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The New World of Higher Education Administrators (that don’t work at your University)

Since my transition from a “traditional pathway” in higher education administration working for a University, I’ve become more and more sensitive to the various ways that future higher education leaders are building and complimenting their higher education experiences with valuable skill sets in other industries while maintaining their connection to serving higher education.

It seems, at least in part, this is the result of “The Outsourced College” which Dave Jarrat of InsideTrack notes, is the result of “[universities]…going through a process of discovery of determining what is their core competency — what do they want to own — and what services are available that they can leverage.”

Since leaving my work as  an administrator on a college campus nearly 3 years ago, I’ve spoken to dozens of young pros and graduate students and read several stories of folks who are interested in a change of pace, exploring alternative pathways to specific skill sets, or anticipating the changes across the industry, and I wonder what the long-term impacts of this evolution might be.  When they leave, where do they go, and will they come back? And if they don’t what are the implications of this for the field as a whole?

While the Bureau Labor Statistics projects “faster than average growth” in Postsecondary Education Administrator jobs across the next 8 years, as this reflects a median salary of 88K, I suspect that the type of role that sits in this category is likely representative of senior administration rather than the field at large.  In fact, Master’s degrees across a variety of Education, Teaching, and Curriculum disciplines were rated by PayScale as among the “worst” degrees in 2016 given their long-term growth, median salary, and job satisfaction and stress.

Maybe better than observing that pros are leaving or exploring when they leave, is asking questions around why they’re leaving. Many (state) Universities establish long-term benefits related to tenure in Teacher Retirement Systems, as well as tuition reimbursements, but fall short when it comes to the incremental pay, incentives, and title increases that categorize growth and engagement– the ladder for growth and engagement at the University isn’t clear, and isn’t aligned with evaluation metrics or incentives.

Furthermore, it’s all too often that colleagues joke with me about their limited job growth because of department leaders who have held their seat for a significant portion of their career.  It leaves little room for a fresh, young, idealistic, energetic employee interested in confronting systemic problems or complex challenges at the University.  It creates tension around forcing the new kids on the block to either “find their counterparts” and advocate for grassroots change to make their own way or “wait their turn.”  The result? Young, fresh, enthusiastic pros honing their skills at one University to lead at another while incrementally climb the ladder while skipping across states and functional areas.

But before we entertain the critiques on millenials as “job hoppers,” let’s take a look at the data aside from some exceptionally good summative points; namely that  “we should be looking at our business practices and our human capital strategies. If we’re seeing turnover rise in roles that are traditionally held by people who are 20-34, it’s not them. It’s us,” a review of BLS data shows that “job hopping” is no more prevalent in practical terms today than it was for either Gen X or Boomers, and it raises some tough questions:

  • How does higher education adjust incentives to align with known practices to increase employee retention? Is this an acknowledged risk, problem or priority?
  • How do hiring practices within higher education react to pauses or punctuated experience in traditional higher education roles? What is the hiring process reaction to “outsiders?”
  • What does higher education risk or sacrifice by undervaluing experiences tangentially related to the  industry?

In many fields, the type of job retention stats outlined above might be easily overlooked, noting that middle management is remaining in positions once they’ve settle into their career and a company that they’ll spend a significant portion of their career in, and retire (those same folks that entry level professional look at occupying positions they long to occupy) from; but there’s a nuance that may be easily overlooked in higher ed.  Those same entry-level professionals churning based on their lack of growth, opportunity, or new challenges are the same pros who are on the front-lines working with students who senior administrators largely depend on to support and ensure a students’ success.

A students’ dissatisfaction reflects a bad conversation with an academic advisor, or a organization advisor that exits mid-semester– and the moral imperative and emotional connection that we invest in watching students succeed ultimately won’t keep staff who yearn to achieve in seat for very long (without the right tools for engagement).

While I work as a higher education consultant supporting student success through the strategy and implementation of a technology, I still consider myself a higher education administrator at heart, and I haven’t seen my last day working directly for a University. But before it will reenter my realm of consideration, a cultural shift will have emerged that reflects the need to approach problems in innovative ways, take risks, fail smart, and adapt to the workforce and cultural needs that it supports.

And it’s clear that I’m not alone.  I’ve seen an incredible number of members of the student affairs community online engaging in this discussion, exploring opportunities, and taking the leap from traditional work in student affairs to engaging their skills gained in education administration in new ways.  What’s more is they are met with an expansive, and growing market of opportunities.  Young  startups companies who have a product but need a terrain expert with a strong network.  And technology companies are already more heavily recruiting professionals with liberal arts, humanities, and other ‘non-technical’ backgrounds because of their ability to “connect with end users and figure out what they want.”  If you’re curious, EdSurge has created a guide outlining research and resources to make the leap.

Taken in sum with the evolving trends of the “outsourcing” within higher education, the result is a more competitive job market for the attentions and talents of student affairs pros to engage their skills in a different way within higher education, and an  industry that may increasingly require the ability to engage meaningfully with other sectors that support what represent core student affairs functions today as Dave outlined above.

So with the question below at-hand; what changes do you think need to be made to engage this evolving climate?