Why higher education is losing its lustre as an employer

More than two-thirds of support, professional and administrative employees at America’s colleges and universities say they are likely to consider leaving their jobs – with 65% considering leaving the sector entirely – before the middle of 2023, says a new study by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR).

Top reasons given were dissatisfaction with pay, their present institution’s policies around remote and flexwork, and an ever-increasing workload.

“Higher education is in the same boat as many other industries that are looking at ways to retain their employees during the Great Resignation. Higher ed has long relied on its mission, its superior benefits and its relative flexibility to retain employees at lower salaries than would be paid in industry. This is no longer the case. Industry is now providing more flexible work options, better benefits and better pay,” says Jackie Bichsel, director of research for CUPA-HR.

The salary issue

The dissatisfaction with salaries has been brewing for more than half a decade; 75% of those who say they are considering leaving their present position cite their salaries as the main reason for considering looking for other work.

According to CUPA-HR’s most recent salary study, between the 2016-17 academic year and 2020, administrators’ salaries rose 3.4% while professionals and other staff saw their salaries rise only 2.9%. Over that same period, inflation was 6.8%, meaning, effectively, that salaries for all three groupings dropped by around 3%. The cumulative inflation rate of 15% over the past year and a half means that salaries have fallen even further behind.

Partially because of changes wrought by the COVID-19 crisis to the American economy and partially because of the historically low unemployment rate (3.6%), college and university employees are opening their eyes to other opportunities with higher salaries. These options are fundamentally altering the implied contract between these employees and institutions of higher learning.

“There’s a reckoning taking place in higher education now. Many employees who previously considered working for higher education as part of their identity are redefining themselves,” says Bichsel. “What higher education has counted on for decades is that loyalty. They’ve used it as a vehicle for paying employees less than what they are worth. They can’t rely on that loyalty anymore.”

Support for hybrid work modes

While 62% of the study’s 3,815 respondents (77% of whom are women and 80% of whom are white) are satisfied with their job and 81% report good relations with their supervisor, almost three-quarters say that most of their duties can be done remotely – as was demonstrated during the COVID shutdowns in 2020 and 2021.

This real-time experiment has led to a mismatch between current work arrangements, which privilege ‘face time’ in the office, and what administrative, professional and support staff employees believe would be the optimal arrangement.

Currently, 63% of higher education employees work completely or mostly on the nation’s campuses, including such obvious groups as maintenance or food service employees. By contrast, just under half that percentage (31%) favour working completely or mostly on campus.

Twenty three percent currently work in hybrid onsite-remote modes. Yet, almost double, 41% of employees, would prefer this hybrid mode.

Currently, only 14% of respondents work either completely or mostly by remote mode. Double that percentage, 28%, would like to. When combined with those who would like to work in ‘hybrid onsite-remote mode’, the percentage of HR and administrative staff wishing to work off campus rises to 68.5%.

According to Bichsel, “COVID opened many employees’ eyes to the fact that many of their jobs and duties can be performed remotely. But when many institutions insisted that employees return to campus full time, employees decided to seek opportunities that allowed them to continue to work at home and are exploring those opportunities.

“Most staff are not looking for entirely remote work. Some are, but that is only a very few. So mostly what they’re looking for is a hybrid environment where they can work from home one or two days a week or they can have some flexibility in their schedules.”

For these new schedules to work, she says, universities and colleges have to get away from the mentality that people need to be seen and that working means putting in face-to-face hours.

Longer hours

Employees were equally clear that despite the fact that their salaries have fallen behind inflation, they are working more hours than they are getting paid for. Twenty three percent work an additional one to five hours per week while the same percentage works an additional six to 10 hours.

More than 10% work an additional 10 to 15 hours per week, while almost 10% work between 16 and more than 21 hours beyond their normal hours. Not quite one-third work either fewer or the number of hours for which they are paid.

The impact of the COVID crisis can be seen here too, says Bichsel.

“Employees have been asked to take on additional pandemic responsibilities, for example, vaccine status monitoring. That was something they didn’t have to do before in higher ed.”

A further reason for the increased workload being reported is the effect of a much longer trend: failure to fill vacant positions in a timely manner or, because they are vacant, their complete removal from the organisational chart.

“There is not just a retention crisis in higher ed. There’s also a hiring crisis. When employees leave, they are not being replaced in many instances. When that happens, other employees need to take on the responsibilities of those employees who have left. And they’re taking on those responsibilities without an increase in pay and without a promotion. They’re being asked to do more with less, and that’s just not sustainable,” says Bichsel.

Disconnect between research and practice

Bichsel’s answer to my question about the apparent disconnect between what professors who research what makes for a good workplace and satisfied employees, and the findings of the CUPA-HR study, goes a long way towards telling us what’s gone wrong in the offices of the ivory tower.

“There’s certainly a whole field of research that professors do on what makes for a good workplace and a good employer, but there’s never a clear line between research and practice. You have to consider that higher education institutions are very complex workplaces. Many people, policies, customs and cultural practices underlie satisfaction in the workplace.

“Higher ed in general has historically been viewed as a good employer. But I think they may be relying too much on that historical view, because many of their workplace practices have not kept pace with what employees are thinking now.”