John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Could We Be Preparing College Students Who Want to Work in the Academy but not for the Academy?

I am going to focus on perhaps a somewhat limited example of what I know is a much larger question, the one I ask above.

This is prompted by a visit I had the other day from a former student who has earned masters and doctoral degrees in the related fields of college student personnel and higher education. Most typically, people with these kinds of credentials end up working in higher education administration, either in student affairs or academic affairs. And many of them rise to very senior positions of leadership.

While I was at the University of South Carolina, later in my career, I was invited to teach one course a year to such graduate students; thus I learned more than I would otherwise about their background preparation levels, curricular options etc.

More specifically, I learned that these students had like being college students themselves. And they liked the idea of “helping students.” And they liked college so much that they never really wanted to leave all the stimulation that that environment affords. And so they found a way of staying.

But I am finding that more and more of my former such students, who did enter the academy’s work force, and now leaving it and going to work for corporations who sell products and services to college and university campuses.

Of course higher education is a huge sector in the US economy and there are many for-profit companies now whose entire, or substantial business product lines are designed for the higher education market. And somebody has to sell these products and services, and provide the training and support they need.

The Chronicle recently carried a feature story about all the companies that are now providing services that colleges used to provide, but have now outsourced: such as tutoring, counseling, housing, textbook stores, etc.

There are at the very least here three compelling questions: 1) why are such professionals leaving the academy and entering the free enterprise system to seek their fortune? 2) should we be providing graduate level education and training to enable this transition more intentionally? 3) and if so, what would be teach such students.

I would venture a guess that there is not a single one of the more than 100 plus higher education/college student personnel degrees in the country that are doing anything specific to prepare their graduates for careers selling to the academy and supporting it through products and services.

Why are these professionals moving outside the academy? I would venture these reasons:

1. The corporatization of the American college and University culture has been so pervasive and profound, that the formerly attractive differences between the college and corporate cultures have been sufficiently reduced so that the advantage is no longer in favor of the academy. Colleges have truly become more businesslike and hence the previous view that the more humane and idealistic nature of the college life style somehow justified lower levels of compensation, no longer operate as a justification.

2. Corporate employers now too can offer flexible work hours; and even more opportunities for home based work and telecommuting. This is especially ideal for people who want a career and child raising simultaneously.

3. College administrators and student affairs officers live over the store. There are always demands that they be on campus at nights and on weekends. However, these corporate jobs largely lack these time demands.

4. For many reasons colleges lack the means to incentivize employees through merit pay and other fiscal incentives. That’s not a problem for corporations.

5. The assumption that employment in the higher ed sector was more secure has gone. The Great Recession has taken care of that. Higher ed employees are now being laid off, furloughed, terminated in downsizing, just as happened to their corporate counterparts. There’s one more former advantage of higher ed employment gone.

6. Same is true with the “benefits” side of the equation. There are now fewer and fewer academic jobs that are tenure eligible. The corporate life never afforded tenure. And when it comes to defined benefit plans, those are being scaled back too and hence there is no real practical difference between being a higher ed employee building a 430b account toward retirement versus a corporate employee building one’s 401K.

7. Institutional loyalty to the campus is declining; no difference now from the company where there has been much less loyalty for several decades.

8. And corporate jobs may pay significantly more.

I don’t see these trends diminishing, rather only be exacerbated. So, this tells me that more and more of our graduates who had aspired to non teaching jobs in the academy, will increasingly not be making a career with us at all. As the academy outsources more and more previously core functions, the job market actually looks better to me outside the academy, but servicing the academy.

So what is our responsibility to prepare our students for such important choices and to be successful in work outside the academy if they chose to pursue that? I think that more and more will.

-John N. Gardner

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