RAs on financial aid demand equitable compensation

By ALYSSA WOODEN and SARAH Y. KIM | March 29, 2018

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM

RAs say that for the past five years they have raised concerns about compensation to Residential Life.

Students who apply to become Residential Advisors (RAs) assume that one of the benefits of the position will be that their overall costs for the year will decrease. 

However, RAs who receive financial aid have raised concerns that their out-of-pocket (OOP) costs, which include tuition and room and board, have not decreased significantly since accepting the position. On the other hand, RAs who do not receive financial aid see a dramatic decrease in their overall OOP costs. 

This academic year, the University provided RAs with free room and board in the form of a $16,858 grant. Students on financial aid typically receive a JHU Grant, which is awarded based on an individual student’s need. According to RAs who receive financial aid, the RA Grant is partially or totally subtracted from their JHU Grant. As a result, their OOP costs remains about the same. 

Junior Vijay Ramasamy, an RA on financial aid, said that his OOP cost would be the same had he not taken up the RA position this year. 

“It’s basically like I’m working a job for free,” he said. “I’m paying the exact same regardless, and it’s too much work and too much commitment and too much emotional and physical investment for me.”


How does this impact RAs? 

According to an anonymous survey conducted by RAs, over 75 percent of RAs on financial aid say that being an RA increases or has no effect on OOP cost, while 100 percent of RAs not on financial aid pay less OOP. 

Specifically, the survey indicates that 52 percent of the respondents on financial aid pay the same OOP cost, 24 percent of them pay a higher OOP cost and 24 percent of them pay a lower OOP cost. 

Junior RA Kush Mansuria said that since last year, his OOP cost has decreased by approximately $1,000. However, he said that this decrease is insignificant and does not reflect the amount of work he puts into his role. 

“I’m putting in a lot more work, and I’m still paying the amount of money that I was when I was not an RA,” he said. 

RAs like Ramasamy, who receive financial aid, are frustrated that the University is not compensating RAs equitably. 

“It’s ridiculous that the University sees this as a way to somehow exploit students because for them, the $16,000 Grant literally means nothing,” Ramasamy said. “But for us and families that have financial aid, it means everything.” 

Several RAs have said that they know people who chose not to apply or were unable to accept an RA position due to financial concerns. Because of insufficient compensation, junior RA Kelvin Alvarez has decided not to be an RA again next year, which he said is rare for sophomore and junior RAs.

“It’s difficult for my family to send me here, and I feel very fortunate for all the aid that Hopkins has given me,” he said. “Unfortunately because of financial reasons ... it’s unsustainable for myself and my family financially. That’s what ultimately led me to my decision to not be an RA next year, even though I really love the position.”

Senior RA Haroon Ghori, who does not receive financial aid from the University, appreciates that the RA Grant dramatically reduces his OOP cost but thinks it is unfair that this is not the case for all RAs. 

“I am aware of a lot of RAs whose out-of-pocket costs have either remained the same or increased slightly... for doing the exact same amount of work that I’m doing,” Ghori said. “They should be credited the same amount of money that I am credited for my work.” 

Many students also lose Work-Study after becoming RAs, with little notice beforehand. Alvarez did not realize he would no longer be eligible for Work-Study until last semester, when he started working at a lab, where he hoped he could have used his Work-Study.

“Instead of being able to work in my lab for money, I had to take [academic] credit,” Alvarez said. “It’s more inhibiting now that I lose that option — that I can’t do Work-Study — because of the RA position.”

Similarly, Mansuria was surprised when he received his financial aid package last summer since he was unaware that receiving an RA grant disqualified him from Work-Study.


 


Calculating RA financial aid

The RA grant, which is $16,858 this year, covers the cost of room and board for all RAs. However, its impact on OOP cost differs depending on whether the RA receives financial aid. 

For those not on financial aid, OOP cost is greatly reduced because they only pay for tuition and not room and board. 

