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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

The case for compensating student organization leaders

The Middlebury College experience is marketed to prospective students as a place full of extracurricular possibilities and opportunities. We’ve all seen the brochures and heard the classic line about student organizations at Middlebury: If you don’t see a club that interests you, start one.

But this idealistic suggestion fails to capture the full reality of leading a student organization: leadership is a lot of work — a lot of unpaid work. Organization officers take on massive, time-consuming responsibilities to provide a service to the college community. In some cases, these services are essential to student-life operation — take the Middlebury College Activities Board, for example. In other cases, such as that of many affinity groups, student organizations are the only outlets that students from historically underrepresented backgrounds have for mutual support and community. But given that students are already juggling the ever-present academic and financial responsibilities of going to a rigorous higher education institution with an ever-increasing sticker price, the opportunity to invest time and energy into a student organization leadership position is simply not — despite what the college might say — available to every student.

Student efforts to secure compensation for their labor have gained traction in recent years. MiddView orientation leaders successfully pushed for pay throughout last academic year and into the beginning of this one, eventually securing a stipend for their work. Though the system wasn’t perfect, it was still a step in the right direction. The college also recently agreed to gradually increase ResLife student-staff pay, following student advocacy. And in some cases, the college began to monetarily recognize student labor without an organized push from those impacted. After years of going unpaid, student tour guides began to get paychecks last spring. 

We’re glad that these student leaders have started to receive compensation for their work. We hope this indicates the college’s interest in listening to student advocacy in this particular area and working to find solutions. With this in mind, we want to put forward a case for the necessity of compensating student organization leaders.

Accessibility

A system that does not compensate student organization leaders necessarily excludes some students from participating in these roles. Students of low-income backgrounds often find themselves forced to choose between taking on time-consuming leadership positions or working a paid job. Out of necessity, the choice is already made for them. 

The Snow Bowl, a selling point for prospective students, depends on its unpaid student ski patrollers to keep the mountain safe. Ski patrollers are compensated for their essential work at mountains around the world, so why does the college use students’ unpaid labor for a grueling, high-stakes and time-consuming job that requires compensation nearly everywhere else? It’s hard not to conclude that this is because interest in patrol is high enough that it’s possible to maintain a staff without providing a monetary incentive for doing the work. But who is then excluded from participating because they cannot afford to spend unpaid hours on the slopes? What’s more, in order to become a Snow Bowl patroller, students have to pay out of pocket for the training certification course. At minimum, this course should be covered by the college so that every interested student can participate regardless of their financial status. Other organizations that put students directly in charge of the safety of their peers, like the Middlebury Mountain Club, require training, leadership and on-call emergency contacts to handle situations that would otherwise be the responsibility of paid staff.

Services to the college

Many organizations provide services to the college community that would otherwise have to be done by paid college employees. For example, MCAB shoulders the burden of planning, organizing and running student events on behalf of the college — and it is entirely student-run.

Yet MCAB often has trouble maintaining student involvement and attracting new members to the organization because of the intense nature of the work. This is not surprising, as the prospect of convincing students to sacrifice their little free time to take on an extracurricular the equivalent of a professional job in terms of the nature of the work and stress is a big ask.

Organizations and the college’s DEI goals

It’s not only student organizations that exist on the line between extracurriculars and work that deserve compensation. Affinity and cultural groups often become support systems for the underrepresented students they serve. It can be emotionally taxing for leaders to create this space and work to uplift and magnify the voices of students in these communities, all in addition to more universal club leader responsibilities — hosting events, planning meetings and working to ensure the future of their organization. 

The college points to such organizations, along with recent increases in the diversity of incoming classes, as evidence of their commitment to equity and inclusivity. This can leave students feeling as though they are being treated as unknowing ambassadors for Middlebury's DEI goals. The college is talking out of both sides of its mouth: emphasizing the value of diversity to donors and prospective students, yet failing to monetarily recognize the labor those students do for the community. Is it really ethical to showcase  students’ unpaid labor as a DEI marketing tool? 

Regular operations

Handling the day-to-day operations of any student organization can be a lot of work. Responsibilities extend beyond facilitating a positive organization environment, and oftentimes require the same time and energy as a paid campus job. Many student organization leaders go through onboarding processes similar to paying jobs. They provide recreation opportunities — sometimes even providing free PE credit options for other students — and help develop community on a small campus in the middle of Vermont that could otherwise feel isolating. Not only do student leaders have to shoulder the litany of college regulations that come with running a club, they also sometimes find themselves responsible for paying certain expenses out of pocket. 

Unexpected complications are not the exception but the rule when it comes to leading any student organization. When student organization leaders run into these challenges, sometimes they have no other option but to drop what they are doing and deal with that problem right away. In the case of The Campus, for example, this sometimes means missing class, putting off homework or sacrificing sleep to ensure that the paper comes out each week. And as faculty and staff made massive adjustments during the Covid-19 pandemic, so too were student leaders expected to reimagine and redesign student life for a socially-distanced campus.  

Even the student organizations that do not intentionally focus on planning events or providing services for the whole college community still provide a vital service to the college. Every club is a potential incentive for prospective students to attend Middlebury. Every club is another opportunity for current students to enrich their experiences, make new friends or do something they care about. Every club makes Middlebury a better place to go to school.

Solutions

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It’s clear that student organizations are a valuable asset to the college community. And it’s clear that, despite Middlebury’s stated goals to promote “full participation” across communities at the college, some students have to choose between a paid job and unpaid work as an organization leader. So this raises the question, why aren’t student organization leaders compensated for their service to the Middlebury community? 

We won’t pretend that we have all the answers — we know that developing an equitable, feasible and sustainable system for compensating organization leaders will take time. But we do feel that there are stop-gap measures that the college could implement in the near-term.

Establishing a pool of money to which students can apply if they feel that compensation would make or break their ability to take on an organization leadership role could significantly increase the accessibility of these roles for students from low-income backgrounds. This could even look like expanding and waiving certain requirements for similar, already established resources, like the Opportunity Grant fund.

Creating a need-based, rather than hierarchical, system for compensating organization leaders would also help improve accessibility without necessarily requiring that the college find the funds to pay every student organization leader. This could mean working with Student Activities and other relevant offices to establish student-organization roles that count towards Federal Work Study hours.

If the college is committed to finding a way to create a more comprehensive compensation system for organization leaders in the long-term, we feel that it is vital that they solicit student input and take this into account as they move towards that goal. We know we, as a Board, don’t have the information to propose a plan of gradual roll-out for leadership compensation or to rank leadership positions across organizations according to priority for receiving pay. If the college determines that it is only financially feasible and sustainable to pay certain student leadership positions, they should not try to design this system without broad student feedback and support. 

As far as securing funds, we call on those who are financially capable to consider in what ways they could use their resources to support the college’s goal of “full participation.” As things stand, that is not the reality we are living and learning in. 

Whatever solution the college lands on, it is clear that student organization leaders are overburdened, underappreciated and, sometimes, taking on work similar to that of a professional workplace. The current system, or lack thereof, inherently privileges students that can afford the luxury of taking on these unpaid roles over others. For this reason, creating a system to compensate the students who hold these positions is necessary to create a truly inclusive Middlebury.


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