Reckoning With the Great Resignation
This article previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed and it is posted here with permission of the author.
While I was in Houston for the 2022 National Association for College Admission Counseling conference, I saw in person what we have been reading about and—for many on college campuses—living with for the past 12 to 15 months: the Great Resignation’s impact on college admissions offices.
I started the week speaking at a preconference gathering of about 70 admission professionals representing colleges from all over the map geographically and reputationally. Most of them had been in the admission profession at least eight years and fully one-third of them for 12 or more years. The foremost higher ed challenge on their minds, according to a live poll we deployed, was the Great Resignation, which finished a full car length ahead of the demographic cliff.
Curious about how they were feeling, I asked them to generate a word cloud with the prompt “What is a word (or two or three) that describes how you feel now that this admission cycle is underway?”
Right in the middle of the cloud, in the largest letters, were “tired,” “stressed” and “overwhelmed.”
When asked what sort of turnover they had seen over the past year in their admissions offices, only 3 percent reported that they had retained their entire staff, with another 19 percent indicating “typical attrition.”
On the other hand, nearly 60 percent indicated their staff turnover was “way more than usual.”
Even more significant was how the attendees described their own status as they head into this recruitment cycle: fewer than half chose “I’m good. Not going anywhere if I can help it.” As for the rest? A slight majority of them suggested they might leave higher ed completely.
Bookending the week in Houston was a Saturday morning conference session called “Where Did All Our Colleagues Go? Looking Beyond the Great Resignation,” where I joined two of my colleagues at the table in front of a full room of fellow admission professionals to answer the question posed by the title. (In one of those “you can’t make this up” moments, we had to recruit a new member to our panel shortly before the conference because one of the original members had just announced they were leaving their university post to move into a higher ed–adjacent space and—because they’re a high-integrity person—thought it best not to have their institution send them to the conference.)
A pre-NACAC survey we administered for the aforementioned panel session revealed that, across the higher ed sector, admission positions are harder than ever to fill due to shallow or dry talent pools at every level of hiring, from entry to senior level. As we heard from our survey respondents and the 100 or so attendees in the room with us, not only has it become increasingly difficult to fill open positions, but the profession is losing talent at the chief enrollment officer level. Many of those next in line—directors, associate directors and the like—are reconsidering whether they want to continue in their own roles, much less ascend to the next level.
We’ve had a lot of tough moments in the admission profession. Just the past few years have given us: an antitrust case lodged against NACAC by the Department of Justice; an admissions scandal made for (and in) Hollywood; an increasingly inverse relationship between the cost of college and public confidence in higher ed’s value; and, of course, a pandemic.
There are more tough moments to come, thanks to continued political polarization, a mercurial economy, challenging demographics and a Supreme Court interested in revisiting yet another case that most thought would be a settled matter.
Yet, amid all these challenges, the Great Resignation feels like a different kind of crisis.
When we hear “crisis,” we might hear our high school lit teacher instructing us that it’s a turning point in the story.
Etymologists might dig a bit deeper into the origins of “crisis” to emerge with something containing more agency.
It’s a moment to choose.
Time for a Different Approach?
For this season’s premiere episode of the Admissions Leadership Podcast (the ALP), I interviewed five senior enrollment leaders, asking for their insights about the Great Resignation: Adrienne Amador Oddi, vice president for strategic enrollment and communications at Queens University of Charlotte, N.C.; Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University; Marie Bigham, founder and executive director of ACCEPT and co-founder and co-CEO of Accelerated Equity Insights; Rick Clark, associate vice provost of undergraduate enrollment and executive director of admission at Georgia Tech; and Tony Sarda, director of undergraduate admissions at St. Mary’s University (Tex.).
At the outset, my guests determined that calling it a “resignation” may be missing the point.
“I feel like ‘resignation’ sort of short-sells people’s engagement with what they want. I feel like this was more of a great contemplation for all of us,” Rick Clark. “The pandemic was a blessing of pause. Slowing down, pulling back and evaluating, ‘What do we really want?’”
What we really want, it turns out, is an elevated value of the profession itself, one where institutions not only recognize the importance of recruiting students (most already do), but the immense value represented by the people who do the recruiting. When you consider the sheer size of most institutions’ budgets represented by new student revenue—and the annually recurring revenue of students who stay at the institution—it is obvious why institutions invest substantially in their recruiting functions.
However, while colleges may already devote considerable resources to the operating budgets of the recruiting effort—the things that are done to recruit, select and enroll a class—there remains significant work to be done with the labor budgets of the recruiting effort—the people who do the things to recruit, select and enroll a class.
