Before I went off to college last fall, my older friends and family wistfully shared stories about their prime years spent in cramped dorms, dimly lit frat houses, and other situations they might not appreciate being retold. My dad—who will quickly self-identify as a terrible student—offered his own form of academic guidance. After talking about my impending 126-square-foot bedroom, he said, “Be friends with your RA.” He defended this with the logic that “if your friend finds alcohol in your room, then you won’t get in trouble.”
I didn’t expect to end up as a Resident Adviser—or RA—the following year, completely misunderstanding his advice.
Being an RA is not a career choice that I would immediately associate with fun. Most of the students that apply for the job are drawn by the promise of free housing. However, as I’d soon come to understand, this sole benefit in no way matches the heavy demands of the position, nor does it function as anything close to a fair wage.
Most people familiar with the student housing situation in the United States—including my father—may think of an RA as something akin to a campus narc: someone who finds fulfillment in being hated by their peers for reporting parties, drug use, and underage drinking. Others acknowledge that RAs also plan events and occasionally post some cheery bulletin board material. But in practice, working as an RA is incredibly demanding, with a pay rate that is often far below other student roles’ hourly compensation as well as a state’s minimum wage.
RAs (sometimes also called resident, community, or house assistants) maintain a high familiarity with campus resources, plan multiple events per month, manage slim budgets, host floor discussions, participate in meetings with their superiors and fellow RAs, meet on on one with each of their 20–50 residents, file paperwork regarding these students, and, yes, enforce campus rules. During an RA’s “on duty” hours, they must remain in their building, on call and ready to respond to any student needs. Further, RAs are often charged with serving on collateral assignments within their school’s Residential or Student Life departments and promoting their initiatives—all while living, working, and attending school in the same facilities as their bosses.
As enjoyable as some parts of being an RA are—getting to meet fellow students that I may not have otherwise, planning activities for my building, and learning more about various campus initiatives—not having to pay rent is a bigger deal. With college tuition at an all-time high, I’m certainly not alone in my thinking. Many RAs are low-income, first-generation college students or within other marginalized groups that often have difficulties in paying college’s rising costs. At my school, Columbia University, we also have high numbers of international students that typically don’t qualify for financial aid because of their noncitizen status. The RA role is one of the very few ways for these students to lower their out-of-pocket costs and reduce their student debt.
But Columbia—a university with an endowment of $13.3 billion (a figure greater than more than 10 individual US states’ budgets)—classifies RAs as independent contractors rather than employees. In both my view and that of the Columbia University RA Collective (CURA), our organizing committee, this is an illegal misclassification. According to the IRS, anyone performing services for someone else is their employee if they can control what will be done and how so. And the Department of Labor states that employees use their employer’s materials and tools, maintain continuing relationships with an employer, and complete work following timelines that employers set. All of these are things, they say, that an independent contractor would not do.
In order to be an RA, you must live in student housing, attend ongoing training sessions, file paperwork according to the Residential Life management staff. We use campus resources, follow monthly deadlines for event planning, attend weekly meetings, and maintain low autonomy in our work. By accepting this job in January 2022, I signed on to a clause stipulating that “I understand that any employment and/or outside commitment I may pursue is limited…and it is subject to approval from my immediate supervisor.” This, paired with the fact that Columbia RAs live among our superiors—as Residential Life Hall directors live in the buildings that they direct—shows how quickly this position can dominate a student’s daily life. Though many other RAs and I have been approved to hold other jobs, we must maintain a certain GPA to keep our RA job title and housing. Our labor, grade requirements, and other pursuits depend on others’ ludicrous standards.
So what stops Columbia or any other university from calling RAs employees? Like most things, even in light of a $13.3 billion endowment, it’s purely financial. Universities will typically offer a yearly or semesterly stipend to RAs. At Columbia, this amounts to $500 per semester for a total of $1,000 per year; at Barnard, an affiliated college whose RAs just filed for an NLRB election, RAs receive just a single-occupancy room and a meal plan. Since they are denied employment status, RAs function as 1099 workers and pay double the FICA tax of standard W-2 employees. As independent contractors, RAs are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), nor from discrimination and adverse employment actions forbidden by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we thus cannot form labor unions. Instead, resident advisers at Columbia formed the CURA Collective earlier this year to demand higher pay, better working conditions, and reclassification as employees. If given employment status, we will continue to fight for back pay and clear, updated job terms for international students to prevent wage theft. CURA is also asking for a more streamlined, democratic way to provide feedback to Residential Life.
The Student Workers of Columbia–UAW Local 2710 recently won a $21.50 starting hourly wage for non-PhD student workers after a two-month NLRA-protected strike. In late July, after petitioning Columbia Residential Life from our collective, the RAs received a change in how we are compensated. Previously, the cost of housing (currently $11,096 per year) would be removed from our tuition bill, and we would later receive those two $500 payments. This caused issues for students who already had financial aid covering the cost of their student housing, meaning the only value they would receive for their hard work would be the $1,000 total. For others without these financial aid benefits, their benefits would then be closer to $12,096 per year. The new payment option, which will be required next year, will provide students with a yearly $13,000 honorarium, with the cost of housing applied to their tuition bill.
With the current pay now at $12,096 per year, based on 20-hour workweeks for 36 total weeks, our hourly pay is $16.80. This number may seem relatively high, as it’s well over the federal minimum wage and slightly over New York City’s minimum of $15 an hour. In actuality, this job regularly demands more than 20 hours per week, and the rate is still below Columbia’s minimum wage of $21.50 an hour for students performing instructional or research work. As the OPEIU Local 153 statement explained after Barnard College resident advisers formed their union, “RAs have seen the position become an overwhelming, 24/7 job. To maintain their jobs, RAs are required to stay on campus through weekends and holidays.”
RAs are overworked, underpaid, and in precarious positions. We’re both students and workers—living in the muddy intersection of these two labels. It’s not true of many jobs that you must live with your supervisor, go to class with those you supervise, and do so for a measly Twin XL and the title of “student leader.” No amount of dialoguing with your boss, attending campus trainings, or outperforming your student colleagues match the value of being NLRA-protected and within a labor union where you can collectively advocate for change. As shown by the Student Workers of Columbia strike, oftentimes union action is the only way to receive large-scale change on campus. Going forward, RAs at Columbia and other institutions should demand employment status, union recognition, and fair wages both before and after unions are built. Student work is valuable and, as RAs know, our schools can’t function the same without it.