RAs and Financial Aid
by Kali Place
The Colorado College Department of Residential Life Resident Advisor Contract explains that RAs are responsible for “implementing the mission of the department.” These requirements emphasize the effort to create a sense of community and promote student success. RAs are expected to serve as positive role models in their communities, follow the leadership of their RLC and enforce Colorado College policies. Furthermore, the contract explains “this position takes precedence over all other commitments, excluding academic coursework.”
I was first introduced to this three-page contract before the second semester of the 2014-2015 school year. Although expected that to read the entire contract, I was never tested on its content.
It is evident that the entire Colorado College community depends on Residential Advisors' time and energy. They monitor the happiness and well-being of their residents, which other authority figures at Colorado College may not have access to. RAs serve as both authority figures and friends to their residents—they play a critical role in connecting their community.
In contrast to the clarity that Residential Life uses to describe the requirements of the RA position, there is a misconception among many of how this positon will affect one financially. The contract identifies the monetary benefits of the position: “Each RA will receive a total compensation package based on their assigned location.” I was working in a large hall and was informed that “RAs who are assigned to the large halls will receive their room in kind and a $3,500 stipend.” The contract adds that all RAs are required to remain on the meal plan. For many it seems like common sense that this position significantly benefits a student financially. With next year’s total coasts marked at $63,600 (including books and travel expenses), it is possible that this can, in part, explain for the large, competitive pool of RA applicants this past spring. Yet with further examination, it seems that this is a somewhat simplified understanding of the RA position.
I understood that my job as an RA would decrease the student debt that I had acquired over the past years. I assumed that my coworkers and I were influenced by a policy applied to all CC students. Throughout the course of seventh block, several RAs mentioned to me that their financial aid had been decreased after they committed to the position. Thus, despite the stipend that RAs in large halls receive, this position may cause some to have more debt after getting a degree. In order to gain a clear understanding of this issue, I spoke with several RAs as well as someone from the Financial Aid office. The Financial Aid representative did not make it clear if she was willing to be named or quoted.
Sarah Breyfogle, a sophomore and a current RA in Slocum, has been working in her position for the entire 2014-2015 school year. She explained to me that money was not her main incentive for applying and subsequently accepting her role as an RA. She described herself as a leader and a “naturally caretaking person,” and therefore had a genuine interest in the position. As a student on financial aid, she did take money into consideration.
This past summer, Sarah received an e-mail from Colorado College’s Financial Aid Office “with my financial aid being single figures instead of double figures. I think it was something like $10,000 lower. And when I asked, ‘Why is this the way that it is?’ I was informed that it was because I was an RA.” She continued, “No one told me that [would happen]. So I sent them a very nasty e-mail, and they gave me some of it back, but they didn’t give me all of it back.” She decided to continue with the job both because of her personal interest in leadership roles and also because her financial aid had already been determined. She did not want to surrender the benefits of a stipend and free room.
Sarah could not explain why no one from Residential Life or the Financial Aid Office had warned her that this would happen. She told me that “I would like to believe that Res Life just didn’t know about it until I started complaining about it this year. I’m not sure why Financial Aid didn’t mention that, or why it wouldn’t be mentioned during the process. Because it seems to me that some students who are on financial aid like myself become RAs because they want to be leaders, but also because it is a very good-paying job, [and] the free room is very appealing. That seems like something you need to take into consideration—that your aid might be cut if you take this position, and that it doesn’t count as a work study.” This lack of communication that Sarah discovered may explain the confusion surrounding the financial aid that RAs are provided.
Discussions with other RAs exposed confusion surrounding this issue. One current RA, who preferred to remain anonymous, contemplated the possibility that “maybe they did decrease my financial aid and I just didn’t notice? No, but I think it’s been just about the same.” Clearly he was uncertain how his job had affected his finances. Previously this year, however, he spoke with the Financial Aid Office, and they assured him that his new status as an RA would not cause his financial aid to decrease. This RA tried to justify the lack of communication from Res Life and Financial Aid, saying that “It’s probably just not on their mind at all, because maybe RAs don’t go in to talk to them too often, so it’s not a big thing that should be talked about a lot. Maybe it should be.” He understood that the financial impacts of the job varied among RAs. He put most of the responsibility on individual students to be aware of their financial situations. He told me that “it’s a good job still; there’s more to it than the money. But if you can’t afford it, definitely think about other options.”
