Both residential assistants — or RA’s — interviewed have requested anonymity in name and in the residence halls they work and live in. The names “Jane” and “John” have been used in their place.
Jane became an RA because she wanted to support her peers. She believed her calmness during tense situations would let her attend to her residents’ concerns and give them a great college experience.
Jane said she went into her job confident in her ability to succeed and to live her life the way she had before. She wasn’t expecting the mental toll it was going to require.
Albion College students are not allowed to work more than 20 hours of campus work a week, the amount that RA’s are required to work on Albion’s campus. But with unexpected late-night crises and continuous talks with her residents, Jane feels as if there are many more hours worked than those on the timesheet.
Jane said she feels great listening to and helping students but she doesn’t feel great falling behind in school. Before the job, asking for paper extensions never happened; now, she’s had to ask multiple times. She feels forced to place her job as an RA on the same level of importance and commitment as they are to school.
Next academic year, Jane is leaving the RA staff.
So is John. He’s leaving for similar reasons.
“I was adding it up a couple days ago,” he said. “I’m an RA, like, 336 hours between two weeks of a paycheck and I only get paid [for] 40.”
Like Jane, John loves the residents in the hall he oversees. He joined the RA staff because he thought it was the top job to strengthen his resume, and the skills he developed from his position would help his career goal: owning a business.
But John always feels like he is on duty; at any moment he could be called for help, whether in the dead of night or in the middle of a school day. With athletics, an internship and other extracurricular activities, always being ready to help can make scheduling difficult.
John said there’s no incentive to stay an RA. He hears that pay increases happen each successive year on staff, but veteran RA’s still complain about money.
What could change Jane and John’s minds and keep them on staff next year? Better pay. Specifically, free room. The workload, they said, would be worth it then.
Compensation for RA’s is $2,100 a semester. For each consecutive year spent on staff, another $50 per semester is added. Senior RA’s, who oversee RA’s in their residence hall, are paid a base of $2,700. Both positions also come with a single room at the cheaper cost of a double.
John and Jane, as well as other students on campus, believe that Albion’s RA’s are the most poorly compensated in Michigan.
A Pleiad report found this to be false; Albion falls in the middle of the pack of private colleges, regardless of size.
“I honestly think that we should get paid more, and I feel like I speak not only for myself but every RA,” said John.
John and Jane say that Residential Life, who the RA’s work for, hasn’t listened to their concerns.
Residential Life said they don’t have the authority to determine RA compensation — the Finance and Administration Office does. Residential Life can only advocate for better compensation through petitions.
The plight of RA compensation
Julie McMahon, Director of Residential Life and Residence Hall Director for Fraternities, and Trista Geier, Associate Director for Residential Life and Sophomore Year Experience, have worked for numerous colleges over the years. Some public, some private; some rural, some urban; some mammoth, some minuscule.
In each place, both McMahon and Geier have found that departments like Residential Life, Housing, Student Services and Student Affairs all advocate for better RA compensation, Albion being no exception.
In each place, they said, RA’s are frustrated, whether it be over pay or staff morale.
“What I say to the RA’s all the time is their job is and should be, the most comprehensive leadership job on campus, and if it is, it should be compensated justly for that reason,” said McMahon.
Residential Life can’t immediately improve RA compensation because they do not have control of its budget.
Most private colleges operate through a general fund. Revenue from tuition, fees, meals, housing, grants and aid are all pooled together into one fund which is in turn distributed to each department. The budgets of each department are determined by the business office with insight from the president’s office and the board of trustees. Each budget is distributed into line items, or specific functions of a department that require payment, that in turn have their own specified budget as set by the business office. One such line item is RA pay.
McMahon believes that Residential Life’s budget hasn’t changed in 15 years. The Pleiad has contacted the business office for confirmation but has yet to receive a comment.
The general fund structure most private colleges follow is different than the payment structure of many public colleges. Instead of one general fund, these structures have multiple funds that place more power of budgeting in a department’s hands. Some colleges, for example, use auxiliary funding. All funds brought in from the housing department would go to a fund specifically for housing rather than a general fund, allowing the housing department to make decisions on how that money is used.
Public colleges are able to use funding methods like auxiliary funding because much of their operating costs are funded by the state. This lowers tuition cost and increases create a larger budget for housing departments. This, in turn, allows for public colleges to offer free room and board to RA’s.
In The Pleiad’s report, public colleges’ RA compensation cover a larger percentage of tuition, room and board than private colleges because tuition is much lower while RA pay is usually higher.
McMahon said she hears her RA’s requesting free room as compensation each year she’s been at Albion. As soon as she arrived, she said she spoke with Student Affairs on adjusting RA compensation to include free room. These requests were ultimately turned down by the college.
