Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US labor market has undergone dramatic ups and downs, with employment numbers dropping off a cliff in Spring 2020 and climbing back towards pre-pandemic levels in fits and starts since the vaccines became widely available. Over the past several months employers and employees have been navigating the complex repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic: return-to-office vs. work-from-home debates, continuing social reckonings following the murder of George Floyd, rising inflation, and the looming possibility of a recession, among others. One result of this constellation of forces has been the Great Resignation, a time when many employees are leaving roles for potentially greener pastures, whether with another employer or temporarily leaving the workforce for anticipated future opportunities. These employee departures, both actual and anticipated, come at a time when pandemic-related staffing levels are just beginning to return to what be considered “normal” levels.

American colleges and universities have not been immune from these national employment patterns. Research about higher education employee turnover is sparse in general and particularly since the onset of COVID-19, but what is available indicates that many of our higher ed colleagues are looking for something new. For example, the University of North Carolina System experienced a substantial increase in voluntary turnover beginning in Summer 2021, with almost 75 percent more departures than the average of the prior four years. More common than research on actual turnover are studies of employee turnover intentions, which are often considered highly predictive of actual turnover and usually easier to ascertain. A study released this past summer by CUPA-HR, the higher education human resources professional association, found that well over 50 percent of higher education employees are somewhat likely, likely, or very likely to be job searching within the next 12 months. That rate of intended turnover in higher education is about 10 percentage points higher than the rate for employees generally found by McKinsey in both 2021 and 2022. It may be no surprise, then, that recent NACUBO research found that supporting and maintaining the workforce was one of the top five challenges facing colleges and universities in 2022.

Whatever the reasons, losing employees makes it harder for colleges and universities to fulfill their missions in several key ways:

  • High turnover increases visible and invisible costs. There is little research on the actual cost of turnover for employees in higher education, whether faculty members, administrators, or hourly staff.  Nonetheless, voluntary turnover of staff inevitably creates unanticipated institutional expenses related to the search and selection process as well as the onboarding of the new employees. Some estimates put these costs up to 200 percent of the employees’ salary, depending on seniority. Perhaps even more pernicious than these direct costs are the opportunity costs associated with lost staff. These more ephemeral expenses accrue because all of the time remaining staff spend recruiting and training new colleagues is time not spent doing their regular jobs. There can also be negative impacts on organizational reputation as word of employees leaving permeates the various subfields that make up higher education.
  • High turnover can negatively impact the student experience. From admissions officers to student affairs professionals to faculty members, students and employees throughout an institution are impacted by these national trends of employees intending to leave. In addition to the immediate disruption to the students enrolled in courses taught by instructors who leave their institutions, there is an accelerating negative impact on faculty-student ratios. The faculty-student ratio is often cited as an indicator of institutional quality because of the resources and support full-time faculty receive (as opposed to differences in teaching ability). The resulting staff shortages can lead to reduced course offerings, more limited support services, and longer times to degree for students. As a recent analysis of public institutions in New York State shows, the ratios are often least favorable to racially minoritized students whose higher education has traditionally served poorly thereby, exacerbating the existing inequities. Although enrollment numbers have also been trending downward during the pandemic, functional units across multiple institutions report not having enough staff to maintain minimal service provision, from dining hall workers to financial aid officers to counselors to instructors to DEI practitioners.
  • High turnover can make it difficult to pursue long-term goals. While no substantial research exists associating the number of student affairs professionals at an institution with specific student outcomes, the disruptions to and additional expenses for functional areas these practitioners serve would likely have a measurable negative impact on student experiences and outcomes. Much of the work in supporting students, particularly historically underserved student populations, relies upon relationships between staff leading initiatives, other institutional stakeholders, and the students we are all trying to serve more effectively. When the key staff of faculty leaders at a given institution leave, it is an added challenge for that institution to meet its goals in equitably supporting all students through graduation.

Employee ambivalence toward their positions and administrative concerns about workforce attrition are not new to higher education. The current labor market moment has invited substantial commentary and critique from faculty members, administrators, and higher education-focused media about the long-standing problems of administrators in dead-end jobs, precarity for contingent instructors, and shrinking compensation for even tenured and tenure-track faculty. A growing body of research and commentary has examined the competitiveness of the higher education labor market and generally found that, compared to industry, the experience of working in higher education is less satisfying, less well-compensated (both in wages and benefits), and provides less flexibility and work/life balance. The impact of this competition is felt most acutely at the least-resourced institutions, with community colleges losing staff and faculty members to both private industry and four-year colleges and universities.

Within this swirl of persistent and emergent labor market forces, there is wealth of advice being offered to both employees and employers. These ideas include offering better compensation, enacting politics in support of work-life balance, and focusing on employee engagement, among others. While these efforts are intuitive and sensible responses to the myriad causes of the great resignation, there is little empirical evidence about how to implement such programs well in higher education settings, what is a reasonable expectation of their impact on retention of faculty and staff, or how that impact may differ across employees holding different identities. As with any kind of institutional initiative, these good ideas “in theory” should be evaluated to see if the goals have been achieved.

It is increasingly important for colleges and universities competing for talent alongside other businesses to understand how different employee retention policies and practices are likely to help institutions meet their strategic goals for faculty and staff retention. While a variety of options and opportunities are discussed at professional conferences and undoubtedly around conference tables, there is a dearth of research in this area for higher education employees. Some human resource experts suggest looking to the actions of competitor industries that may lure away higher education employees. These potential interventions include (re)designing positions for increased flexibility in when, where, and how work is conducted, increasing the emphasis on employee well-being, finding alignment between management and employee understandings of productivity.

Regardless of strategies undertaken, a top priority should be the rigorous evaluation of retention efforts and programs for the three broadest categorizations of higher education employees: faculty, administrators, and hourly staff. Just as we call for the assessment of how student retention programs are implemented and (should be) scrutinizing their efficacy for different student sub-groups, our efforts around employee retention call for comparable attention. How well were these programs implemented? Did they have the intended impact? Was that impact equitable across all employees? The answers to these questions can help institutions better retain their employees and, in turn, better serve their students and communities. The efficacy and sustainability of the academic programs, administrative offices, and support services that keep students enrolled and provide value to the broader public is dependent on the employees who deliver that value in the classroom and beyond.

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