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Q&A: Why Winning on Talent is Critical to the State of the Higher Ed Sector

June 22, 2022 , By Chrysanthi Violaris, Analyst, Product Marketing

In our recent State of the Sector webinar, EAB experts shared critical trends institutions need to know about, including the growth of the winner-take-all enrollment market and the widening gap between high school graduation and college enrollment. One of the most crucial parts of the conversation centered on the talent crisis facing institutions amidst the Great Resignation. Higher ed was not spared from the resignations, role reshuffling, and hiring crunch facing businesses across industries. The implications of the Great Resignation for universities go beyond personnel issues, greatly impacting the student experience, retention, and the bottom line. Staffing shortages in critical student services, like the counseling center, lead to fewer student appointments, reduction in services for high needs students, and result in higher attrition rates.

EAB gathered industry experts for a panel discussion where they shared their thoughts on the state of the sector and the talent crisis. They agreed, winning with students requires winning with talent.

Chief Partner Officer Sally Amoruso facilitated the discussion with EAB experts Megan Adams and Khadish Franklin. They were joined by Dr. Nathan Grawe, professor of Economics at Carleton College and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, and Adam Pressman, Partner, Employee Research & Engagement, at Mercer. Read below for highlights from the discussion and the panel’s recommended next steps for institutions. To dive deeper into the critical areas of focus for higher ed strategy, see the full executive brief.

What are the most important takeaways from the State of the Sector presentation higher ed leaders should take back to campus?

Dr. Nathan Grawe: Higher ed has been on the rise since the end of World War II, seeing continual increases in both enrollment and matriculation rates. I think this has led those of us who came of age during this time to think the practices we implemented are the only ones that work. Obviously, we are seeing some change. We need to be flexible in our thinking and recognize that these past principles may not guide us forward. Given how interdependent things are, we need to create a more systems-based thinking and approach. Winning with students will require winning with talent – if we are bringing in new students, what kind of talent will we need to match the influx?

Adam Pressman: There has been a shift in the way people think about their lives and careers. Employer/employee relationships are no longer around the Loyalty Contract (e.g., people will work hard to have their financial or psychological needs met). People want careers that fit within holistic lifestyles to better manage their overall well-being. This, along with an increasingly uncertain and complex environment, has resulted in changing needs for students AND staff.

What are the biggest obstacles around issues of talent and staff retention?

Khadish Franklin: In higher ed, we’ve assumed that the value proposition for being an employee is that we do good in the world, this is a great place to work, and so people will want to work here. However, that value proposition alone is no longer enough for attracting or keeping talent in seat. To change, we need to start utilizing HR in higher ed as a strategic organization rather than just a function of administrative services. We also need to learn how to stop doing things given the available time and financial resources. By identifying strategies that don’t work, we may be able to find new methods to solve the ongoing talent issue and reclaim time for employees.

What are the impacts on faculty or staff of color given these talent changes?

Megan Adams: When looking at the data, BIPOC faculty are more likely to perform committee service but less likely to get a course release. Within this environment of increased scarcity and increased workload, they stand to carry more without being able to advance their careers at the institution. BIPOC staff become a retention risk, as they do more work with few benefits, magnifying the staffing shortage.

The talent crunch is not about being a better recruiting machine but rethinking the way the work is done. Where are the opportunities to rethink the way work is done across campus?

KF: The function of academic advising has changed forever. With virtual advising, students have better access to advisors, keep and attend their appointments, and advisors are seeing better success in their job. By rethinking the student and employee experience for student services, we can create an environment they need to succeed.

AP: Higher ed can learn how to better strategically think by incorporating tactics used in business. Folks should start to include and develop data management and analysis skills in addition to general HR competencies. That way, disruptive patterns relating to staffing or retention can be identified and addressed early before they really start to have an impact.

What is one piece of advice for higher ed leaders as they move forward given the current state of the sector?

AP: Make sure you have a listening strategy to better probe into faculty and staff needs. Accurate data on what staff want out of their job will allow you to create a more responsive employer/employee environment.

KF: I urge institutions to think about the strategic planning process and higher education differently. Institutions need to be able to prioritize and identify what are the best next steps for the current moment rather than adding to their laundry list of goals.

NG: We should not lose the opportunity for growth coming out of the pandemic – we shouldn’t and don’t have to go back to how things functioned before 2020. Rather, we can use this as a chance to evolve and decide what we did and did not miss from our previous operations.

MA: My advice is a bit ominous – your competitive set is bigger than you think it is. There are national and non-higher ed competitors within that competitive set and taking a close look before expanding can help mitigate unexpected barriers.

Interested in hearing more from the panel? Watch the State of the Sector update on-demand to share the entire discussion.

Chrysanthi Violaris

Chrysanthi Violaris

Chrysanthi is an analyst in EAB’s Strategic Research division. In this role, Chrysanthi utilizes best-practice research to solve problems facing higher education. These insights are transformed into a variety of digital and print content for EAB’s partners, including blog posts and webinars.

Chrysanthi previously worked on EAB’s Market Insights team as an associate, working on 100+ research briefs to guide institutions’ professional and adult education portfolios. When she is not researching, you can find Chrysanthi trying a new recipe, reading, or exploring Washington, D.C.

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