The Great Resignation Hits Higher Ed

Three industry veterans discuss the wave of departures in higher ed, and share why they each left institutions for agencies in the last year.

By: Higher Voltage
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The Great Resignation sweeping the nation has people leaving unsatisfying jobs at unprecedented rates. Higher education is, by many anecdotal accounts, being hit hard by this trend. And that hit is coming at precisely the wrong time, as longer-term dips in enrollment dovetail with a broader cultural questioning of the value of a four-year college degree, all of which is exacerbated by a sharp, pandemic-driven decline in incoming freshmen.

“Today, in the market, there is a crisis of faith; in our lifetime, there has never been less confidence in college,” Seth Odell says on this week’s Higher Voltage. “And that crisis in confidence I think is not just external, it’s internal, as well.”

It’s a many-layered thing, but the essential takeaway that higher ed needs to focus on right now, is that at a time where all hands are needed on deck, a lot of people are jumping ship. Some are leaving for agencies or higher-ed adjacent companies, others are leaving the industry altogether.

On this week’s Higher Voltage, Odell and Corynn Myers join host Kevin Tyler to discuss why people are leaving their ins of private enterprise, and what higher ed needs to do to retain top talent; all three have left higher ed for agency roles in the last year and a half.

Chief among them needed fixes, says Myers, is for higher ups to adopt a more empathetic approach to their staff.

Read more: How to stop the hemorrhaging of higher ed talent

“I think it’s almost a lack of empathy from higher ed leadership,” Myers says. “And I think that’s because the individuals in those positions today are used to the ‘I’m employing you, you’re welcome,’ kind of take on employees.’ Where we are flipping that.”

Ultimately, as Odell asks, does the ongoing wave of departures represent a fundamental loss of faith in the purpose of higher ed? Or is this a crisis of faith that is serious, but fixable?

Time will tell, but how institutions react now will be equally telling.

Warning: There may be f-bombs in this one.

  • The driving factors behind “The Great Resignation” sweeping higher ed (2:35)
  • Contributions that led to Kevin’s departure and the larger implications higher ed faces during this mass exodus (7:55)
  • The structural changes higher ed needs to make to retain current staff and attract new workers (19:46)
  • How higher ed as a “brand” can position itself towards prospective employees through honest conversations (28:17)
  • The balancing act institutions must play when making decisions that increase morale vs ones that increase rank (35:53)
  • The politicization of higher ed and its impact on the industry (41:06)
  • What changes institutions can implement to boost employee appreciation (53:08)

Read the full transcript:

Kevin Tyler:
Hello and welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education that explores what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to change in higher ed marketing and administration. I’m your host, Kevin Tyler.

Kevin Tyler:
Welcome to Higher Voltage. Today I am joined by Seth Odell and Corynn Myers to talk about the great resignation or the great talent migration, whatever you’re calling it. People are changing jobs. Every day you see a new announcement on LinkedIn. You see a new article on Twitter about what is happening with the workforce in America. Today we’re going to talk about it specifically in higher ed. We know that it’s impacting industries across the board, but before we dive in, I’d like to have our guests introduce themselves briefly. We’ll start with Corynn.

Corynn Myers:
Hi. Corynn Myers. I’m a strategist with Convince & Convert, but prior to this position I was actually at the University of Michigan.

Kevin Tyler:
And what’d you do there?

Corynn Myers:
I was the associate director of marketing and essential communications office.

Kevin Tyler:
Right on. Seth?

Seth Odell:
Hey, what’s up, Kevin? Seth Odell. I’m the founder and CEO of Kanahoma, an education marketing agency primarily based in San Diego. I’ve been doing that for a year, and before that I did about 15 years in higher ed in a whole slew of different roles across UCLA, Southern New Hampshire University, and then I most recently was vice chancellor at National University System before founding Kanahoma.

Kevin Tyler:
Which, by the way, today, November 3rd, is your one-year birthday.