It starts with better compensation, of course. Einstein noted that the average salary for an entry-level admissions counselor had only increased about $6,000 (unadjusted for inflation) from what his compensation looked like 20 years ago. (He wasn’t alone in that observation.) It is also time, as all of us in the Zoom room acknowledged, for an end to what Einstein called the “mission tax,” the notion that, because it is in the service of students, the intrinsic value of the work should supersede the value of the compensation.
Beyond compensation, there is also the matter of work-life balance, something that may seem out of reach for professionals in a career whose days, nights and weekends are often not their own. Better compensation may mitigate some of that, but the past two years of working from home and hybrid work have changed people’s understanding of—and expectations for—how, where and when work can be done, and when to take a break.
How can institutions—especially resource-constrained institutions—improve the compensation and work-life balance for their recruiting teams?
It’s time to break some habits.
Before Refilling, Rethink
Admissions offices can be high-turnover organizations, presenting supervisors with many moments to recruit and hire new employees to replace those who have left.
In a position of having to fill vacancies on more than half her staff over the past year, Oddi found herself in a real-life version of the thought experiment “If you had to build a recruitment operation from scratch, would you build it the same way?”
She analyzed what the university needed and built a team structure that allowed for more nimbleness, more regionally based employees, a mix of fully in-office and hybrid positions, as well as cross-university collaborations. “We’ve got a whole group of people from advancement and enrollment, all Slate experts, in the same suite now,” she says. “That kind of synergy across different divisions is really exciting.”
She also chose not to fill every open position, instead reconsidering the work that needed to be done, and resizing the team by hiring fewer FTEs and using some of the extra budget to reward those who stayed, including addressing some pay shortcomings for mid- and senior-level positions.
The result? “Our university has experienced a resurgence instead of resignation. You can feel people lifted here.”
Before Resuming, Re-Evaluate
When there are fewer people to do the work that has always been done in an admissions office, you have a choice: keep doing everything you have been doing, or pause and evaluate what really needs to be done to achieve your goals. In the process, you may be able to identify ways to create more capacity for your team.
The next step is harder but essential: resist the urge to fill that capacity with something else. Instead use it as a way to create more time and energy for your team.
Clark’s team at Georgia Tech pulls out three whiteboards to identify and categorize their current work according to three mission-based C’s: mission critical (what must be done), mission complementary (what they’d like to do if they were fully staffed) and mission compromised (what they have been doing that they could or should stop doing).
This exercise is most effective if you have established a pattern of storing, tracking and measuring data on your office’s efforts—on- and off-campus programming, high-touch outreach activities, visibility-raising engagements—and deciding the degree to which they fit into the mission-based C’s.
Admissions offices often fall victim to narratives around various initiatives feeling like they’re valuable, which is why they stay in the mix. But what do your data tell you? Leverage your CRM with your planning so you can identify your programs on a low to high effort-and-impact matrix. Maximize those with high impact; reconsider those with low impact.
Before Retrenching, Reframe
Upon noting that he had lost some members of his team to other offices on campus, where pay was more attractive and the demands more manageable, Sarda observed, “We train people to be Swiss Army knives—to be not just admission practitioners, but higher ed practitioners.” He added, “What if we flipped the script at universities? Imagine if admissions were the place where people aspire to work.”
Bigham took the thinking one step further. While acknowledging those brass-ring jobs like Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, where people clamor to get in, sprint hard for a few years and leverage that opportunity to have their choice of jobs, she noted that admissions prepares people for so many things as well—sales, operations, fundraising, administration, consulting—and said, “What would happen if we understood our role in that?”
She envisions a world where college admission offices hire entry-level counselors—with substantially better pay, of course—and, through intentional training, career laddering and mentoring, show them the pathways not just up and through the admissions or enrollment profession, but up and out into other sectors of higher ed, whether it’s retention, coaching, development work or operations. Admissions may become the farm team for higher ed, “but the pipeline goes through you.”
We need not be resigned to the Great Resignation as an inexorable force. This crisis is an opportunity for enrollment leaders—and their campus partners—to reconsider and re-establish the work, and, perhaps, evolve from this moment of reckoning with a different-looking and more sustainable profession.
Earlier, when I described the word cloud that my colleagues generated to express their feelings now that the recruiting season is in full swing, I left out one word, just as large as the gloomier sentiments, which was poking through the middle of the cloud like a ray of sunshine.