While in Houston for the 2022 National Association for College Admission Counseling Conference, I saw firsthand what we’ve been reading about and living with—for many on college campuses—for the past 12 to 15 months: the impact of the Great Recession on college admissions offices .
I started the week by speaking at a pre-conference gathering of about 70 admissions professionals representing colleges from all over the map by geography and reputation. Most of them have been in the reception profession for at least eight years, and a good third of them for 12 or more years. According to a live poll we conducted, the most important higher challenge they had in mind was the Great Resignation, finishing a full car length before the demographic cliff.
Curious about how they felt, I asked them to create a word cloud with the prompt “What word (or two or three) describes how you feel now that this acceptance cycle is underway?”
Right in the middle of the cloud, in the biggest letters, were “tired,” “stressed,” and “overwhelmed.”
When asked what kind of turnover they’ve seen in their admissions offices in the past year, only 3 percent reported retaining their entire staff, with another 19 percent citing “typical attrition.”
On the other hand, nearly 60 percent indicated that their staff turnover is “much higher than usual.”
Even more important was how participants described their status as they enter this employment cycle: Less than half chose “I’m good. I’m not going anywhere if I can help it.” What about the rest? A slight majority suggested that they might drop out of college altogether.
Rounding off the week in Houston was a Saturday morning conference titled “Where Have All Our Colleagues Gone? Looking Beyond the Great Resignation,” where I joined two colleagues at a table in front of a full room of fellow admissions professionals to answer the question posed by the title. (In one of those “you can’t make this up” moments, we had to recruit a new member to our panel right before the conference because one of the original members had just announced that he was leaving his university position and moving to higher ed-adjacent space and – because they are persons of high integrity – they thought it best that their institution did not send them to the conference.)
A pre-NACAC survey we conducted for the aforementioned panel session revealed that in the higher education sector, admissions positions are harder than ever to fill due to shallow or dry talent pools at all levels of recruitment, from entry to senior level. As we heard from our survey participants and the 100 or so participants in the room with us, not only is it increasingly difficult to fill open positions, but the profession is losing talent at the chief enrollment officer level. Many of those next in line – directors, associate directors and the like – are rethinking whether they want to continue in their roles, much less move up to the next level.
We have had many difficult times in the reception profession. In the last few years alone, we have won: an antitrust lawsuit brought against NACAC by the Department of Justice; scandal at admission to Hollywood (and in) Hollywood; the increasingly inverse relationship between college costs and public confidence in the higher value of ed; and of course the pandemic.
Tougher times are ahead, thanks to continued political polarization, a buoyant economy, challenging demographics and a Supreme Court interested in rehearing yet another case that most thought would be settled.
However, with all these challenges, the Great Apostasy seems to be a different kind of crisis.
When we hear “crisis,” we may be hearing our high school teacher teach us that this is the turning point in the story.
Etymologists could delve a little deeper into the origins of “crisis” to come up with something with more action.
This is the moment to choose.
Time for a different approach?
For this season’s premiere episode of the Admissions Leadership Podcast (ALP), I interviewed five senior admissions leaders and asked them for insight into The Great Resignation: Adrienne Amador Oddi, vice president of strategic enrollment and communications at Queens University in Charlotte, NC; Heath Einstein, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University; Marie Bigham, Founder and CEO of ACCEPT and Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Accelerated Equity Insights; Rick Clark, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment and executive director of admissions at Georgia Tech; and Tony Sarda, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of St. Mary’s (Tex.).
In the beginning, my guests realized that the name “resignation” might be irrelevant.
“I feel like ‘opting out’ kind of limits people’s involvement with what they want. I feel like it was more of a big think for all of us,” Rick Clark. “The pandemic was a blessing in disguise. Slowing down, stepping back and evaluating, ‘What do we really want?'”
It turns out that we really want a higher value for the profession itself, where institutions recognize not only the importance of recruiting students (most of them already do), but also the immense value represented by the people who recruit. If you consider just the size of most institutions’ budgets represented by new student revenue—and the annual recurring revenue of students who stay at the institution—it’s obvious why institutions invest heavily in their recruiting functions.
While colleges may already be allocating significant resources to recruiting effort operating budgets—the things that are done to recruit, select, and enroll in a class—there is still a lot of work to be done on recruiting effort labor budgets—the people who do the things to recruit, select, and class enrollment.
