“The Great Resignation:” Higher Education and Student Affairs Edition
When I transitioned from working on a college campus four years ago to the association industry supporting higher education, my focus shifted from listening to the voices and needs of students to the perspectives and issues of professionals who support students. Over the last year, I have had numerous opportunities to really listen to and observe how the dual pandemics (COVID-19 and racial injustice) have hammered student affairs professionals and much of the higher education community. Although my travel to campuses, institutes, and meetings subsided, this left more time to spend connecting with ACPA members virtually. The themes of exhaustion, anxiety, being stretched beyond capacity, and feeling unappreciated by institutional leadership show up in nearly every connection. These commonalities are even more present among Black and professionals of color who have been overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them to assist campuses in managing both pandemics, while white colleagues responded to just the health crisis. But these themes, exhaustion, anxiety, being stretched beyond capacity, and feeling unappreciated, were common in conversations before the COVID-19 pandemic began – they were amplified and magnified during the last 19 months. By now, most have heard the term “the Great Resignation,” attributed to Texas A&M University psychologist Anthony Klotz. In truth, most student affairs and higher education professionals have not only heard of “the Great Resignation,” but they have likely experienced it in one way or another.
In truth, higher education is not the only industry experiencing this employment crisis. But we feel the effects of the crisis because it is our jobs and lives most directly. From my own experience, every restaurant, store, online purchase, travel plan, etc. I make now comes with a warning about staffing shortages and possible delays in service or attention. Now, we are witnessing the rise of inflation for the foreseeable future and it is hard to imagine how we will find new ways of living. Maybe the way we are living now is not temporary? None of us wants these challenges to be permanent, so we have to continue to come together to fight for the world we want to create and live in.
Much like other industries, the challenges facing higher education right now are not simple, and the solutions are even more evasive and complicated. Why? The “Great Resignation” in higher education cannot be attributed to just one or two causes, as there are many issues at play simultaneously. I was watching the November 12, 2021 episode of ABC World News Tonight with David Muir when I realized that while we desire quick fixes, we will be working in these conditions for a while to come. ABC World News Tonight reported that a record number of Americans quit their jobs in September 2021, 4.4 million to be precise. Prior to September, August 2021 was the previous resignation record with 3% of the U.S. workforce leaving their positions during that month. So, what exactly is going on and how does the “Great Resignation” affect higher education and student affairs? Here are some of the reasons:
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times reported (as of November 16, 2021) there have been more than 763,000 related deaths in the U.S. and more than 5 million worldwide. This is a significant portion of the U.S. population, and we have lost many contributors to the local and global workforces.
Colleges and universities have been further depleted by the mass number of retirements occurring within the large Baby Boomer cohort. Numerous outlets have reported on the acceleration of retirement announcements over the past year, particularly among senior leaders in higher education and among faculty to a lesser extent. This has hit administrative arenas of the institution most hard, as campuses scramble to fill senior leadership roles and create interim coverage plans for the time being. This retirement acceleration has occurred during a global pandemic, and campuses have not had the opportunity to strategically fill vacancies or assess the impact of those exits throughout the organization.
We also know that enrollments in student affairs and higher education graduate programs have been on the decline for several years. This is not the case at every institution, but it is true at many. With fewer degreed administrators entering higher education, there is a net gap between the mass number of retirements and the new investments in the future of the field.
To summarize so far: We’ve lost many lives, senior campus leaders have retired, and we have a fewer professionals entering our field. These conditions alone are each crises. Next, we layer in what we realized about life and work during the pandemic:
Numerous institutions furloughed or eliminated staff positions – this has left a bad taste in the mouths of those in our field who were directly affected by those decisions and by those who were asked to stretch to cover the responsibilities of vacant or cut positions. Many have now left higher education altogether and others have moved to higher ed-adjacent jobs where they can still connect with their passion for learning but in a different context or non-campus setting.
During the pandemic, institutions were challenged to be flexible to continue delivering courses and experiences for student learning and development. In focusing so much on students, we failed to focus on colleges as employers and their obligations to their own workforce. Corporate America was far ahead of higher education in breaking the traditional 8am-5pm week mold in favor of hybrid or remote work arrangements before the pandemic. I have always been struck by higher education’s claim to be leaders of innovation in the world, yet be so resistant to change. When will we realize that college campuses are not 8am-5pm businesses and that flexible work arrangements can be accomplished in our industry as well?
I mentioned previously that I was a campus-based professional before my current role with ACPA, and now that I am in a job that allows for flexible and remote work arrangements, I know first-hand that a lot of life happens between 8am and 5pm, Monday through Friday that we need to give people the space and flexibility to manage. From daycare needs to school pick-ups and doctors’ appointments to home deliveries, I can now get all of these accomplished while easily working more than my required 40 hours per week.
Finally, we must realize that the global loss of lives and the mass retirements are not just issues in higher education. The data from “The Great Resignation” alone suggests that jobs are opening everywhere and in every industry. As a community, we need to be concerned that we are and will continue to lose our most talented, our most diverse, and our greatest assets to other jobs with better pay and more flexibility if we do not make strategic and bold actions now to retain our employees. What is already a difficult series of conditions on campuses could become much worse if we do not pause to assess, ask our staff what we can do to see them in their wholeness, and put every dollar and effort behind retaining them. If we do not take these actions, we will contribute to our own Great Resignation within higher education. If you have not already read it, I encourage you to review a recent article featured in Inside Higher Ed (November 3, 2021) on this topic.
I hope you can better appreciate the intersecting and swirling nature of the many challenges affecting higher education and student affairs in campus settings right now. If nothing else, there will be no quick fixes and together we will be figuring it out for the next several years. In the meantime, I ask that institutional leaders center the humanity and the needs of your employees: Embrace relationships and people over profits and efficiencies. Invest in the experience and livelihood of your staff, take care of their mental and emotional health, and provide opportunities for joy and celebration – even in the small moments and successes! We will need each other right now from the wisdom and experience of those thinking of retiring or in senior leadership roles and the energy and innovation from those just beginning a career in higher education. Listen to each other because the ways out of these challenges will only happen when we work together.
Chris Moody, Ed.D.
ACPA Executive Director