The Minimum Wage RA

There’s a piece going around my Facebook today about Resident Assistants at my school–specifically the university’s less-than-stellar treatment of them in several cases. My experience wasn’t nearly as bad as the ones described in the article–in fact, my Community Director was more supportive of me than I could possibly have expected, and the worst of my issues were nothing compared to sexual assault–but there’s still one thing that’s always bothered me about the ways that RAs are treated here at Georgetown and that is, quite frankly, that we’re not always paid for what we do. I left a comment on the article, but I feel like it’s a significant enough issue to merit a post here as well.

I was an RA my sophomore year and, when I left for France last August, I had every intention of reapplying for my senior year. By the time the December deadline rolled around, I had changed my mind. Why? Because I ran the numbers.

According to the RA contract, the position requires about 20 hours a week, with more hours expected during the training sessions at the beginning of each semester. Using that information and the amount I was supposedly paid from my year as an RA, I should have been making around $16 an hour. I was realistically making $8-10. (DC’s minimum wage, for reference, is currently $9.50.)

How does that happen? Georgetown treats RA benefits like an outside scholarship–that is, it replaces:

  1. Your family/student contribution, up to the Expected Family Contribution (a number determined by your FAFSA that may or may not reflect what your family is truly capable of paying),
  2. Your Federal Work-Study award (which I have problems with as well, but that is neither here nor there),
  3. Your federal subsidized loans, and
  4. Your Georgetown grants/scholarships,

in that order. If you haven’t gone through the process yourself–and even if you have, in many cases–it can get confusing, so here’s an example. Bear with me.

Say that the RA benefits (room and board) amount to about $14,000. I have an EFC of $10,000. (That’s not accurate, but we’ll use easy numbers). The cost of attending Georgetown is about $65,000 this year. My financial aid, then, covers everything except for my EFC, or $55,000. It’s made up of $2,500 in subsidized loans, $2,500 in work-study, and $50,000 in Georgetown scholarship. Instead of getting the $14,000 deposited to my account, $5,000 will replace my subsidized loan and work-study. The rest will replace my scholarship, so my financial aid award is now made up of $14,000 in RA benefits and $41,000 in Georgetown scholarship. I’m still on the hook for $10,000. That means my actual received RA benefits amount to $5,000 (plus a better meal plan and the intangible knowledge that I’m helping my fellow students, I guess).

This is a problem for multiple reasons. The first is that RAs from wealthier backgrounds don’t have same issue. To the best of my knowledge, if you aren’t getting financial aid, then you receive the full RA benefit package. That means that people who are better off are paid significantly more than their peers who are doing the same amount of work. I hope it’s clear why that’s unfair.

The other problem is that, because they don’t have as much of a financial inventive, students from lower- and middle-class backgrounds are less likely to become RAs. Georgetown supposedly functions based on Jesuit values and appreciates the worth of every individual. The Office of Residence Living emphasizes the importance of recognizing diversity and treating everyone equally, regardless of their background or identity–in fact, they drill it into RAs during training. The problem is that their very own policies exclude and disadvantage a good chunk of the student body, creating a relatively homogeneous group of RAs.

When I was planning my senior year, I realized that I had two options. I could, as I did my sophomore year, be an RA and take out about $5,000 in loans to cover the rest of my direct costs to Georgetown. Between the RA hours and my other job, I would have been working about 30 to 40 hours a week. Realistically, it probably would have been on the higher end of that range.

My other option was to take those same hours and use them to do an internship or job during the day, something that would prepare me for my future career. That’s the option I ultimately chose. I’m still working almost 30 hours a week, but my job gets me experience in the field I want to someday work in, it’s relatively low-stress, and almost all of those hours are during the day. No early-morning fire alarms, no midnight rounds of the building. I also get to live in an off-campus apartment that is significantly nicer (and quieter) than the single room I’d be living in as an RA.

I could have been an RA anyway, and I know people who love the job so much that they took it even though they got even less of the financial benefit than I did. Maybe if I’d loved being an RA more, I’d have gone back. But many RAs never have to ask themselves if they love the job enough to do it for free, or to do it for minimum wage. For a university and department that pride themselves on diversity, that’s just not acceptable.

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