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Higher Education & The Great Resignation: Why Higher Ed Staff Are Calling It Quits

March 2023
By John Scaringe, DC, EdD, President / CEO, Southern California University of Health Sciences

While there were hints of it long before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Great Resignation began in earnest in early 2021, with working professionals across a wide range of industries leaving en masse in pursuit of better, higher paying, and more meaningful employment. The field of higher education has been no exception to this, with a survey from last year suggesting that more than half of higher ed employees plan to leave by mid-2023. If universities want to retain their workforce and attract new talent, they will need to take stock of why people are leaving, then make meaningful improvements to keep people on board.

Why Are People Leaving?

An infographic citing reasons employees are seeking new opportunities.

Infographic source: The CUPA-HR 2022 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey: Initial Results.

There are many different reasons that so many campus staff members are considering leaving in the near future, but most of them come down to a desire for change. Unsurprisingly, the most common reason people are leaving is a desire for a pay increase. Pay is always a major factor when it comes to employee turnover, but the current economic climate has only further exacerbated the issue. Recent financial pressures have resulted in budget cutbacks and low pay raises across the board, while sky-high inflation and economic uncertainty have made higher pay a greater priority, enough so that many higher education professionals are willing to seek a better employment opportunity, elsewhere.

There are several socio-economic issues at play here. Even pre-pandemic, many recognized that the political and economic model of higher education was in decline: a number of economic concerns had resulted in budget cuts, salary stagnation, and disappearing benefits. Political factors such as legislative incursions into the curriculum in many states and politically motivated student groups also put pressure on some faculty, pushing many to seek employment elsewhere.

Pandemic Induced Pressures

COVID-19 created even further challenges for faculty members. CUPA-HR reports that two-thirds of full-time higher ed employees said they were working more hours than what their institution considered full-time, with 10% working 16 or more extra hours each week. Many employees have also had to assume the duties of colleagues who left during the pandemic. All of this adds up to an increasingly stressful work experience, made all the worse when coupled with anxieties surrounding career advancements and opportunities.

Along with these additional pressures, the pandemic also highlighted new benefits in the form of remote work and flexible scheduling. Serving as many employees’ first exposure to remote and hybrid work arrangements, some higher ed staff quickly grew to appreciate the additional time and flexibility they offered, with more than a few refusing to accept a full return to campus.

Going Forward

As if these many challenges weren’t enough, colleges and universities have more competition than ever for talent. Higher Ed has always traditionally struggled to compete with for-profit organizations solely in terms of pay and there are more mission-driven and socially responsible employers out there than ever before. This means that in order to attract new talent and retain existing employees, colleges and universities must find new perks, benefits, and opportunities.

At Southern California University of Health Sciences (SCU), we’ve implemented a number of different options to bolster the employee experience. Some of these include:

  • Improved health benefits;
  • Increased personal time off and improved flexibility for paid time off (PTO);
  • Further support for remote and hybrid work policies;
  • Increased flexible scheduling opportunities;
  • New opportunities for promotions; and
  • Increased training and development opportunities for staff and faculty

This is only the beginning! In a future blog, I’ll go into these solutions in greater detail and discuss how other universities can better attract and retain top talent.

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