Being a resident assistant can take up plenty of time and energy, so how are RAs compensated for their contributions at Duke versus other universities?

Resident assistants at Duke receive better or similar benefits to those offered to RAs at peer institutions around the country, according to analysis by The Chronicle. The stipend, food point allotment and free housing guaranteed to RAs at Duke equals or outperforms compensation offered at other universities.

“Essentially, it’s out of recognition that this is a critically important leadership role on our campus and that RAs have a significant impact on their communities, so the compensation identified was trying to recognize that,” said Joe Gonzalez, interim assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life.

Gonzalez said resident assistants at Duke receive a stipend ranging from $1,250 to $1,750 depending on their tenure. RAs in their first year of the job receive a $1,250 stipend for the year, whereas second- and third-year RAs are given $1,500 and $1,750, respectively.

Resident assistants are also provided with a free single room and a meal plan that differs in value depending on the campus where the RA is based. West and Central Campus RAs receive $2,800 food points for the academic year, and those located on East Campus are allotted $2,200 food points plus 30 meals per semester at the first-year dining location, Marketplace.

Current Duke RAs interviewed for this story had favorable views of the benefits plan, but noted that there was room for improvement.

“Compared to the type of per-hour wage you would do in another on-campus job like a work-study, I would say that we’re definitely in line—if not doing a little better—than that,” said senior Ismail Aijazuddin, a third-year RA on East Campus.

Senior Vinai Oddiraju, a third-year RA on West Campus, added that the benefits of the job were necessary when accounting for the time that is required RAs devote to their duties.

“Overall, I'd say the benefits an RA receives are substantial but no less than necessary,” Oddiraju wrote in an email. “If they were any less, I believe many would leave the role. The job requires significant paper work and documentation that isn't advertised, and all these tasks eat away at much more time than people who are starting as RA's expect to commit.”

RAs and Gonzalez also commented on the reasoning behind various aspects of the meal plan. 

Gonzalez explained that the Marketplace swipes for RAs of first-year students were designed to foster RA-student interaction.

“We wanted the RAs to be able to engage in those opportunities without really expending their own personal finances, so that’s why we felt having a food point element was important to support that,” he said.

Both RAs added that they found the Marketplace swipes to be useful. However, Aijazuddin questioned whether the additional swipes were really part of the benefits awarded to RAs or just another aspect of the job to interact with students.

He noted that although he doesn’t eat at Marketplace frequently, he tries to dine with his students—on a one-on-one or group basis—once a week.

Regarding the meal allotment given to RAs as a whole, Oddiraju noted that the funding could be improved.

“I don't understand why Duke provides RA's with a ‘Meal supplement’ rather than a ‘Meal plan.’ Relative to the amount of money Duke has as an institution, I don't think giving RA's a couple hundred more food points is too much to ask,” he wrote.

Other universities

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill furnishes its resident advisors with a $4,500 stipend for the academic year and $200 food points per semester, according to the UNC Student Affairs website. However, there is no guarantee that RAs will receive a single room at no charge. The page notes that RAs will pay no more than $710 per semester for their room and that a roommate may be assigned in the case of housing shortages.

The University of Pennsylvania—which recently overtook Duke for the eighth spot in the U.S. News and World Report University rankings—provides no stipend whatsoever for its resident advisors.

“All get a room and a 120 meal plan that includes $400 dining dollars,” wrote Martin Redman—executive director of college houses and academic services at the University of Pennsylvania—in an email.

Additionally, the Penn College Houses and Academic Services website noted that the meal allotment “is not intended to meet any RA’s daily nutritional needs.”

Princeton University has a similar benefits package that provides housing and a dining plan but excludes a stipend. Princeton's adviser application website indicated that residential college advisers receive a 180-meal plan and a room, and the $850 residential college fee is waived. 

Columbia University leans in the other direction, however, providing housing and a modest stipend but giving a dining plan only to RAs who work with first-year students. All resident advisers receive $600 stipends and free housing. Aaron Hukari, a residence hall director at Columbia, wrote in an email that RAs of first-year students receive three meals per week, which are intended to be used to dine with their students.

Likewise, Cornell University provides a free single room and stipend benefits that vary depending on experience—$500 for first- or second-semester RAs to $900 for fifth- or sixth-semester RAs. Laura Davis—associate director of residential and new student programs at Cornell—declined to comment regarding the additional benefits provided.

Financial aid

Because of the compensation they receive, RAs at Duke who are on financial aid see changes to their financial aid packages.

Jackie Alford-Hewitt, senior financial aid counselor said the value of the stipend and housing—but not the food plan—was incorporated into the recalculated financial aid package. Additionally, RAs do not receive options for work-study or loans, as any aid awarded comes in the form of a grant.

To provide an example of how becoming an RA can affect financial aid, she described a hypothetical student with a $2,200 work-study, $5,000 loan and $10,000 grant. If the individual becomes an RA and receives a stipend of $1,500 in addition to $7,000 worth of housing, the grant would decrease.

The cash value of the benefits—the $1,500 stipend plus $7,000 in housing—would be compared to the amount of work-study and loans the RA would be initially eligible for—in this case the $2,200 plus $5,000. The difference between the sum of the benefits—$8,500—and the work-study plus loans—$7,200—comes out to $1,300. 

This is the amount that the grant is reduced by—$1,300 would be deducted from the $10,000 grant to yield a new grant amount of $8,700.

“The first thing to remember is that being an RA is always beneficial to students that are on financial aid,” Alford-Hewitt said. 

Although Aijazuddin said that he was not aware of exactly how RA financial aid was computed, he knew that someone working in the Financial Aid Office would walk him through the details if he wanted to see them.

Looking forward

Gonzalez explained that the concept behind the current benefits plan has been in place for more than a decade.

“The approach has been essentially the same for over 15 years,” he said. “The amounts change occasionally, where the stipend might get increased a little bit or the food points might get increased a little bit.”

Although the benefits have remained constant for the past two years, Gonzalez added that there is a possibility “that something might get increased for the coming year” but that the decision had not officially been made.

As far as potential improvements, Oddiraju wrote that he would like East Campus RAs to receive swipes to the Freeman Center for Jewish Life just as first-years do. Aijazuddin also indicated that taxes on stipends is another important factor to consider.

“I think one thing that’s probably helpful with having a plan that’s geared more toward something like meals or housing rather than a direct stipend is taxes, from the student’s perspective,” Aijazuddin said. “I don’t know how taxes work from the University’s perspective, but for us, whatever I get as a stipend is earned income that I have to report and have to file taxes for.”

Gonzalez emphasized that the benefits allotted to RAs are designed to reflect the vital role that they occupy on campus.

“The students that take on those leadership experiences do outstanding work and really do make a big contribution to our communities,” Gonzalez said.