Following several years of partial compensation for student Residential Life staff through College Government’s Ballot Initiative, Dean of Students Debra DeMeis, Associate Dean of Students Carol Bate and Director of Student Financial Services Scott Juedes are working with student representatives from the Student Leadership Stipend Committee (SLSC) to propose ideas for an institutional-level payment model to replace the $11,000 that is annually distributed to student leaders on financial aid through the Ballot Initiative.
The SLSC is an ad-hoc committee whose purpose is to institutionalize student leader compensation regardless of financial aid status. In past years, the SLSC worked first to compensate student leaders who qualified for work-study but has since then expanded to compensate all student leaders who receive financial aid from Wellesley. According to SLSC, however, compensating students using money from the Ballot Initiative is an unsustainable model and does not allow other organizations to use that money.
“Traditionally, it’s only $11,000 that’s afforded by the Ballot Initiative for the winning campaign, and that is just not enough money to go around for the students who actually need it, and it doesn’t by any means reduce the socioeconomic barriers that are inherently involved in taking on leadership positions at Wellesley, especially given the academic rigor of a lot of the coursework here,” SLSC representative Adeline Lee ’16 said.
Money allocated to the Ballot Initiative comes from two percent of the Student Activities Fee, a fee students pay annually to fund student organizations.
“Student Leadership Stipend has occupied the Ballot Initiative for so many years now that it’s not really students’ jobs to basically use reverted funds from Student Activities Fee to support other students; it really should be an institutional move that’s really long overdue,” Lee said.
This year, unlike past years, Suzanne Barth ’16, one of the members of the SLSC, has met with DeMeis, who meets with Bate and Juedes. Ideally, Barth would like to see a stipend awarded to all Resident Assistants (RA) and House Presidents (HP).
“I think [a compensation plan] would look like a stipend of at least $2200 that’s equivalent to work-study. That would be going to RAs and HPs — all RAs and HPs, not just those on financial aid. And that stipend would be two payments of, say, fall and spring because that could help increase accountability of RAs and HPs to their positions, which I think would add a lot to the residence life community,” Barth said.
The stipend model of compensation is similar to that of other Seven Sisters colleges. Bryn Mawr, for example, has hall advisors that are similar in structure to RAs at Wellesley and receive a stipend of at least $2000 annually. Smith College’s Head Residents, similar to the HP role at Wellesley, receive full room and board, which for the 2014-2015 academic year totaled to $14,950.
“A few of our peers have a situation where it’s like a work-study job, but the majority of them are funding it from another source in their budget, and it’s paid out as a stipend or as a credit to their account,” Juedes said.
Lee and Barth discussed the option of funding student leader compensation through work-study funds with administration members, but according to Juedes and Bate, the federal work-study money given to the College is not sufficient to make work-study a viable option, although the money could ultimately come through college-funded work-study.
“We didn’t want this to come out of students’ grants. I think everybody’s okay if it comes out of the work-study component of their pay. For students who are on grants, we didn’t want to reduce their grants — we wanted it to be some of their self-pay component,” Bate said. “Work-study or loans are fine. The actual government work-study is a very miniscule part of our budget.”
The efforts for student leader compensation stem from student concerns that a lack of financial compensation hinders students’ abilities to effectively fulfill their role as a RA or HP. The report reflects concerns of balancing a student leader job with a paid job or quitting their paid job in order to be a RA or HP. These concerns were recently published in the SLSC’s survey report release.
The survey, conducted last semester, polled both student leaders and the greater student body. It served to determine the student body’s support for student leader compensation and whether a lack of pay would result in student leaders not re-applying for a position the following year. The survey garnered 58 student responses, of which about 66 percent came from student leaders including RAs, HPs, First-Year Mentors and College Government Cabinet members.
Of the former RAs who participated in the survey, 50 percent said they would not return to the position due to financial restrictions.
“I work three jobs in addition to being a RA and it is really difficult to balance everything…It also deeply increases the ‘busy’ and stress culture at Wellesley. I do it because being a student leader is extremely important to me in giving back to students,” one respondent said.
The report cites responses such as these as indicative of stress that accompanies a volunteer-based position as well as the hindered ability for students to perform their job duties fully.
Nearly all respondents — 94.8 percent — supported compensation for student leaders at the institutional level. This response echoes the support of prior years for student leader compensation; the SLSC has won College Government’s Ballot Initiative since 2011.
Bate sees this sustained support as evidence of student support for an institutionalized plan.
“I think the most important thing is to have the proposal out there, to put it on the table, to talk about its support for students. It has student support. I think there’s support of it comparative with our peers, so I think that’s important to put that information out there,” Bate said.
Also of note is the discrepancy between students’ belief that the College should address the issue of student leader compensation and the belief that the College will institutionalize student leader compensation. The SLSC’s survey report release asked students to rate their confidence level on a scale of one to three for both of the aforementioned beliefs; students’ belief that the College should address the issue of student leader compensation scored an average of 2.8 out of three while the belief that the College will institutionalize student leader compensation scored an average of 1.7 out of three.
“I only support the Ballot Initiative because I have no faith that the college will soon compensate student leaders as I believe they should. The Ballot Initiative appears to be the only alternative,” one respondent said.
Initially, the SLSC’s timeline to institutionalize compensation for RAs and HPs was for the 2016-2017 academic year, but Lee and Barth expressed they are not as sure about it now. Bate and Juedes also expressed uncertainty about the proposal’s passing the budget committee this year and about the timeline of when a stipend for student leaders would go into effect.
“[Options include] anywhere from it could get tabled to next year to it could get phased in multiple years that could start next year; there are lots of different ways it could get managed,” Bate said.
Another contributing factor includes a high number of requests for funding from the budget committee. Causes such as student leader compensation are in direct competition with other departments and funds which are also seeking out money allocated through this particular part of the budget, which is open for requests for the first time in several years.
“[There are a] limited amount of resources or funds that all different funds and departments need from the college, and they can ask for funds, but we can pretty much guess that there are going to be more requests than funds,” Bate said.
Bate also said that funds are essentially being traded and that if the proposal for student leader compensation is not approved, it is because it will have been traded for something that is important to the institution.
“At least it’s in the conversation about what are our priorities. It doesn’t mean that folks don’t want it,” Juedes added.
Should the proposal not go through to the budget committee, the proposal could be tabled for next year, according to Bate. For this year, SLSC would go through the Ballot Initiative once more to compensate student leaders. SLSC representative Maria Castano ’16 has talked to her RAs about SLSC’s efforts to institutionalize student leader compensation and hopes to rally support among her residential staff peers.
“I’ve thought of it as the domino effect: You touch one person, that person touches another, and so I started with my RAs and spreading the word with them, and they go back to their residents, and also, I’ve talked to other HPs about it, ” Castano said.
Ultimately, the SLSC sees the lack of student leader compensation as contradictory to Wellesley’s projected values.
“It’s the committee’s belief that there’s an ethos that Wellesley puts forward and this kind of rhetoric of encouraging leadership on campus and encouraging students to build leadership experience in order to go into their own respective fields and lead those fields. And then, at the same time, that’s countered by an institutional inability to support students for these service-oriented jobs on campus,” Lee said. “So that has been extremely frustrating for all of us, and I think it would be safe for us all to agree that an institutional form of compensation reflects an institutional commitment to these service-oriented jobs and demonstrates that work and service is economically viable, and as of right now, Wellesley’s foundational ethos is fundamentally at odds with its institutional policies.”
The proposal created by DeMeis, Bate and Juedes will be presented to the budget committee through the Provost’s office and a final budget will be sent to the Trustees for approval in April.
Photos courtesy of Ferni Cruz