Student Staff Compensation Needs Reform

Amidst the shakeup in Row student manager positions (elimination of the House Manager position, to name one), I think it is appropriate to draw attention to an overlooked aspect of the Residential Education program – Residential Assistant (RA) and Row Manager salaries.

Ultimately, the goal of any compensation scheme should be to reward employees in a reasonable and competitive way for the work they perform.  This is the standard to which student staff salaries should be held.

Row manager and RA salaries could use improvement in two broad categories: the levels of compensation awarded to student staff from a relative and absolute perspective, and the level of accountability student staff members are held to.

Compensation Levels

There is currently an egregious imbalance between manager salaries at “self-ops” and “co-ops”; because self-ops hire a cook for food and pay for a member of Stanford’s janitorial staff for cleaning, self-op board bills are typically *much *higher than co-op board bills (on the order of ~$4,800 versus ~$2,400 per year).

Manager pay on the Row is a percent of the board bill, meaning that manager salaries for the same position can differ by more than $2,400 (oftentimes more, because in some co-op staffs elect to achieve relative fairness among their manager, meaning many do not get 100% of board)! Further compounding the problem is the fact that co-ops are typically more difficult to manage, and require more time and energy from student managers.

Some might argue all managers are getting their board paid for regardless, and that the actual dollar amount thus does not matter. However, that ignores the fact that a co-op board is worth less (by ~$2,400); this is reflected in bathroom cleaning, cooking, and other duties that are not performed at self-ops that co-op staff members are required to perform – it is inherently a less valuable product.

Another prime example of imbalances in compensation can be seen in the RA program – salaries for all RAs are a constant 75% of room and board. Yet, the differences in responsibility between RAs across different living situations could not be more marked!

Consider: the freshman RA is one of the most time consuming (though rewarding) jobs a Stanford student can have. Imagine easing 20-30 frosh into Stanford life, catching people making many first mistakes, and dedicating the time to create a unified dorm spirit that makes freshman year so special. Freshman RAs often forgo their social lives for the benefit of their residents, an impressive sacrifice that can take a freshman year from good to great.

The job requirements and expectations at other dorms are very different – are residents from Mirrielees (apartment style upper class living) to Toyon (dorm style sophomore living) expecting or even wanting as cohesive a dorm atmosphere? Are they consuming the same amount of a RAs concentration or time? Absolutely not, yet they are compensated identically.

Accountability

Residential Education should consider ways to factor job performance into salary calculations (or other ways to ensure that staff members are doing a good job). The “terrible RA” and “feuding Row staffers” are practically archetypes on Stanford’s campus, but considering their considerable salaries it is unacceptable that this behavior is permitted.

Beyond catching instances of extreme impropriety, there seem to be few safety nets to catch mediocre or poorly performing staff members. For instance, last year there was no mid-year evaluation survey, during which students are given the opportunity to share thoughts on how to improve their living experiences.

How are members of the Residential Education team supposed to evaluate the performance of dorm staff without this critical information? How are staff members supposed to improve upon their weaknesses and enhance living environments without this feedback?

More fundamentally, shouldn’t a portion of staff compensation be dependent on the quality of their work – the well being of their residents and feedback from fellow staff members?

As a thought experiment, what if 20% of staff salary was dependent on evaluation surveys from residents and fellow teammates? It seems this would better align the interests of staff members with their residents and coworkers than giving them full salary, no questions asked.

In informal conversations with ResEd staffers, a common concern is that often doing the “right” thing isn’t popular; ideally, you wouldn’t want RAs incentivized to be irresponsible to achieve high ratings from residents!

I do not believe this concern is warranted, however. In my experience as a staffer over the past two years, one thing that has struck me is the maturity level of students at Stanford – there *is *a way to be responsible and well-liked, and that is what differentiates successful from unsuccessful dorm leaders.

The incredible responsibility and educational experience afforded to the staff in dorms and houses has been a highlight of my Stanford career, and truly differentiates this university. The program confers a great degree of trust upon Stanford students, who consistently rise to the challenge.

That being said, a serious look needs to be taken at existing compensation schemes to ensure that student staff members are fairly compensated for the work they perform; new controls are needed to ensure that accountability is built into the system and thus ensure that its value is maintained.

Matthew Sprague served as a Residential Assistant in Toyon Hall during 08-09, and is currently the Financial Manager at Mars House.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review