Both of the current RAs who I spoke with said it was unlikely that incoming RAs were aware of potential financial aid collateral. Sarah said that “I don’t think that people know about it outside our staff unless they’ve had it happen to them…I have a friend who’s going to be an RA next year, and he really needs his education. It’s his big chance to make something of himself. So I let him know, and he was totally shocked.” Another current RA agreed that “people think that it’s always going to be beneficial,” so they don’t question how the position will affect their finances. The reality is that every RA should be aware of the financial impacts of the job.
I spoke with an incoming RA who was aware of this risk. His story, however, supports that he was the exception to the rule. This individual’s former RA initially recommended to him that he apply for the position. Later, this RA retracted her statement, realizing that her resident received a considerable amount of financial aid. She had known someone who had previously quit the position for financial reasons. The incoming RA who I spoke with stated that he was hesitant to take the position when it was offered, and only did so after taking several precautions. He explained that “I asked tons of questions to all people involved, RLC, RAs and finally the Financial Aid Office. The Financial Aid Office is what prodded me to go on ahead and take the position. Plus, working in my particular area doesn’t impact my aid as much as if I worked in a different area. If I had been given a position in another area, I can’t say I’d be an RA.” He was only willing to accept the job after he was assured that he would only benefit from the position.
The accounts of the RAs who I spoke to were inconsistent, making the financial impacts of the RA job ambiguous. I spoke with a Financial Aid representative to get a more complete understanding of the issue who informed me that each financial aid package is unique, with a plethora of factors to consider. Often, students are on a four-year package, which they agree to before they start their first year. This guarantees that the student will receive the same amount of funding each year, despite financial changes or adjustments to the cost of tuition. This may explain why one RA I interviewed benefitted financially from the position.
Other students, the representative explained, are subject to a one-year package that is renewed every year. In these cases, RAs may be negatively impacted, as in Sarah’s case. As a winter start, she was on a one-year contract. It was standard procedure for the Financial Aid Office to examine her family’s financial situation in order to determine how much money they could contribute for the upcoming school year. Her RA position caused her total cost of tuition to decrease. Consequently, Financial Aid decreased her aid proportionately to the adjusted tuition. Overall, she ended up owing more money to CC than she did without her RA position.
The distinction between the four-year and the one-year contract can explain the situations of the other RAs who I spoke with. The current RA was not negatively affected by the RA position because he was on a four-year contract—his aid stayed the same. On the other hand, the incoming RA had serious concerns about how the position would affect his tuition, as he had only committed to a one-year contract. Indeed, the effects vary from individual to individual. This information, however, was not provided to me until I reached out independently to the Financial Aid Office. I was not aware of these factors at any time prior to being hired by Res Life. One question that remains to be answered is why Financial Aid had the ability to give Sarah “some of [the money] back.”
More transparency from Colorado College officials is necessary in order to educate prospective Resident Advisors on the possible financial effects of their position. Yes, it is somewhat the students’ responsibility to be aware of their own finances. For many, however, it seems obvious that the position will be beneficial for whoever takes it. The RA contract, Student Employment Handbook, and Student Employment Overview on the Colorado College website all fail to mention the possibility that one’s aid may decrease. I believe that both Residential Life and Financial Aid should inform potential RAs of these concerns.
On Ithaca College’s Res Life website, they explicitly state that “Since each student’s financial aid package is different, the RA position will affect each student differently. This is why we strongly encourage each individual to contact the Student Financial Services Office before completing the application.” Colorado College Res Life needs to take a similar approach.
One of my colleagues expressed to me that “it really rings false with a lot of the things that the [Res Life] staff says, that we value our RAs so much, and we’re so glad you’re performing a great service, but if you appreciated us then you should appreciate all of us.” RAs are essential to the success of Colorado College students. It is time that we treated them accordingly.