This blog series features different writers responding to the prompt, “What is the future of the RA role?”
Guest Post by Christopher Alan, Professional Staff Member
In the past few years, scholars and practitioners have increasingly observed that the role of Resident Assistants has dramatically expanded over time. We are approaching, I believe, an “other duties as assigned” crisis, and who knows whether or not we can come back from it.
Ask any professional to describe the role of an RA and they’ll likely say something akin to: “they’re our front line support” or “they’re our first responders.” This language, which is meant to convey that RAs provide generalized support until full-time assistance can arrive (be that EMS, a counselor-on-call, a Hall Director, or Campus Emergency Services), downplays the truth: RAs are often the first on scene confronting a range of complex crises, ranging from confronting bias incidents, triaging major facilities concerns, and supporting students experiencing mental health crises.
That last point is worth some additional consideration. Journalists and mental health experts have long warned that there is a bubbling mental health crisis on college campuses: a recent article finds a dramatic increase in college students diagnosed with depression or anxiety over time. We also know that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people ages 15-24. In short, our college populations require additional support for their mental health.When those students live on campus, RAs are often first people to interact with them and identify that they could benefit from additional support. Scholars are increasingly studying the role burnout and secondary trauma play in RAs’ experiences and the news is grim: RAs struggle with the immense pressure and varied expectations that come with their roles.
So what’s the future look like? I expect that as all but the most elite institutions face increasing financial challenges due to lack of state funding support and declining enrollment, forcing them to make budget cuts that reduce the number of trained and qualified professional staff available to support students, we’ll see RAs be asked to fill more and more gaps. RAs, who are already event planners, community builders, front line crisis responders, role models, educators (particularly in schools which utilize a curricular approach), and administrators, will see their compensation remain stagnant as their responsibilities expand.
This will likely result in more RA staffs pushing to unionize, as we have seen in rising numbers in the past few years. We may also see recruitment challenges as the RA role becomes increasingly hard to fill, mostly due to students making the calculation that based on the compensation and demands of the role, the position just isn’t worth it. Eventually, institutions will have to reckon with the unsustainable path the field has collectively put the RA role on and scale back its responsibilities. It feels to me like an inevitable outcome; the only question left to be determined is when it happens.