While Vanderbilt has made immense progress in its efforts to combat institutional inequality at our school, there are still many aspects of campus life that must be improved. The payment system for resident advisors (RAs) on campus disadvantages students from lower income brackets. When resident advisors apply for employment through the Office of Residential Education, they are told that their salary will cover housing, plus an additional stipend of around $2000. However, if a student with an aid package that crosses the threshold for housing to be covered works as an RA, their financial aid decreases by about $8000. Instead, they pay for their housing and receive the same stipend of $2000, essentially negating the money saved through Opportunity Vanderbilt.
One of Vanderbilt’s biggest selling points is its comprehensive financial aid system that meets 100 percent of demonstrated need. Unfortunately, its structure disproportionately disadvantages students on need-based financial aid when they choose to work for the Office of Housing. Extensive interviews I performed with resident advisors on campus drew attention to several imperfections within the resident advisor system that must be addressed by administration in order to reform Vanderbilt as an institution and provide equality of opportunity to all of its students and prospective students. Vanderbilt must not neglect socioeconomic status and income as a point of difference to mend.
The issue of the utmost importance is that of the resident advisor payment system. When a resident advisor’s salary replaces need-based housing aid, approximately $8000 in aid disappears. Compared to other opportunities for student employment on campus, resident advisors on need-based financial aid are essentially only making $2000 a year compared to their previous financial situations. Resident advisors are expected to work approximately 15 hours a week, and student employment rules cap working hours at 20. Thus, if a resident advisor were to pursue an additional campus job, they would only be able to earn five extra hours of pay a week. The $2000 stipend is spread out over eight months, with the Housing Office paying RAs $250 a month for 15 hours a week, and assuming a month is four weeks, resident advisors work 60 hours a month. $250 divided by 60 hours is a measly $4.16 an hour.
Furthermore, all resident advisors get paid the same, meaning that those who work on the Commons, where much responsibility and weight is placed on RAs for transitioning and programming for first-year students, will not only receive the same salary for more work, but also even less if they are on financial aid because of the money that disappears. Commons RAs have to stay on campus until commencement, which is a week after the last final exam ends. The Commons community could make a demanding job like being a resident advisor worth it, but even so, $4.16 an hour cannot sustain someone on the 8 meal plan, let alone allow them to do the typical Nashville things that Vanderbilt students do. Students of lower socioeconomic statuses already feel excluded from Vanderbilt’s culture even with Opportunity Vanderbilt, due to the overwhelming presence of campus Greek Life or social pressures to spend money downtown on bars and restaurants in addition to the money spent on Übers and Lyfts to get there. One Commons RA noted that had he wanted to join Greek life or a club sport, the job would have prevented him from doing so, not only financially, but also because of the time and emotional drainage accompanied with being an RA. Being a student here is hard enough if you don’t have all that money. Also, the money taken away from financial aid packages closes off different avenues on campus for RAs, even though RAs are supposed to open up those paths for their residents.
While resident advisors are supposed to work 15 hours a week, an interviewee said that most RAs, particularly on Commons, work much more than that, which creates further stress and financial inequality because of the extra hours put in for no extra compensation. Even though it shouldn’t be about the money, the RA job carries with it a disproportionate amount of responsibility for those on financial aid.
The Office of Residential Education said nothing about the loss in financial aid until after one Commons RA took the job. This lack of transparency in the hiring process triggered shock and stress for him–if he had known he would only be paid $2000, he would have seriously debated not taking the job. He had to vastly change his plans for the next three years, due to Res Ed’s failure to disclose to RAs on financial aid that they would receive $8000 less in their packages. If you are on financial aid, you might know that these packages aren’t sectioned off for housing or meals or other fees–you simply receive a lump sum and have to scour some way to pay for the rest. Students who are not on financial aid have to pay for whatever the total is anyway, but they get $8000 more help to do so; meanwhile, one of the interviewed RAs on financial aid uses every cent of the $2000 stipend to pay for Vanderbilt’s tuition. This disparity manifests itself in other students’ attitudes towards RAs on financial aid–in one instance, one RA was told to stop complaining and be grateful that he got to receive aid; this comment, combined with the other social pressures to be wealthy at Vanderbilt, made him feel undeserving of being at Vanderbilt.
A broader complaint made by some RAs was that there seemed to be a disconnect in communication between themselves and the Office of Residential Education. Furthermore, Res Ed often deflects complaints to the financial aid office, denying their power on campus. In bureaucratic systems, it often takes extensive time and effort to change traditional procedures, and The Office of Housing is no exception. In interviews, RAs voiced complaints on a number of issues.
A common complaint was the procedure that requires RAs to come to campus two weeks early and stay through Commencement. On Commons, RAs live alone for over a week without a meal plan to help Main Campus RAs in the move-out process. Similarly, Main Campus RAs have to come early to help with Commons Move-In. Both sides complain that they are not actually needed in these respective positions, and they’ve found that they are often just obstacles to the process.
Two RAs expressed concerns over summer employment opportunities offered through the Office of Housing. If RAs choose to stay and work over the summer, they receive free housing. Some RAs felt that they had been misled in the process because their employers assured them that they would have access to this summer housing opportunity. This year, however, so many people applied that many current RAs did not receive summer employment. They learned about this too late to change their summer plans, and they were stuck having to pay for housing in Nashville for the summer. Such a lack of communication greatly disadvantages RAs who cannot afford to live in Nashville for three months without some form of financial assistance.
RAs cite a number of complaints, but when asked if they would approach the administration about the matter, they say that it is not worth it. The bureaucracy is slow and not responsive to such criticisms. RAs would rather complain in a GroupMe than enter the emotionally strenuous process of reforming a broken system. This makes sense, given the fact that these individuals are overworked and underpaid, and they cannot add fundamental structural change to their to-do lists. When asked why he didn’t just quit if the system was so difficult to work with, one RA cited the sense of community he feels within his job as a reason that made everything worth it. He stays on because he feels that he is a leader in his residence hall, and he stays for his friends who are working with him in these strenuous circumstances. He feels, however, that the administration takes him for granted. He believes that reform must come from the Office of Housing itself, as it lacks institutional memory and communication between departments appears to be poor. Residence halls are broken into blocks, and one area coordinator is in charge of each block. RAs meet with these coordinator on a bi-weekly basis, but they have little contact with administrators higher up in the Office of Housing.
The Office of Residential Education is good at saying that they support their resident advisors, but they are not good at actually doing it. Their claims that RAs will have housing taken care of is simply incorrect, considering that RAs whose aid packages cross the threshold will be paid $8000 less. The sections on aid packages are not designated anyway, so those RAs just get a lump sum that is significantly less than a normal need-based calculation. Res Ed should not let students assume they are getting paid $10,000–this number can encourage some people to apply to the job, but the realities behind Res Ed’s lack of accountability will indeed deter qualified people from wanting it due to the increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus. If Vanderbilt wants to claim increasing diversity and inclusion, it should start with prioritizing their resident advisor staff in the same way they encourage RAs to treat their job as a priority.
Antonia Rohlfing is a sophomore in the Blair School of Music. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.