Resident assistant training: a Southwestern perspective

Resident assistant training: a Southwestern perspective

Russell K. Elleven

The position of resident assistant (RAs) on college campuses is one of great responsibility. RAs are often the first person students will seek out when needing emotional support. Training issues are complex and time consuming. Yet there has been little recently published addressing the issue of RA training. This study examines the similarities and differences public and private institutions train resident assistants in the southwest United States.

Introduction

There is little consensus among higher education administrators as to the training needs of resident assistants (RAs) (Upcraft & Pilato, 1982), yet these paraprofessionals are arguably one of the most important links to the satisfaction level concerning the college experience for first-year students (Upcraft & Gardner, 1989). They are also often the first contact for students in distress or in need of counseling on college campuses (Schuh, 1988). By all accounts, it is of the utmost importance that resident assistants receive training that is current and effective. The legal ramifications for untrained or poorly trained staff at institutions of higher education in the United States can be great (Barr, 1988; Barr, 1991; Kaplan & Lee 1995).

Many attempts have been made to outline the training needed for resident assistants (Upcraft & Pilato, 1982; Upcraft, Pilato, & Peterman, 1982; Blimling, 1995) and the best modalities by which to train RAs (Wesolowski, Bowman, & Adams, 1996). Each of these efforts has provided great insight into the training of resident assistants. However, college students’ needs continue to change (Coles, 1995). The training of resident assistants, then, must continue to evolve and progress in order to better serve students who live in a residential college environment.

Yet the resident assistant position continues to become more complex. Resident assistants must contend with stress and role ambiguity (Deluga & Winters, 1991), violence (Palmer, 1993), the alcohol abuse of college students (Rubington, 1993), and students who are experiencing emotional difficulties that range from homesickness to suicide (Blimling, 1995). Some have argued that the job has grown too large for students who must also attend to their own growth, development, and education (Dodge, 1990). Others have warned of the legal liability that may be incurred by the institution because of improperly trained resident assistants (Kaplin & Lee, 1995). In considering all of these factors it is evident that RAs must be well trained. These paraprofessionals must be equipped to serve resident students as role model, counselor, teacher, and as a fellow student (Blimling, 1995).

This study focused on the competencies needed for training resident assistants as perceived by chief housing officers (CHOs) employed by institutions affiliated with the Southwest Association of College and University Housing Officers (SWACUHO). The literature suggests that resident assistants will confront increasingly complex issues (Schuh, Shipton, and Edman, 1986), and it is imperative to train resident assistants to confront these issues with the best preparation possible. Differences between public and private universities were examined.

Methodology

The study was designed to identify the most important resident assistant competencies for training through the perceptions of chief housing officers employed by public and private institutions of higher education affiliated with the Southwest Association of College and University Housing Officers (SWACUHO). The study also collected data with regard to the process by which housing departments determine resident assistant training topics. Finally, the study attempted to determine the housing officer most responsible for the actual training of resident assistants.

A questionnaire based upon the research of Winston and Fitch (1993) was sent to the 71 chief housing officers employed by the institutional members of the Southwest Association of College and University Housing Officers (SWACUHO). A total of 45 CHOs responded, for a 63% response rate.

Instrument

The instrument was constructed by the authors, based on the research of Winston and Fitch (1993). It was considered valid in construct and content validity by a panel of six experts. Three of the individuals on the panel hold advanced academic degrees in the field of student affairs, and three in the field of training and development. Any errors in instrument construct or any difficulty in comprehending the test instructions found by the panel of exerts were revised by the authors.

Winston and Fitch (1993) have identified the following as resident assistant competencies that should be addressed in residence-life training by hall directors and other administrative staff: a) role model; b) community development; c) system maintenance and control; d) leadership and governance; e) helper/facilitator; f) educational programming; and g) general skills. Within each of these competencies are several areas and skills. Training for each of these RA responsibilities is of great importance and was used in the instrument design of this study.

Frequency counts and percentage distributions were employed for data analysis. Percentage distributions and t-tests were used to detect differences in responses from chief housing officers at public and private institutions of higher education.