Seth Odell:
Yeah. It’s the one-year birthday of Kanahoma, exactly. It’s a crazy idea to start a business in a pandemic the night before a very divisive election and a whole lot of change in the world, but did that and this is celebrating one year. We’re still here and I’m very grateful for that. Wouldn’t want to spend a birthday with anybody else besides you, Kev, so I’m pumped to be here.

Kevin Tyler:
I appreciate that. Happy Birthday, Kanahoma. Congratulations, Seth. I’m really, really happy to have you both here. Are you ready to have a discussion?

Seth Odell:
I’m super ready. I love this topic.

Kevin Tyler:
Awesome. All right. Great resignation, great talent migration, whatever you want to call it, impacting industries from health to tech to higher ed, everything in between. Service, health care, you’ve heard about restaurants, but now it is hitting higher ed hard. Higher ed was once kind of the most stable and, dare I say, a coveted position to have, and we see people leaving the profession in droves, but especially I see it marketing and communications folks.

Kevin Tyler:
I was once at UCLA as a mark/comm person. Corynn, you said you were a mark/comm person at a large university as well. I’m curious, and this might be a silly question to start us off, but what are some of the factors that are motivating this kind of exodus to you personally or industry wide?

Corynn Myers:
I think for me this is a very interesting conversation because I think the reasons, it’s important here. It’s never just one. It was a culmination almost of reasons. I think it’s important to understand my personal motivations for my career because I think this is a very personal choice and decision and journey for individual employees. I know we’re putting it together and calling it the great resignation, but I think it’s very different per person. For me, it was an opportunity to continue to grow and learn and become more in my career. I’m very motivated by almost self-actualization in what I do. I want to continue to learn. I want to learn new frameworks and strategies, and I want to work alongside individuals who can challenge me and push back.

Corynn Myers:
Unfortunately for higher ed, there seems to be this wall between continuing education and learning, especially in the marketing and communications area, where it doesn’t feel like necessarily I had the opportunity to learn more. This was only exacerbated by the pandemic. Funding and budgets were frozen and so I was very concerned about going forward, any budget available for any sort of continuing education. This opportunity for me to go into this agency and be amongst what I would consider some of the smartest people in content marketing was never going to come again, and it was a huge opportunity for me to go do the next thing in my career.

Corynn Myers:
That opportunity, had it not been given to me, I think I’d still be in my position in higher ed, but it was really an opportunity for me. And again, my motivations are to really ensure that I’m continuing to learn and be challenged and that excitement that comes within your career when you’re doing those kinds of things.

Seth Odell:
I totally agree with that. I think a couple points I just would echo. One is that it’s not one factor, and I think it’s different for each person what’s driving it. There are some folks that are leaving institutions and some that are leaving industry. So for myself, I was leaving an institution. I was in house as a vice chancellor, did that role for a little less than four years, and just felt like it was time. I’d always wanted to do my own thing and a myriad of factors came together where the timing just made sense. But for me, I still find the industry home and I would be surprised if my career path takes me outside of the industry.

Seth Odell:
I think there’s two levels to that exodus. It’s almost like a talent transition from in house to out of house. We are seeing a growth in what’s called the unbundled service industry, so the agency service side is growing pretty rapidly within the education space. Some of that is just the talent moving from in house to out of house as more of those services are being done externally, but then there’s also really great talent that is actively leaving the industry and finding their career paths taking them in totally other places.

Seth Odell:
Some of that may just be financial or fit, and I do think the pandemic didn’t create it but propelled a lot of those conversations around what people want. I will say this is probably an underlying topic for today, which is, is higher education delivering on the promise? Because I do think a lot of people buy into this promise when they come into the industry, this is more than just a job. It’s missional. I can feel tied to what we’re doing. And I do think at least a subset of the people that are leaving the industry specifically, I do think I’m seeing a souring or a loss of confidence in the flag that was flown as far as the missional impact that we’re collectively having.

Seth Odell:
I don’t think that’s everywhere by any stretch, and I think that college is still an unbelievable, transformative opportunity, but I do think it’s worth acknowledging today in the market there is a crisis of faith that in our lifetime there’s never been less confidence in college. If the general public is surveyed, do you think college is necessary? The answer is growing no, and that crisis in confidence I think is not just external. It’s internal as well. So I think there’s something going on there that that’s not pandemic related. That’s more related to the inflationary price of college and the fact that value hasn’t kept pace.

