When will RAs be compensated equitably?

By VIJAY RAMASAMY and ERIC HUANG | December 6, 2018

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The week before Thanksgiving, Michael Bloomberg donated $1.8 billion to Hopkins, the largest ever donation to an academic institution, for use in financial aid for qualified low and middle-income students. In accepting the donation, University President Ronald J. Daniels stated that the University wanted to “recruit more first-generation and low-income students and provide them with full access to every dimension of the Johns Hopkins experience.”

If the University is truly committed to Mr. Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion vision, a first step should be to make compensation completely equitable for all Residential Advisors (RAs), regardless of their socioeconomic status.  

We have both been RAs on financial aid, along with half of all RAs. While RAs who do not receive financial aid obtain the full $17,438 financial benefit in the form of waived room and board, many of us who do receive financial aid get nothing. Since becoming RAs, many of us are actually paying the same amount or more to go to Hopkins than before we were RAs.

RAs are a key pillar of post-enrollment support. We regularly talk with students and refer those in need to on-campus support staff. Every night, we walk through residential halls to ensure the safety of students and serve as on-call responders for emergencies. 

Our socioeconomic diversity as RAs directly relates to our ability to empathize with and respond to student needs. After all, how can an RA who has never needed an on-campus job empathize with a resident who is worried about finding a job on-campus to afford Hopkins? 

After The News-Letter exposed this inequity in March, the University committed to change compensation for RAs. In a workshop given during RA training in August, Assistant Vice Provost for Admissions and Financial Aid Tom McDermott promised that a new compensation package for RAs would be in place by the 2019-2020 academic year. And in a September email to current RAs, Director of Residential Life Allison Avolio said that the University was aiming to share new information about revised RA compensation in November. 

However, December is here, and the University has not yet released any details about a new RA compensation plan. And with the deadlines for RA applications quickly approaching, students may be applying to become RAs without sufficient information or time to understand how the role will affect their financial aid. 

The progressive values that are often touted by Hopkins, like commitments to institutional access, mean little if not matched with concrete, timely and transparent actions. A truly supportive and empathetic Hopkins would consistently and proactively reach out to students and the surrounding Baltimore community before acting. Instead, time and time again, University leadership has appeared to act only when met with repeated activism and pressure from students and the community. 

This lack of upfront communication is why we have proposed five key demands to ensure that changes in RA compensation will be equitable, transparent, and accountable for future years. Students can view, sign and endorse the complete five key demands on our online petition

The abridged demands are as follows:

  1. Draft a new RA compensation plan that provides each RA with an equal and substantial financial benefit from the position before the RA application deadlines.
  2. Email current and prospective RAs with regular updates about the new compensation plan. 
  3. Organize a joint session for current and prospective RAs to provide feedback after the new plan is released. 
  4. Publish a calculator on the Johns Hopkins website so that students can receive their projected financial aid package as an RA. 

5. Hold a review process to evaluate the plan every semester.

Because there have not been transparent and timely changes to RA compensation, fewer students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds seem to want to become RAs. Not only has the number of applications to become an RA decreased in the past two years, some students who had been offered the RA position were unable to accept the role because of inequitable financial compensation. Continued uncertainty around RA compensation will cause residence halls to be understaffed and residents to be undersupported. 

Inequitable compensation for RAs is a national issue that continues to plague other universities, like Vanderbilt and Georgetown. Still, it has already been addressed at some of our peer institutions, such as the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis. Why does Hopkins continue to drag its feet on this issue?

To an institution with a $3.8 billion endowment, the $17,438 in yearly compensation that should be invested in each RA may seem insignificant. But to us — the students working more than 20 hours a week on the RA job — that money is indispensable. For some RAs, that compensation can mean the difference between attending Hopkins or not. 

The request of RAs is a simple one: Pay us all equitably for our work. All students deserve the opportunity to become leaders in their campus communities, regardless of their financial need. If Hopkins wants to truly become a national model of accessibility, equitable RA compensation is an important place to start.

After meeting with Avolio this past Tuesday, we anticipate an update from Student Financial Services regarding compensation for RAs to be released by the end of this week. We hope this update delivers on our goals of equity, transparency and accountability.

Eric Huang is a RA and a senior from Boise, Idaho.

Vijay Ramasamy, Class of 2018, is a former RA from Overland Park, Kan.

Other current and former RAs who contributed to this piece include Kush Mansuria, Rasha Bara, Haroon Ghori, and Keone Aliphios.

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