Until the 2016-2017 academic year, the Resident Assistant (RA) and House President (HP) positions at Wellesley College were essentially unpaid volunteer positions. According to a 2016 article from Wellesley Magazine, first-time RAs received $2,100, returning RAs received $2,200 and HPs received $2,300. Last year, compensation was given out as a stipend, while this year it is being treated as a grant, or “scholarship,” by the College.
According to the Residential Life website, student staff must participate in training prior to the arrival of first-years, attend weekly staff and House Council meetings during the school year, mediate roommate conflicts as well as undergo mid-year and end-of-year performance reviews. The College explicitly outlines their expectations of student staff as follows: “maintain a presence and connection with [their] community,” “promote and participate in hall traditions and community specific events,” “assist with health and safety inspections,” “enter work orders for Facilities Department” and “perform other duties as needed.” This is not only an enormous time commitment but also emotionally arduous labor, and the RAs and HPs at Wellesley complete it to the best of their abilities. The College must ensure that staff are compensated for the full extent of their work.
Helen Wang, Director of Residential Life, says that upon arriving at Wellesley, one of the most important things to her was “re-examining the RA compensation package” because she “felt like the quality and the output needed from an RA requires people to really be hands-into the residence halls, such as CE hours.” Regarding this year’s change, Wang says, “[Moving] to this new policy was a college-wide decision that puts [us] in line with how many colleges [compensate] RAs — in a percentage off of their board. We worked hard to up the RA compensation commensurate with our peers and we did that this year by upping compensation by $600. The advice and consensus from the College is to honor this role through a scholarship, reflective of the kind of experience that we believe it is: leadership development, [and] personal and professional growth.”
According to the College Board website, the federal government requires colleges to decrease a student’s need-based financial aid package if they recieve $300 or more of any additional aid — defined as outside scholarships, college-based financial aid grants, government grants, or student loans. Since Wellesley College’s traditional financial aid package consists of a Wellesley grant, work-study and student loans, the College chose to first cut student contribution, followed by student loans and work-study before finally cutting grant aid.
This federal policy is counterintuitive, especially since “expected family contribution” and “calculated need” often overestimate how much a family or student can pay. In light of the less-than-ideal federal policy, Wellesley College’s move makes sense. Fortunately, the College eliminates calculated student burden before it eliminates grant aid. The question, then, is not whether RA grants should cut aid — legally, a grant that exceeds a student’s calculated need by $300 has to cut the student’s aid. The question is whether or not RA compensation should be treated as a grant or a stipend.
While the total amount of money awarded to RAs has increased since the last academic year, their pay goes straight toward student contribution or tuition rather than directly to students’ bank accounts. Approximately eleven students were negatively affected because they had their grants reduced by the scholarship, as they were not taking out any loans to begin with and were fully funded by the College. Wang claimed: “When we made the collective decision to compensate students in this manner, our partners at SFS came to the table to help — they didn’t have to but they did— and they thought, ‘How can we create a package that would most benefit our highest need students?’ They mocked up a few scenarios that would reduce loans for students, eliminate student contributions and for those who are fully aided, they would get that amount back in a refund check to their accounts.” According to Wang, the College is currently paying these students the difference they lost in grant money, “even if that means the full amount.”
Peer institutions have varying policies. Boston College RAs receive full room and board. At Bryn Mawr College, RAs receive a $2,500 annual stipend. Smith College pays its head residents $10,590 per year; $5,090 of this sum is paid in a bi-weekly stipend while $5,500 is treated like a grant and is applied toward the resident’s financial aid package. Middlebury College offers a housing rebate of $3,150.
The issue appears to be that the Wellesley administration, while trying to change its policy, should have been clearer upfront about how it compensates RAs instead of announcing the policy change after students had accepted these positions. In the Residence Life job postings at Smith College, there is a notice at the bottom of each job listing, reading, in part:
These stipends may affect the HR’s financial aid allotment. Because financial aid packages differ from student to student, any student interested in the HR position should contact Student Financial Services for information about how their financial aid package may be affected.
The initial notices Wellesley College sent out had similar fine print; however, in the future this type of notice should be made clearer. Wang says they want to remedy this by having “the Student Financial Services (SFS) director make up a form upon application for every student that indicates how accepting an HP or RA role will inform their financial aid package so students can make an informed decision.” The College must communicate with students who were negatively affected and work out a plan to make things right, whatever that may entail — and it seems like they are. Recently, SFS and Residential Life sent out a Google Form to RAs and HPs inviting them to contact the administration with concerns.
Since the RA position as it stands does not offer a salary, many students have to take on another job or multiple jobs. I am sure there are students who would have better appreciated the RA compensation as a scholarship toward student contribution and toward reducing loans had the College been more explicit upfront; there are also students who, perhaps, would have found a different job if they had known this new policy would take effect. There are certainly students who would not have applied had they predicted the resulting financial anxiety.
It is important to ensure that the RA/HP body reflects the student body — having diversity in residential life benefits students from minority backgrounds, who may feel more comfortable reaching out to their RAs for help navigating conflict, academia and more.
Those who are on financial aid are more likely to be first generation, students of color and immigrants. When changing compensation from a stipend to a grant, the administration must consider whether or not students from lower and middle income backgrounds will be helped by such a policy. If the answer is yes, then the College should clarify to students why it is better, and what it might mean for certain individuals’ financial aid packages; if the answer is less obvious, they should consider other avenues for compensation, such as reverting to a stipend, splitting pay between a stipend and a grant, giving students the option to choose stipend or scholarship, linking the RA/HP positions to work-study or making individualized adjustments for students depending on their financial backgrounds.
I understand that the College has to think about the net-benefit of any policy, and that any change will have its pros and cons, especially when it concerns federal regulations and as it applies to individual financial situations. I think in this situation it is important to assume good intentions, though perhaps misguided communication, from the College. It is also important to acknowledge that the College has taken important steps toward fixing the issues. However, the next time Wellesley makes a significant policy change, there should be time set aside for student feedback and discussion to ensure the best possible outcome. Hopefully in the future, the College will avoid needlessly confusing situations like this — especially when it concerns something as consequential as financial aid — by giving students clear notice about such changes well in advance and being as explicit as possible about financial aid.