Data Analysis

Means and standards deviations were utilized to compare the responses of chief housing officers employed with private and public institutions. The dimensions were role model of effective student, community development, system maintenance and control, leadership and government, helper/facilitator, educational programming, and general skills. The respondents were asked to use a Likert-type scale to answer the survey items. The categories used in the semantic scale were: 1) Very Unimportant, 2) Unimportant, 3) Unsure, 4) Important, 5) Very Important. For the purposes of displaying the data, the mean and standard deviation of the respondents are recorded.

Findings and Discussion

The study found many similarities between public and private institutions of higher education with regard to the training of resident assistants. The majority of chief housing officers respondents are female (55.6%), hold a master’s degree (64.5%), and have been in their current position for two years or less (42.2%). They have been employed with the current institution for three to five years (33.3%), have been in the field of residence life for over 10 years (46.7%), and work in a system that houses between 1,000 and 2,999 students (34.9%).

There were very few differences between the chief housing officers employed by private or public institutions with regard to training competencies. The two significant differences were found in the role model and system maintenance dimensions. In the role model dimension, private university CHOs reported the area of extracurricular organization leader to be more important than the public institution CHOs (p<.01). This may be due to the fact that resident assistants are more highly visible in private institutions. Private institutions are usually smaller than their public institutional counterparts. A highly involved resident assistant at a private institution could have a more positive impact with a small population of students than at a public institution, where the RA to student ratio is often much higher.

Private institutions also reported clerical work, within the system maintenance dimension, to be more important that did public institution CHOs (p<.05). This could be due to the lower availability of paid part-time desk staff at private institutions than at public institutions. Private institutions, not having available the part-time desk staff, may need and require resident assistants to serve in this role at a much higher level than do the public institutions.

The survey also showed that 52.9% of private institutions generally had a high-level administrator responsible for the training of resident assistants. Hall directors were responsible for training the resident assistants at 53.6% of the public institutions. It may be that the size of the housing staffs at public institutions are so large that the responsibility of training must be divided among the hall directors in order to be more effective. A high-level administrator with a small staff might more easily train RAs effectively. The same may be said for the influence of central administrators in private institutions, who are more heavily involved in the determination of training issues (94% private vs. 71% public).

There were also educational differences among those responsible for training at public and private institutions of higher education. At private institutions only 6% of the individuals responsible for training had earned only a bachelor’s degree; thus, in private institutions, 94% of those responsible for training had earned a master’s degree or higher. In 25% of the public institutions, individuals responsible for training had earned only a bachelor’s degree, with 75% having earned a master’s degree or higher. This is a perplexing statistic. It appears that private institutions place a higher value on post-baccalaureate education among their student affairs educators than do public institutions.

Another perplexing statistic is related to the availability of credit-bearing academic courses to further the education and training of resident assistants. Only 5.9% of the responding private institutions employed this training tool. Of public institutions, 28.6% had an academic credit-bearing course to enhance RA training. These figures are lower than those compiled by Bowman and Bowman (1995). The researchers expected a higher percentage of private schools to offer an RA class. It was thought that private institutions had more flexibility in curriculum and course development and would take advantage of this training tool. State-supported institutions appear to have a smaller amount of course development prerogative because of the restrictions in place by the state higher education coordinating boards.

Another difference among the descriptive data was that only 29.4% of private institutions offered different training to returning resident assistants. Of those responding from public institutions, 60.7% trained returning RAs differently. This may again be due to staff size. It may not be economically or logistically feasible to offer different training to a smaller percentage of staff.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the most important competencies perceived by CHOs in the survey were almost identical. Private institutions believed that 10 out of the 32 areas were most important, whereas public institutions believed that 11 out of the 32 areas were most important. The differences were that private institutions believed the information dissemination area to be more important than did the public schools. Public institutions believed the disciplinary processes, knowledge of cultures, and making effective referrals areas to be more important than did private institutions. Both types of institutions believed the organizer, rule enforcement, conflict mediator, referral agent, basic helping skills, crisis intervention, provision of accurate information, and dealing with difficult circumstances and conflicts areas to be most important. Further research is needed on this topic to determine the reasons for these differences.