McMahon said if a free room was given, there would have to be a take. A stipend, or money given to a student to be spent as pleased, would likely need to be removed to fit the budget. Not all RA’s she’s spoken to are comfortable with that.
McMahon said she’s worked to get free board, too — she often hears suggestions to have RA’s eat meals with their residents each week. But because Albion’s dining provider, Bon Appetit, is a third-party, it’s difficult to work out a meal scholarship.
Even if RA’s are given free room and board, the financial aid some RA’s receive would fall. A few years ago, McMahon asked the financial aid office to run a report on her RA staff members’ financial need base to see how that need base would be affected with room and board as compensation.
McMahon used $8,500 for room and board an imaginary amount. If those students received $8,500 in compensation, their financial aid would be impacted by almost $17,000. If free and board is received, it’s thought that students don’t need as much financial assistance for tuition.
McMahon said she would love to see change but finds it frustrating that the RA staff assumes she doesn’t care about them. She said Residential Life and Student Affairs are their biggest advocates. It’s their job to be.
“All that [financial] data needs to go to a private school’s business office and/or president and board of trustees,” she said. “We know that we have RA’s that are disgruntled, and I know that I have RA’s that are unfortunately actively campaigning against us.”
Concerns about staff stability
“Nobody who is low-level, like a resident assistant, knows what the hell is going on ever,” said Jane. “And if you do, it’s hearsay.”
In the middle of the academic year, three Resident Directors — also known as RD’s or hall directors — left their jobs. There are only four RD positions on campus, and McMahon is one of them. Jane said she heard nothing from upper management as to why they suddenly left.
An RD supports the RA’s of a particular set of residences. They also oversee all residents in them. Not having that support, said Jane, put extra stress on the RA staff.
“There’s not a lot of stability on top, as far as RD’s and the people in Res Life,” said John. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know or find out late.”
Jane thinks the lack of support from RD’s and the frustrations some RA’s feel towards how Residential Life office is run is the reason why there is a high turnover in RA’s this year.
McMahon said this is the first year at Albion she hasn’t turned down applicants; she needs more.
McMahon can’t provide the details of RD’s leaving her staff because it is confidential information, as determined by Human Resources.
The number of RD departures this year are an anomaly, said Geier, but RD’s don’t stay in one place for too long.
“For a lot of people, it’s a stepping stone into student affairs or higher education, and it’s very common for new, entry-level professionals to have caps on their positions at the RD level,” she said. “It’s extremely common.”
While Albion doesn’t have year caps on RD positions, McMahon said most stay about two years because it’s best to get multiple experiences from a variety of colleges.
All three RD positions have since been filled. Geier herself was hired only three weeks ago. McMahon is confident that each new hire will stay for at least a few years.
“The current RA’s right now, all they know, from last year when they were first-year RA’s to this year as second-year RA’s — and we have a lot of second years this year — every hall director’s gone,” said McMahon.
Beyond pay and stability, fears and rewards
Both Jane and John said they enjoy their jobs. They both like helping their residents find success in college. What they don’t like is the workload, a compensation that doesn’t reflect the hours they put in and an unstable staff this past semester.
McMahon and Geier admit that RA compensation should be better and that the turnover of RD’s last semester was high. If they had more budgetary control or a budget expansion, compensation issues could be solved.
Geier said that these issues, namely staff instability, can create a sense of fear. But it provides an opportune time to rebuild and reinvigorate. Residential Life needs to continue asking how incentives can be provided, how its department can grow and how the RA job can become more competitive with other jobs on campus.
Geier said that it’s important to remember that the quantitative value of the job — pay — can make one lose sight of the qualitative — like the leadership skills it promotes and how good being an RA looks on a resume.
“Graduating from Albion, you’re not getting some hodunk job, right?” said McMahon. “Their bosses went to college. So [the bosses] look at a resume, [they’re] like, ‘Oh, a resident assistant.’ They might not have been an RA but they sure know what one did.”
John took the job partly as a resume-builder. Although he is leaving, he thinks being an RA is worth it in the long run, so long as you’re willing to accept the RA pay, instability and workload. But he thinks prospective applicants figure they can work less at another job and get compensated the same.
Jane’s outlook is in the short-run.
“I think the whole department’s falling apart and I don’t think many people on campus really know that,” she said. “All I think is, who knows what the future of housing is here because we can’t even keep staff to keep coming back.”
Updated 2/23/18, 7:48 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that RA’s were required by federal to work a campus job 20 or less per week. This is an Albion College policy.
Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.