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Higher ed job descriptions can’t compete. Here’s how to fix them.

December 1, 2022, By Brynna Morgan, Associate Director

Higher ed’s competition for talent is larger and more diverse than ever before, increasingly including out-of-sector companies. As a result, institutions must do more than ever before to convince prospective applicants to choose higher ed jobs over those in other industries. Job descriptions are critical for doing so because they are one of the first ways candidates learn about prospective employers. But what makes for a compelling job description?

After auditing dozens of higher ed and out-of-sector job descriptions, we identified three main ways higher ed job descriptions fall short compared to out-of-sector competitors. Here’s what they are and how institutions can update their job descriptions to strengthen their applicant pools:

Audit methodology

EAB analyzed 60 total job descriptions across three common job titles with transferable skillsets, including IT specialist, mental health counselor, and financial analyst. We compared 30 higher ed job descriptions to 30 equivalent positions in other industries, including health care and non-profit organizations.

Pitfall #1: Higher barriers to entry shrink applicant pools from the outset

Despite typically paying employees less than out-of-sector competitors, higher ed institutions tend to require that applicants have more experience, even for entry-level roles. Institutions often specify very narrow education and in-sector experience, such as requiring that an entry-level IT specialist has years of experience using higher ed software like Ellucian Banner.

Higher ed institutions also have more stringent educational requirements, even for nearly identical out-of-sector roles. For example, higher ed job descriptions for IT specialists are 150% more likely to require a master’s degree despite paying 30% less, on average, than out-of-sector employers. Consequently, institutions immediately reduce their potential pool of qualified candidates and deter many strong candidates from applying.

Higher ed pays IT specialists less, but requires more than out-of-sector competitors


lower base salary


more likely to require a bachelor's degree


more likely to require a master's degree

In contrast, out-of-sector job descriptions often emphasize higher salaries and have fewer or lower minimum requirements. Instead, many corporate job descriptions highlight the skills needed for success, rather than specific education or experience qualifications. By screening candidates for core competencies, these organizations can recruit from a larger and more diverse candidate pool.

Next steps:

  1. Proactively work with HR and/or campus units to reassess if requirements in job descriptions are critical for success in the role, especially for hard-to-fill positions.
  2. Focus on responsibilities instead of requirements and emphasize transferable skills to broaden and diversify your talent pool.

Pitfall #2: Higher ed job descriptions focus on the value to the student, not the employee

Most institutions’ job descriptions emphasize their value to the student with factors like rankings and educational experiences. These descriptions often miss the opportunity to tout factors employees care about, such as collaborative work environments, opportunities to advance, and access to high-quality benefits. In fact, only one third of the higher ed job descriptions we evaluated mentioned whether employees would receive basic benefits (e.g., health care, vacation days).

Out-of-sector organizations appeal to employee concerns

  • Higher ed value proposition

    “The University is recognized as one of the top public universities in the South by U.S. News & World Report… [and] delivers a strong and affordable education for friendly, ambitious students…”

  • Out-of-sector value proposition

    “When you join our team, you join a culture of purpose and belonging where your growth is priority, your identity is embraced, and the work you do matters…”

Source: Lightcast data

This is one of the biggest differences from out-of-sector employers, which don’t rely on the customer value proposition to attract talent. Instead, they dedicate most of their job descriptions to describing benefits that employees care about. For example, Capital One’s job descriptions emphasize how staff drive business success and help customers achieve financial independence, rather than using their customer value proposition of an easy and rewarding banking system.

Next steps:

  1. Rework job descriptions to balance what employees will be expected to give to the organization (e.g., responsibilities) and what they will get in return (e.g., experiences, connections).
  2. Highlight tangible benefits (e.g., health care, retirement), intangible perks (e.g., opportunity for creativity, autonomy), and work culture in job descriptions.

Pitfall #3: Higher ed’s lengthy job descriptions can deter and confuse prospective applicants

Higher ed job descriptions are 125 words longer, on average, than out-of-sector competitors and include redundant and/or contradictory information and requirements (e.g., “entry-level expert”).


Our last job description for the VP for Student Success posting was eight pages long. Words matter, and you have limited space to attract potential candidates.


Brian Lenzemeier

President at Buena Vista University

For example, university job descriptions for mental health counselors averaged 1,000 words, longer than this article and almost twice the length of out-of-sector descriptions for counselors. Yet, despite the high word count, higher ed job descriptions rarely outline why someone should work at the institution (see above).

Instead, these descriptions outline extensive responsibilities and include long sentences and paragraphs of text that make it difficult to skim. Out-of-sector organizations combine similar job duties and use bullets to make descriptions easier to digest.

Higher ed job descriptions for mental health counselors are longer and appeal to candidates less


longer job description


fewer words describing employee value proposition


Next steps:

  1. Limit job descriptions to ~650 words and use bullets to make content easier to read.
  2. Audit job descriptions for biased and exclusive language.

Ready to put these tips into action?

Download EAB's Higher Ed Job Description Checklist to begin assessing and adjusting your job descriptions. The checklist helps you answer:
Higher Ed Job Description Checklist
  • How hard is it for potential applicants to find and read our job descriptions?

  • Do our job descriptions create unnecessary barriers for potential applicants?

  • Do potential applicants understand the value and benefit of working at our institution?

Brynna Morgan

Associate Director

Read Bio

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