresso used to be $3.10. Now it’s $3.50. That’s pretty messed up,” Sung commented.

The 12% price increase of the espresso shot is indicative of the general price increases for most products at the Science Center Cafe.

The Dining Services Management Team sets prices at the Science Center Cafe, Kohlberg Coffee Bar, and Essie Mae’s. In an email exchange with The Phoenix, Richard Green, Associate Director of Dining Services at Swarthmore, explained the primary factors in setting prices at dining facilities.

“The biggest factor we take into account is product cost and any labor associated with the production of the items,” Green said.

Green also noted that high prices for grocery items are driving higher prices.

“We have seen increases in cost for the majority of our grocery items, especially in meat, dairy, produce, and paper goods. We have [also] seen significant increases in transportation, fuel charges, and delivery fees since the pandemic,” he said.

Price increases also impact populations other than caffeine-craving Swatties. The price increases at Swarthmore mirror those of many goods across the country. In an interview with The Phoenix, Associate Professor of Economics Maria Pia Olivero described inflation and the macroeconomic trends that contribute to price increases.

“Inflation is a sustained increase in the general price level. For an increase in prices to be considered inflation it has to be persistent over time and generalized; not particular to just a few sectors of the economy,” she said.

Inflation is not inherently problematic. In fact, economists at the Federal Reserve have historically implemented policies to maintain an inflation rate of about 2%, which is widely considered optimal for economic growth and stability. 

However, economists today are quite worried about the current inflation rate. Professor Olivero characterized the perfect storm of current macroeconomic trends, including firms’ struggles to provide consumers with the goods they are demanding. The “pull” from consumer spending, matched by a “push” from supply issues, has caused a shortage, or mismatch, between supply and demand, driving prices up. 

“These days [inflation] is particularly bad because it has reached 10% in some of the most conservative estimates, but also because it originates in both demand-pull and cost-push factors,” she said. “The former are related to the fact that aggregate absorption, consumption and investment as well as public spending, are very high. The latter relate to the constraints in labor markets, energy prices, and supply-chain issues that are raising most firms’ cost of production,” Olivero commented.

This imbalance results from a bidding war, climbing prices, and what amounts to a “regressive tax,” or a tax on those with the least wealth. Professor Olivero pointed out that because low-income individuals spend a larger portion of their income each month on goods required for daily life, they have less left to save. High-income individuals on the other hand, spend a smaller proportion of their paychecks each month, and invest what they don’t spend into assets, which maintain their value even through high inflation, thereby protecting their wealth. 

College students are typically among the low-income earners, since most students either don’t work or only work part time. When asked specifically about the effect of inflation on populations of college students, Professor Olivero explained that the outcome is typically not in the students’ favor.

“[Inflation specifically] affects college students because tuition and fees will need to rise to keep up with institutions’ increases in operating costs. Cost of living, traveling, food, and others will also rise,“ Olivero explained. 

Professor Olivero’s predictions have already come to fruition, since the college increased tuition from $73,206 (two-semesters) to $77,354 (+5.7%). The increase from 2020 to 2021 was roughly half that, at just 3%.

Baked into the price increase is the rising cost of meal plans. In 2021, boarding at Swarthmore was $8,112. This year, the price is $8,922 (+10.0%). 

Since the college provides students with the same number of Swat Points year after year, each dollar they provide is worth less than those of previous years. By charging students more for less valuable dining points, students have less purchasing power; in other words, Dining Dollars are worth less than they were in previous years.

Conversely, Swarthmore meal swipes maintain their value because each swipe buys the same amount of food as it did in previous years. Richard Green, Associate Director at Dining Services, emphasized this point when asked how Swatties could make the most of their dining plans.

“I would say students should figure out what works best for them based on their schedule and preferences. Also, they should take advantage of using their meal swipes when able,” he said.

Sung called for more transparency and collaboration between dining services and the student body.

“I think it’s a matter of calculation, ultimately. So I think if they [increase prices], then they should present the calculations that they’re doing and give us the opportunity to judge for ourselves whether these costs are really the best that they can do.”

1 Comment

  1. Great article. As a senior citizen on a fixed retirement income living in a residential facility not unlike the Swarthmore campus I see the same factors driving price increases simultaneously with less value received per dollar spent.

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