For example, the projected total cost for a current unnamed RA who lived on campus for the 2016-2017 academic year was $65,386. His total aid, including the JHU grant and Work-Study, was $31,300. The student’s actual OOP cost was $35,658.

After this student became an RA in 2017-2018, their aid package was broken into a JHU grant of $18,000 and the $16,858 RA Grant. In this case, his actual OOP cost was $34,170 — about the same as he would be paying if he were not an RA. 

In contrast, an RA who does not receive financial aid would pay $16,858 less than if he were living on campus and not working as an RA.

Financial Aid wrote in a joint email to The News-Letter with Residential Life that RAs on aid see reduced loan and Work-Study expectations, resulting in an “increased grant aid” of $2,700 to $5,450. 

However, junior RA Kush Mansuria argued that even with “increased grant aid,” OOP cost remains about the same. He said that due to the RA Grant, the overall JHU Grant decreases more than the amount of money that the “increased grant aid” provides. 


What are prospective RAs told? 

RA applicants are given position offers towards the beginning of the spring semester, and they must decide whether they want to accept shortly afterwards. However, they do not receive exact numbers on how their financial aid will be impacted until the summer, when they receive their financial aid packages.

In their email, Financial Aid wrote that students are informed during the RA application process that their OOP cost will be impacted on a case-by-case basis. They stated that they hold presentations at RA information sessions hosted by Residential Life and encourage students to check out the “Becoming an RA” information page on the Financial Aid website. 

The page provides a sample financial aid package that suggests that a student’s OOP cost decreases because of the RA position. However, in a joint email to The News-Letter, Alvarez, Mansuria, Ramasamy and junior RA Eric Huang wrote that the “Becoming an RA” page is misleading.

“The ‘Becoming an RA’ page implies that the RA grant would bring about a net reduction in a prospective RA’s out-of-pocket cost,” they wrote. “In reality, most RAs do not see such a reduction.”

Financial Aid noted that applicants this year are also encouraged to meet with their financial aid advisors to discuss the financial implications of the position in greater detail.

“We continue to work with Residential Life to determine if there are other opportunities for financial aid advisors to meet with prospective RAs as part of the recruiting/onboarding process,” they wrote.

However, current RAs reported that when they applied, they were given little notice that their financial aid may be negatively impacted or that their Work-Study may be taken away. 

After deciding to become an RA for the 2017-18 academic year, Alvarez did not contact Financial Aid for more details because he assumed his OOP cost would decrease.

“When I was first applying, I didn’t think of the financial implications,” he said. “I didn’t worry about it because I thought it was going to benefit me.” 

Some RAs, like Ramasamy, reached out to Financial Aid shortly after being offered the RA position. Ramasamy was told that he would have to wait to find out how his OOP cost would be affected until financial aid packages came out in July.

He said that he did not receive a clear response about how his financial aid would be impacted.

“They kept defaulting to the fact that ‘oh no, you need to wait until your full financial aid package comes out,’” he said. 

He added that he had to arrange the meetings himself and that Financial Aid was slow to reply. Ramasamy and his parents also consistently emailed Financial Aid for months but said that the responses Financial Aid sent were “confusing.” 

“They were not very receptive to answering questions and trying to help us figure out what it meant,” Ramasamy said. 

By the time Ramasamy learned that being an RA would not decrease his OOP, backing out of the position was not a viable option. He had already signed on to the position and had rejected multiple housing offers from friends.


The administration’s response

In their email, both Residential Life and Financial Aid wrote that they became aware of RAs’ concerns that they were not being compensated fairly last fall. They also wrote that they are working on solutions. 

“Residential Life and Community Living held an open meeting for RAs to speak and present their concerns to us,” they wrote. “Both offices continue to meet to review concerns.”

However, in their joint email, RAs wrote that concerns have continually been raised throughout the past five years, though they cannot confirm whether RAs had “formal roundtables or testimony” in previous years. 

