Several years ago, I chaired the search committee for a new administrative associate in my department. I was glad to participate in the process, and so was the rest of the committee, because we knew how important this role was to the functioning of our department. Our administrative associate manages complex budgetary and scheduling processes using byzantine systems and works closely with faculty who—let’s face it—aren’t the easiest people to placate.
We were relieved to see many qualified applicants after the position closed because, frankly, we knew the salary was low. Outrageously low, in fact. We have since had to search for this position a few more times, and each time it seems to grow more difficult. With each fresh posting, the job expectations, position description, and compensation have stayed largely unchanged. Yet the applicants dwindled. The bottom line is that it’s a tough job that merits better pay and recognition at a time when there are many job opportunities outside of higher education.
I think about this position—and the essential yet undervalued role of administrative professionals in higher education—a lot. Most recently, I thought about it when I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a survey of managers in which 84% of respondents said hiring for administrative and staff jobs in the last year had become more difficult. One respondent called the applicant pools in higher education “shallow and weak,” a sentiment echoed in the article’s headline. That language bothered me. It reminded me of those notes restaurant owners had taped to their doors early in the pandemic-era worker shortages: “Closing early today. No one wants to work!”
The frequent retort to those notes was that plenty of people wanted to work, they just found better jobs elsewhere. The same is true for higher education searches. The problem isn’t so much that applicant pools are shallow or weak. The problem isn’t really would-be workers at all. It’s that the jobs we offer—and the hiring processes connected to them—are weak. If we want to see improvement in the former, we should start working on the latter.
Why Aren’t More People Applying?
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, quite literally. The pay for many higher education jobs is too low and hasn’t kept pace with rising living costs in many places. According to the most recent CUPA-HR higher education employee retention survey, the number one reason people cited for leaving jobs is that they want a pay increase. When applicants compare a job in higher ed to similar positions in knowledge organizations that compete with colleges for talent, they sometimes see an eye-popping difference in pay. Savvy applicants seriously study and negotiate the starting salary because they know that raises and bonuses in higher ed have become exceedingly rare—unless you change jobs.
Pay is perceived as particularly low in light of the levels of education and experience often desired by higher education employers. Several of my former students complained to me that they were struggling to apply for entry-level jobs in student affairs because the minimum qualifications asked for three years of experience. Somehow, they needed to first be hired into an entry-level job to be qualified for … an entry-level job. One of my followers on Twitter suggested units are searching for “turnkey” applicants who can “hit the ground running” because many institutions lack the resources or capacity for professional development and mentoring. Sometimes there are plenty of qualified applicants—if you’re willing to train them.
Minimum and preferred qualifications can also be so lengthy and detailed, it’s easy for applicants to convince themselves they aren’t qualified, making it seem like a waste of time to apply. Several people reached out to me as I was writing this article to share experiences with higher ed position descriptions that were essentially two very different jobs smashed together, creating an enormous list of responsibilities. This was perhaps because budget cuts mixed with ever-increasing expectations turned what had been two full-time jobs into one. The result was a frankenstein position description, intimidating applicants and forcing search committees to go looking for a unicorn.
Even if an applicant is satisfied with the pay and feel they are qualified, they sometimes encounter an onerous application process. This includes asking applicants to upload their resumes or curriculum vitaes and subsequently enter all of the same information by hand into an application system. Some jobs still ask for letters of recommendation, despite the invention of the telephone. I once chaired a search in which we called all three of the finalists’ references, yet still had to require that the person we chose to hire submit three letters of recommendation. After we had made a decision. It was an illogical compliance formality and yet another hoop to make the applicant jump through.
Then there’s the length of the process. It’s drawn out by multiple rounds of interviews, including a full-day campus visit with several presentations for certain staff and faculty jobs. Months can separate each milestone of the search process, and colleges are notoriously bad about communicating with applicants about their status. For the applicants who have been ghosted by institutions over the years, the notion of applicant pools being “shallow” is especially galling. One person who recently transitioned out of working in higher ed told me that they endured so many bad searches that stretched for months, they aren’t likely to apply to a college again in the future.
In this moment when colleges are struggling to hire, let’s not forget that some institutions have routinely failed to capitalize on talent literally at their doorstep. For example, I know many instances in which partners of new faculty or staff, many with advanced degrees and higher education experience, struggled to find employment at the institution where their partner worked, in some cases prompting the couple to leave. Many college employees want to stay at their current institution, but when they ask about a change in workload, title, or pay, they’re told it isn’t possible. Then after they’ve left, they see the ad for their job with the new title and better salary.