Seth Odell:
There’s just so much and it’s just like layers to an onion that you can peel back. Everyone’s situation is unique. My own was as well and wanted to start my own business, but I feel like I can relate to and empathize with a lot of people that have made those transitions, whether it’s just outside the institution or outside the industry entirely.

Kevin Tyler:
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Kevin Tyler:
Those are both great points. I left two jobs during the pandemic. One was at another agency in Ohio, and that was the job I left to come to California. The other one was a large university here, UCLA, and I left those positions for different reasons. The first job I left was on the heels of the George Floyd murder and all of the unrest and reflection I was doing in my own life. I decided it was time for me to do something for myself.

Kevin Tyler:
There’s this realization when there’s things like that going on in the world like, I can do other things than what I’m doing right now to make myself happier. My blackness has never had more value than it had the summer of 2020, and I wanted to capitalize on that, selfishly or whatever you want to call it. But that was important to me, and so we finally got out to Southern California, which was a dream of my partner and mine for a while.

Kevin Tyler:
Then I got to UCLA and I realized… I got into an institution and found that the way that I thought about work and the kinds of work that I wanted to do didn’t quite fit in as well as I had hoped it would, and that kind of frustration and work-life out of balance kind of thing made me rethink that decision. There are these structural or operational parts of the higher education experience as an employee, the work-life balance, the compensation, the way staff might be treated by other folks in your department or institution, but there’s also some cultural parts, right? There are state policies. There are these other kinds of things that just contribute to this crisis of confidence in higher ed, and so people are leaving for lots of reasons.

Kevin Tyler:
All that to say, everyone has their own reason to leave a job, but at the end of the day these institutions, they’re already under-resourced. Now what? What do we do now? What is the implication for higher ed during this time of transition for so many people?

Seth Odell:
I mean, I’ll take it. I just totally think that to be reductionist in it, it’s like the winners win and those that struggle will struggle. It really feels like this is a momentum conversation. What I mean by that is the higher education market is a mature market. Demand for traditional campus-based education is declining year over year. It’s been a couple percentage points every year, well 1.5% to 2.5% every year. That’s driven by population dynamics, but we’ve seen a massive double-digit decline in incoming freshmen driven by the pandemic. So it shouldn’t be lost to us that this is a mature industry that’s just at the nascent stages of consolidation.

Seth Odell:
In the past five years, eight institutions in Vermont alone have been closed or merged. That is a small state for education. I think we’re feeling that and so there is a real sense that if you’re at an institution that is seeing talent leave, you may want to ask yourself if you’re a ship taking on water. That’s a hard truth because not all institutions. Some great institutions are seeing talent transitions as well. A lot of my former colleagues from Southern New Hampshire have been moving on. They’re now the largest nonprofit in the country at 160,000-plus students, but some of that’s just driven by internal culture or chapter changes in an organization where it’s time.

Seth Odell:
Sometimes the migration is just natural and it’s evolutionary, but there are other times where if you’re looking around and the best people on the team in the past two or three years have moved on and the talent coming in isn’t at least replicable, maybe they’re different but at least they’re at the same level, I don’t see how an institution survives that on a long enough timeline. Now, higher ed’s infamous for moving slow, so I’m sure we’ll survive it for quite a while. But if there is this, the talent leaving is better than the talent coming in, which I think is this unspoken observation for a lot of us at not all institutions but at many, I just don’t see how you overcome that on a long enough timeline.

Kevin Tyler:
Corynn, any thoughts you have on that?

Corynn Myers:
Yeah. I think there is an interesting concept of thinking about individual needs as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as applied to your career. For me personally, and I can only speak personally, I felt like my salary was good so I checked that box. The bottom of the triangle was checked. There are a couple of other steps. There’s five of them or something like that. I think it’s such a personal experience that I think it’s almost a lack of empathy from higher education leadership.

