Solving Higher Education’s Newest Challenge: Employee Retention

November 13, 2023

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As colleges have their eyes fixed on strategies to overcome upcoming obstacles of matriculation, economic challenges, and competition for relevance in the modern professional world, one problem has been growing quietly to present a new challenge: employee retention. With the broader workforce continuing to shift to offer increased accommodation to employees with the appeal of remote work, flexible schedules, and greater compensation, how are college leaders working to keep up? The reality is that every year, many higher education professionals say goodbye to colleagues for new positions or even to leave the field. In a Fall 2023 report, CUPA-HR noted that the 2022-2023 academic year was the highest on record for employee turnover since their tracking began in 2017, and 33% of remaining employees in higher ed shared that they are likely to search for a new job within the year. For those who stay despite challenges, colleges may also see less appealing results with the trend of quiet quitting.” Leaders may feel trapped by limitations in their capacity to make change, especially with the all-powerful budget cut, but here are a few ways in which colleges can work to celebrate, invest in, and hopefully retain their talented faculty and staff.

Step 1: Talk to your people. And listen.

The talented professionals who support your institution each have a voice, and asking for input does not go unnoticed. Your colleagues have insights, concerns, and experience that should be sought broadly, but especially regarding institutional decisions. Communication starts with accessible opportunities. Lead by offering frequent, open, transparent communication to help to build trust. Ensure that employees have multiple options to give feedback without being filtered by their direct supervisor. Easy first steps include actively promoting an anonymous feedback portal, allocating time for open office hours with decision-makers, and facilitating open forums where voices can build with support. Employees should also have elected representation, which have standing meetings with college leadership to amplify collective voices. Managers should also receive appropriate training to learn how best to communicate and support their team. Without emotionally intelligent leadership and clear direction, it’s easy for a team to feel lost or undervalued.

Step 2: Balance the numbers.

Higher education has long faced a compensation problem. In a 2022 report from Pew Research Center, low compensation and opportunity for advancement were tied for the most common reasons for employee resignation. According to CUPA-HR, 53% of higher ed employees ranked salary as their top reason for searching, and 86% ranked it in their top three reasons. The cost of recruiting and training new employees is often higher than a pay increase or promotion after the cost of sourcing, interviewing, hiring, training, failed searches, and the hit to productivity with the loss of an employee. Underpaid positions can attract underperforming candidates, which could take another toll on employee morale, cascading turnover, or even student matriculation and success. If the aphorism “time is money” holds wisdom, when one side of the equation is unbalanced and can’t be corrected, it’s time to fix the other side. Since you’re reading this article, I hope you have already run through countless options to pay folks a fair market value for their work, so let’s focus on time. If your team’s compensation cannot be competitive, focus on benefits within your control. Flexible schedules can make a significant impact on work/life balance, offer a gesture of trust and autonomy, and are more inclusive for employees who have time-sensitive responsibilities outside of work. Other opportunities to return an employee’s time could be implementing “Summer Fridays” or other reduced workweek plans. At a minimum, always avoid scheduling “staff bonding” outside of work hours.

Step 3: Lean into flexibility (and away from outdated expectations).

In addition to time, institution leaders can also consider other opportunities to offer flexibility and autonomy, leading to improved staff morale. CUPA-HR coined a “two-thirds rule” when representing work-from-home preferences: two-thirds of higher ed employees would prefer to work remotely or on a hybrid schedule and believe that most of their job can be done remotely, but two-thirds of higher ed employees are required to work mostly or entirely on campus. Revisit policies or procedures that offer arbitrary rationale, and instead focus on the impact of innovative practice on the support of your team. This also includes flexibility on credentials — if you have an entry-level role listed for under the ideal salary, maybe it’s time to remove “Master’s preferred.”

Step 4: Work on inclusion, minimize inequity.

Employees from underrepresented backgrounds often face unique challenges to feel valued and included, often leading to low morale and low retention. The steps mentioned above can help by creating flexibility to accommodate varying needs, but there are always more ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Step 5: Lead with respect.

A 2022 report by Pew Research Center reported the heartbreaking statistic that feeling disrespected was the third most reported reason for employee resignation. Respect comes in many forms. Respect is when a leader asks someone on their campus for their opinion, especially for something within their area of expertise — that is respect. Respect is knowing and following the boundaries set by a colleague for their work hours so as not to encroach upon their time with family. For more on respect’s impact on retention, Nicole Butler, employee relations & leave specialist at the University of Baltimore, offered this wisdom:

“Despite the significance of official acknowledgments, the heart of staff retention often lies in simple gestures, such as asking about a colleague’s weekend or offering a heartfelt ‘good morning.’ If organizations are looking for low-cost ways to boost their staff morale and retention, it’s these everyday acts of genuine engagement that should be emphasized, taught, and practiced.” And please remember — if you find yourself in need of more ideas, return to step 1.

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