Surveys have regularly demonstrated that higher education employees desire more flexibility and remote work options. However, many have run into a brick wall of resistance to the idea that the future of work is flexible—and that it can be beneficial for students and staff without compromising services or the “residential college experience.” In fact, the opportunity to work remotely and have a flexible schedule were the second- and third-most-frequently cited reasons college workers are leaving, according to the CUPA-HR survey.
Applicants for higher education jobs are weighing the low pay, exhaustive list of qualifications, burdensome application requirements, novella-length responsibilities, and protracted search processes—all of which might not result in a job, or even a confirmation email. And we wonder why more people aren’t applying.
Applicant Pools Are What You Make Them
A friend and current provost pushed back when I suggested that shallow applicant pools are a function of bad jobs and hiring processes. He felt his institution provided competitive pay and benefits, reasonable job demands, and affordable housing in a friendly town near metropolitan areas. Yet his institution still had some searches with only a few qualified applicants. It’s certainly possible that good jobs can struggle to attract applicants, perhaps because it’s a niche field or people don’t know how great the town is. But in general, I think critiques about applicant pools are better directed inward—at how we in higher education create opportunities and conduct searches.
Obviously, compensation is an issue, and leaders may scoff at the suggestion of just paying people more. “If only it were that easy,” they might say. Long before I was writing about the higher ed workplace, I studied institutional finance, and I understand that raises are no small investment. However, I also know that many institutions have figured out how to raise pay in the last year, and many others have plans to do so. For example, Northern Kentucky University created a five-year plan worth up to $20 million focused on compensation, including $3 million in raises for staff to fix salary compression, $500,000 to address the same issue among faculty, and another $3 million in raises for all employees in good standing in the first year. As Matt Cecil, the provost at NKU, explained to me: “We’re not some rich, exclusive campus. We just decided the next money we ran into would go to salaries.”
Hiring officials may need to rethink the qualifications for jobs and how positions are described in postings. For example, educational requirements and years of experience could be dialed back. More entry-level jobs could be exactly that and provide an opportunity for people to begin careers in higher ed without extensive experience or advanced degrees. The days of being able to hire someone who already held the job you are searching for and can do the work with minimal training may well be over. Which means that institutions need to significantly elevate their game when it comes to onboarding and developing personnel. The good news is that colleges are very much in the human development business–we should be world leaders in developing our employees.
Hiring practices in higher ed frequently feel more tethered to limiting legal liability than effectively recruiting talent. Some of the rules around search committees are designed to prevent nepotism and ensure applicants are treated fairly. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we altogether abandon these rules, as many search committees need guidelines and oversight so mistakes aren’t made. I think it’s possible to retain useful protections and improve applicants’ experiences, even with a few basic courtesies. We can improve our systems so applicants aren’t duplicating efforts. We can get rid of letters of recommendation. We can communicate with applicants about their status more frequently. We can stop running sham searches in which positions are externally advertised but there is already a candidate in mind.
I’m also mindful of the fact that hiring practices are often a reflection of state and federal policies. For example, in my home state of North Carolina, the state determines pay bands for administrative associates, placing real restrictions on pay raises. Some jobs are exempt from federal overtime rules, even if employees are routinely working more than 40 hours per week. I don’t expect that college leaders are going to be able to upend state and federal law. Nevertheless, I think there is room to maneuver, especially when it comes to crafting institution-level policy. We sometimes interpret policy in unnecessarily restrictive ways out of fear of noncompliance. And sometimes policies are simply wrong or outdated, and we should be pushing to better align them with the needs of a 21st-century knowledge organization.
We leave a lot of talent on the table in higher education, figuratively speaking. I’m not just talking about institutions that don’t have resources or policies in place to support partner hires. I’m also talking about graduate assistants, adjunct faculty, post-docs and part-time employees. Higher education has an unreasonable affinity for running expensive, national searches for positions that could be filled with local applicants. In some cases, we have people in visiting or interim roles who are doing excellent work, and there should be better pathways for them to be considered for permanent employment without having to go through a full search process. We force many employees to leave in pursuit of greener pastures because we are not prepared to keep them more permanently.
Ultimately, institutions seem to be posting jobs based on the calculus that they have specific needs and surely people want to work there. But the question they should be asking is whether they are creating good opportunities with applicant-friendly search processes. If your pool seems shallow, maybe it’s because you actually dug a ditch. Grab a shovel and start digging deeper.