“We find it hard to believe ResLife and Financial Aid’s assertion that they were not aware at all of student concerns prior to fall 2017,” they wrote. “ResLife has confirmed that in past years, RAs have accepted the position and later resigned due to Financial Aid concerns.” 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Ramasamy said that Residential Life has been open to feedback from RAs and has voiced support for them at meetings. 

This past fall, Director of Residential Life Allison Avolio and Associate Dean for Housing, Dining, Conference Services and Residential Life Jerry Dieringer attended a meeting with Financial Aid where RAs presented data they had gathered from the survey and explained their financial concerns.

However, Ramasamy claimed that such discussions have not resulted in any noticeable change.

“When we talked to them, we continually felt like were being listened to, but no real progress was being made,” he said. 

Senior RA Michael Shang said that Residential Life has communicated RA concerns to Financial Aid. He criticized the University for failing to respond to Residential Life’s efforts. 

“They’ll always say, ‘Oh yeah it’s an issue that’s important to us and we’re looking into it,’ but nothing actually gets done, and we never really get any indication there’s tangible work being done,” Shang said. 

Ramasamy added that the University responded to concerns of unfair compensation by saying that RAs are compensated with free room and board. Alvarez said that since he is required to live in the dorms simply as a condition of being an RA, room and board alone are not sufficient. 

“That shouldn’t be our compensation,” Alvarez said. “That’s just one of the parts of the job that I need to be an effective RA.” 

According to Mansuria, until recently, most RAs came from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. However, Residential Life said that they are committed to creating a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of RAs. Mansuria believes concerns are being raised now because more RAs are on financial aid.

Ramasamy feels that unfair compensation is ultimately reducing the number of RA applicants and impacting the diversity of the RA pool.

“It’s ridiculous that the University can pride itself on being an incredibly diverse university... but have policies that detrimentally affect students who are receiving financial aid [instead of] making sure that all students are receiving a clear benefit because of being an RA,” he said.


What solutions are RAs proposing? 

Financial Aid stated that they reviewed their RA policies in 2014 and found them to be in line with those of most peer institutions. However, they also wrote that they are working toward finding solutions. 

“We want all students to be able to participate in the RA experience regardless of financial need, and in light of the recent concerns, are reviewing our policies and exploring additional ways to ensure that prospective RAs understand how becoming an RA affects their aid,” they wrote. 

Other schools such as Washington University in St. Louis have responded to concerns about unfair compensation for RAs by making them university employees where their financial aid would no longer be affected by their status as an RA. 

Ramasamy feels that a similar system should be implemented at Hopkins.

“The University views us as employees,” he said. “But they are not compensating us as employees of the University. It’s a stunning and frustrating contradiction because I think all of us feel that valuing people for their work means that you’re going to be compensating them correctly.”

Alvarez agreed that the University should recognize RAs as employees and that grants should be replaced with salaries. 

He also suggested that the University provide RAs monthly stipends as compensation. 

“We provide an essential service to first-year students that is required, that is mandatory,” he said. “I am frustrated, I am upset that I am not considered an employee.”

Mansuria said that if the University is not willing to compensate RAs equitably, it should be forthcoming about it.

“If that’s the case, then that’s understood,” he said. “You can move forward from there, and the incoming RAs will be better informed.”

Alvarez wants the University to be more transparent about the financial costs that RAs may incur when they are applying and for communication between Financial Aid, Residential Life and other administrators to improve. 

He emphasized that compensating RAs equitably is important to the general student body. 

“If RAs are worrying about how much they are paying the school and if this position is not beneficial because they are not getting compensated, they are not going to do their best job,” Alvarez said. “In order to provide the best services for our students and for our residents, you need to be willing to cooperate with the RAs who are in these positions.” 

Ramasamy hopes that going forward, the University will take RAs’ concerns more seriously. 

“All we want is to be paid for our work,” he said.  

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