It starts, of course, with better compensation. Einstein observed that the average salary for an entry-level admissions counselor has increased by only about $6,000 (without inflation) compared to what his compensation looked like 20 years ago. (He wasn’t alone in that observation.) It’s also time, as we all acknowledged in the Zoom room, to end what Einstein called the “mission tax,” the idea that because it’s in the service of students, the internal should the value of the work to replace the value of the compensation.
Beyond compensation, there’s the issue of work-life balance, which may seem out of reach for career professionals whose days, nights, and weekends are often not their own. Better compensation may alleviate some of this, but the past two years of telecommuting and hybrid work have changed people’s understanding—and expectations—of how, where, and when work can be done and when to take a break.
How can institutions—especially institutions with limited resources—improve compensation and work-life balance for their recruiting teams?
It’s time to break some habits.
Think before you reload
Recruiting offices can be high-turnover organizations, giving managers plenty of time to recruit and hire new workers to replace those who have left.
Having to fill more than half of her staff’s vacancies in the past year, Oddi found herself in a real-life version of the thought experiment “If you had to build a recruiting operation from scratch, would you build it the same way?”
She analyzed what the university needed and built a team structure that allowed for multiple skills, more regionally based staff, a mix of full-office and hybrid positions, and cross-university collaboration. “We have a whole group of people from promotion and enrollment, all experts at Slate, now in the same package,” he says. “That kind of synergy between different departments is really exciting.”
It also decided not to fill all the vacancies, instead rethinking the work that needed to be done and changing the team by hiring less FTE and using some of the extra budget to reward those who remained, including the elimination of some deficiencies in the pay for middle and senior positions.
the result? “Instead of resigning, our university experienced a renaissance. You can feel how the people here are uplifted.”
Please re-evaluate before proceeding
When there are fewer people doing the work that’s always been done in the admissions office, you have a choice: keep doing whatever you’ve been doing, or stop and evaluate what really needs to be done to achieve your goals. In the process, you may be able to identify ways to create more capacity for your team.
The next step is more difficult but essential: Resist the urge to fill that capacity with something else. Instead, use it as a way to create more time and energy for your team.
Clark’s team at Georgia Tech pulls out three boards to identify and categorize their current work according to the three mission-based Cs: mission-critical (what needs to be done), mission-complementary (what we’d like to do if we were fully staffed), and mission compromised (what they were doing, what they could or should stop doing).
This exercise is most effective if you have established a pattern of storing, tracking, and measuring data about your office’s efforts—on and off-campus programming, important outreach activities, visibility activities—and deciding the degree to which they correspond. into mission-based C’s.
Admissions offices often fall victim to the narrative of various initiatives that feel valuable, so they remain in the mix. But what does your data tell you? Leverage your CRM in your planning so you can identify your programs on a matrix of low to high effort and impact. Increase those with high influence; reconsider those with low impact.
Before you reduce the load, transform
Finding himself losing some members of his team to other offices on campus, where the pay was more attractive and the demands more manageable, Sarda observed, “We’re training people to be Swiss Army knives—to be not just admissions interns, but higher ed practitioners.” He added: “What if we flipped the script at universities? Imagine if admissions was a place where people wanted to work.”
Bigham took the thinking a step further. While she acknowledges those prestigious jobs like Goldman Sachs or McKinsey where people yearn to get in, sprint hard for a few years and take this opportunity to have their choice of jobs, she noted that admission also prepares people for so many things – sales, operations, fundraising, administration, consulting – and said, “What would happen if we understood our role in this?”
He envisions a world in which college admissions offices hire entry-level counselors—with significantly better pay, of course—and show them paths not just up and through the admissions or admissions profession, but up through dedicated training, career guidance, and mentoring. and into other sectors of higher education, be it retention, coaching, development work or operations. Admissions can become the farm team for higher education, “but the pipeline goes through you.”
We don’t have to put up with the Great Resignation as an inexorable force. This crisis is an opportunity for enrollment leaders—and their campus partners—to rethink and retool, and perhaps evolve from this moment of reckoning with a different and more sustainable profession.
Earlier, when I described the word cloud that my colleagues have created to express their feelings now that recruiting season is in full swing, I left out one word that loomed just as large as the darker emotions, which is like sunny ray.