Turnover Is Bad Across Higher Ed. It’s Even Worse in Admissions.
Higher education’s perennial problem with turnover has been well-documented. But it’s even more acute — and comes with higher stakes — in one department in particular, according to new data released this week by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, or CUPA-HR. That area? Admissions, where 71 percent of coordinators and counselors have been in their jobs for just three years or less. (Only 53 percent of professionals across higher ed have been in their roles for the same duration, according to CUPA-HR.)
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Higher education’s perennial problem with turnover has been well-documented. But it’s even more acute — and comes with higher stakes — in one department in particular, according to data released this week by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, or CUPA-HR. That area? Admissions, where 71 percent of coordinators and counselors have been in their jobs for just three years or less. (Only 53 percent of professionals across higher ed have been in their roles for the same duration, according to CUPA-HR.)
Not only is turnover worse in admissions than in other parts of higher ed, but the hiring woes that are plaguing all of academe also lend a heightened urgency to the issue. Colleges’ financial futures, after all, depend on admissions officers, many of whom are early-career professionals who are working lots and being paid little. The new CUPA-HR data offer a compelling case that the status quo can’t continue, and illustrate recent Chronicle reporting that called admissions “a maxed-out profession on the edge of a crisis.”
The pressures are many — students’ increasing financial needs and colleges’ tightening wallets, loss of public trust in higher ed, escalating expectations from presidents and boards to bring in ever-larger freshman classes, and even judicial and legislative actions that threaten to upend inclusive policies that many admissions staff members are accustomed and often committed to.
And then there’s the looming enrollment cliff, said Melissa Fuesting, author of the CUPA-HR research brief. As higher ed anticipates a stark decline in the number of graduating high-school students over the next decade, “we’re becoming more reliant on those tuition dollars,” Fuesting said. “And yet the people who are doing this legwork are in these really high-turnover positions, and they’re young, they’re fresh out of college; this might be their first professional job.”
Yet, Fuesting notes, “we’re not trying to say anything brand new” with the data. The high pressure and long hours associated with admissions work have long resulted in high turnover, and while it would be “really easy” to chalk up today’s problems to the pandemic or the Great Resignation, doing so would be a mistake, said Fuesting, a senior survey researcher at CUPA-HR. In fact, a slightly higher proportion of admissions coordinators and counselors — 74 percent — had been in their jobs for three years or less in 2017, when CUPA-HR began tracking how many years staff members had been in their jobs. (That statistic reflects the number of years someone has been in their current role at their current institution; if one were to switch institutions but retain the same role, the timer would reset.)
Fuesting’s analysis, which is based on a survey of 12,042 admissions employees at 940 institutions, organized the field’s positions into three categories — coordinators and counselors, who are entry-level employees who recruit students, evaluate their applications, and serve as a key point of contact throughout the admissions process; heads of admissions, who are responsible for one or more areas of admissions, like those on the graduate level or for a specific college or school within an institution; and chief admissions officers. None had a median time-in-job of more than five years. Chief admissions officers were the longest-tenured group, at four years, while heads of admissions had been their jobs for a median of three years, and coordinators and counselors for just two years. A second report, released in February by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, characterized turnover in the top admissions job as “moderate to high.”
In CUPA-HR’s data, three-quarters of admissions coordinators and counselors were under the age of 40; nearly half were in their 20s. The median age for those entry-level jobs was 30, while the median ages for heads of admissions and chief admissions officers were 40 and 45, respectively.
Higher-ed leaders would do well to pay attention to the constant churn in this department, Fuesting’s report suggests. By improving the retention of admissions staff members, institutions will be better able to draw on their experience and insights to highlight their institutions’ strengths, which, she added, “may be just the edge colleges and universities need in the era of the enrollment cliff.”