Conclusions

The problem addressed by this study was to identify and characterize areas of resident assistant training currently confronted by departments of housing in the southwestern United States. Comparisons among public and private institutions were made. The following conclusions are made based on the findings of this study.

First, the difference in resident assistant training issues confronted by private and public institutions is small. Only two competencies were found to be significantly different between institutional types. It was also found that chief housing officers employed by private institutions value the clerical work and extracurricular organization leader areas of resident assistant training more than do CHOs employed by public institutions. Chief housing officers employed by public institutions of higher education appear to value the disciplinary processes, knowledge of cultures, and making effective referrals areas of resident assistant training more than do CHOs employed by private institutions.

Finally, higher level administrators are more heavily involved in resident assistant training at private institutions of higher education than are those at public institutions. These administrators are also more heavily involved in the delivery of training and determination of training needs for the department by the responding institutions.

Table 1

Comparison of Public and Private Responses of CHOs

Survey Dimensions and Areas Private Public

N=17 N=28

Mean SD Mean SD

ROLE MODEL

Student Achiever 4.0000 .7071 3.8214 .8630

Extracurricular Organization

Leader 3.8750 .6191 3.3929 1.1001 **

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

Socializer 3.9412 1.0290 3.9286 .9400

Organizer 4.4118 .6183 4.1429 .7559

Environmental Manager 3.8824 .9275 3.8214 .8189

Planner/Executor of Social

Activities 3.7647 .9701 3.8929 1.1000

SYSTEM MAINTENANCE

Clerical Work 4.0000 .7071 3.7143 .8968 *

Rule Enforcement 4.4706 .6243 4.5714 .8357

Disciplinary Processes 4.1765 .6359 4.2143 .9172

Information Dissemination 4.4118 .7952 4.5357 .9222

Custodial Tasks 3.0000 1.1180 2.9643 1.1040

LEADERSHIP/GOVERNMENT

Hall Unit Leader 4.3529 .9963 4.1071 1.0300

Campus Leader 3.7059 1.2127 3.2857 1.2120

Hall Council Functionary 3.4118 1.1213 3.6786 .9049

HELPER/FACILITATOR

Diagnostician 3.7059 .9852 3.2143 1.1000

Counselor 4.0588 .8993 3.7857 .9567

Conflict Mediator 4.5882 .5073 4.3214 .8630

Crisis Intervener 4.5882 1.0146 4.3214 .9833

Referral Agent 4.7059 .4697 4.6429 .6785

Table 2

Comparison of Public and Private Responses of CHOs (cont.)

Survey Dimensions and Areas Private Public

N=17 N=28

Mean SD Mean SD

EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING

Promoter 4.1765 1.0146 4.3214 .7724

Sponsor 3.5882 1.0641 3.9643 .9222

Advisor 3.3529 1.1695 3.8214 .9049

Planner/Executor 3.8824 1.1114 4.1786 1.156

GENERAL SKILLS

Basic Helping Skills 4.7059 .4697 4.5714 .8857

Values Clarification 3.8235 .9510 3.7857 .9567

Knowledge of Cultures 4.1765 .9510 4.2857 .8100

Group Dynamics/Leadership 4.1765 .6359 4.1071 .8751

Student Development Theories 3.0588 1.2485 3.3214 1.090

Crisis Intervention 4.5882 .5073 4.5714 .9595

Providing Accurate Information 4.7059 .5879 4.5357 .8881

Making Effective Referrals 4.5882 .7123 4.5357 .7445

Difficult Circumstances/Conflicts 4.6471 .4926 4.6429 .8262

Note: * = p<.05; ** = p<.01.

References

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RUSSELL K. ELLEVEN, ED.D.

Associate Director for Residence Life

Texas Christian University

JEFF ALLEN, PH.D.

Associate Professor

Applied Technology, Training and Development

University of North Texas

MICHELLE WIRCENSKI, ED.D.

Professor

Applied Technology, Training and Development

University of North Texas

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