April 21, 2016

Letter: Students Call For Program Changes to Prevent Lowered Financial Aid for Resident Assistants

For each of us, our houses—Talbot, Midway, and Breckinridge—played a significant role throughout college. We made our closest friends in our dorms, served on our House Councils, and volunteered as House O-Aides to facilitate the incoming first-years’ transition. It makes sense that we wanted to apply to be Resident Assistants (RAs) this year: we value building strong communities and support systems—communities and support systems that our future residents could turn to.

As we talked to current and past RAs and other applicants, we realized that becoming an RA negatively affects a student’s financial aid package. Conversations with the Office of Financial Aid confirmed our fear that as RAs, each of our financial aid grants would be affected. Without our need-based grant aid, attending a university with a sticker price of over $60,000 is unthinkable.

According to the Office of Financial Aid, becoming an RA eliminates the room and board expense, thus decreasing the cost of attendance. Because the cost of attendance declines, a student’s need-based grant declines dollar for dollar with the cost of housing: according to Financial Aid, your ability to pay does not decrease. For example, if you receive $45,000 in need-based aid and the cost of room and board is $15,000, your grant aid would be reduced to $30,000. You and your parents would pay the same amount—in this case about $20,000—to attend the College, regardless of your employment as an RA.

In fact, one of us was told that not only would her grant decrease, but her expected family contribution would increase by $1,000. Another candidate we interviewed was informed that his expected family contribution increase by $3,000, while a third was given an estimate of $3,500. In essence, these individuals would be paying to work. Conversations with the Office of College Housing revealed that College Housing was aware of the situation candidates on need-based aid faced, but that they could not change the system. Some RAs just have to work for free—or pay for their employment.

Unequal pay of Resident Assistants presents a major flaw in the housing system. Aside from the inherent unfairness in requiring candidates of low-income and middle-class backgrounds to make financial and emotional sacrifices to build community, it reduces the diversity of Resident Assistants. If this university truly believes in the diversity it continues to preach, it cannot limit its RA candidate pool to students above a certain income threshold, disregarding lower-income students who are willing to forsake other commitments because they believe in the importance of the housing community. The current RA hiring process perpetuates and deepens the socioeconomic divide between high- and low- or middle-income students. While some RAs receive approximately $15,000 for their work, their peers and co-workers receive no financial benefit for the same work. This discrepancy is based entirely on a student's family income—not on their performance on the job. This system, then, inherently punishes applicants from less advantaged backgrounds.

The system also significantly disadvantages low-income students because those on financial aid can least afford to work for free. By dedicating 10–20 hours per week to their RA job, these students cannot dedicate these same hours to paying jobs. The University has addressed this problem, in part, through the Metcalf program and other stipends to students with substantive but unpaid summer internships. Career Advancement recognizes that lower-income students, unlike their wealthier peers, cannot afford to accept unpaid internships and are thus disadvantaged in their professional growth. The University has also launched programs like the No Barriers Initiative that make it easier for students from lower-income households to attend the College. We find it hypocritical that Housing—which the College considers to be a gem of the UChicago undergraduate experience—does not echo these values.

According to the University, over 60 percent of students in the College receive financial aid. This might explain why College Housing has seen a decline in RA applicants in the past few years, as students realize that they do not want to work for an office that will not advocate for them. As College Housing moves towards building mega-dorms like Campus North that require more RAs, we do not understand how it can continue recruiting enough RAs when many of these individuals remain uncompensated. This year, for example, College Housing has only about 10 more candidates than are open positions, while previous years have boasted nearly double the candidates relative to open spots. Of the remaining candidates, at least 10 are on need-based aid. For many, the decision to ultimately accept the RA position will be contingent on their financial aid package. Reforming the system would benefit both candidates and College Housing, as they will see a larger candidate pool—and greater diversity—in RAs.

We started a petition for other students who agree with us to sign that recommends that College Housing switch to a credit-based system, similar to how merit scholarships are applied to a student’s bill. RAs will instead be billed for the full amount of housing but will be issued a credit for the same amount on their bill each quarter. Alternatively, this can be thought of as an “RA Merit Scholarship,” as it is applied to a student’s bill in the same fashion as merit aid. Because students are still being billed for the full amount of room and board, the cost of attendance remains the same. Thus, a student’s financial aid package and need-based grants are not affected. We recommend this system because College Housing already implements this on a smaller scale with Resident Masters’ Assistants (RMAs) and Program Coordinators (PCs). Interviews with students on financial aid holding RMA and PC positions confirm that their need-based grants were not affected and that their expected family contribution declined by the full stipend amount. We see no reason why College Housing would not implement this on a larger scale with Resident Assistants.

—Michelle Gan, Sara Maillacheruvu, and Casey Mulroy

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