Corynn Myers:
I think that’s because the individuals in those positions today are used to the, “I’m employing you, you’re welcome,” kind of take on employees, where we are flipping that. We as in the millennials and gen Z you’re seeing, and not to be generational strict, but the younger careers and millennials are flipping that conversation to say, “What can you offer me? What are you doing for me?” Higher ed, like Seth said, is behind. They tend to be a little slower, and so the realization that these individuals, they’re people. They have very different motivations.

Corynn Myers:
I had a team member on my team who wanted to work from home, and that’s what she really wanted to do. It was really important to her. To fulfill that pretty easy ask for her is what she needed in that moment, and so I think there’s this need of conversation of actually individualizing how we approach employment in higher ed and understanding individual motivations and really teaching management and leadership these empathy skills and how to approach and how to understand the individual motivations of their team.

Corynn Myers:
I think there is something to be said about, well, if someone’s salary is not where they need it to be to do what they want to do, there’s nothing else you can do for them until that is fulfilled. That’s the idea behind this triangle. I think there’s something to be said about the lack of empathy that feels like sometimes comes from that leadership and it comes from top-down.

Kevin Tyler:
Seth.

Seth Odell:
I just want to jump in to say, there’s just so much there you said, Corynn, that I just find so interesting. The one I just want to pull on for a second is that this concept of a shift in a power dynamic, your commentary on this kind of employer mentality that is not everywhere but is certainly present in many places of like, “You should be grateful to have a job, and we’re hiring you.” There is a total shift now that I totally agree that I think the people that are being interviewed are interviewing just as much, and there’s been a real shift now.

Seth Odell:
The reason I think, in part, it has been that remote work transition, which is that if you’re a top talent, you’re no longer stuck with jobs in your city. For me in my career, I was very motivated to grow and so I made a point early in my career to say that I was going to move for jobs because I wanted the best job I was qualified for. It might not be in my backyard, so I left LA to go all the way to New Hampshire to work for a small school at the time, SNHU. Then I went to Utah to work for a company called Helix Education because that was the best opportunity I could find, and then I came to San Diego for the best opportunity. So each time I was casting this nationwide net of like, what’s the best opportunity I can find?

Seth Odell:
Candidly, it was a challenge to me personally in my life and it was a big decision to move that much, but that’s now available to everybody without moving. So if you’re a top talent, last year your job prospects were only local. And within the education space, the average market doesn’t have that many institutions, and so how much competition is there really? But now suddenly, every education institution in the country as well as their service providers, their agencies, the outside companies, suddenly if they’re hiring remote, they may be interested in you.

Seth Odell:
It’s just a total game changer for folks that have the talent, and it’s been interesting seeing people come to life in that opportunity of realizing like, oh wow, I have leverage in this situation and I can now apply that leverage to either culturally help my employer adapt, which is happening in only a few places, but it is in some. But otherwise, then I can make a decision on my own. So this power dynamic shift is one of the more exciting aspects of what’s happening right now, and I just love that people that are talented, that are hard working deserve all the opportunity in the world. It’s just great that people are reflecting on what they’re receiving and what they want. That part of this whole thing to me feels really empowering and exciting.

Kevin Tyler:
I agree. I can’t think of a time in my lifetime when employers were basically forced to consider the other parts of the lives of their employees in that over the pandemic it was about, I have to take my kid to the doctor and so I can’t come to that meeting. That was totally fine. You can’t go back to the way things were after people have had a year and a half of being able to fit work into their lives the way that they wanted to. I think that might be part of the driver of some of this. It’s like the power dynamic has shifted, as you have explained, Corynn.

Seth Odell:
I’m so sorry. Can I just keep chasing this for one second with you?

Kevin Tyler:
Of course.

Seth Odell:
Because this is so interesting. The point you just made is so interesting that we had to make these sacrifices during the pandemic. I have to take my kids to school. Now as a new parent myself, I have parental needs that can’t be solved in a traditional fashion because there isn’t a daycare or there isn’t someone who can help me. I’m juggling both. Employers had to adapt and this to me is the key rub. Employers had to adapt, and it worked. Significant, quantifiable studies have been produced that shows that actually a decentralized remote workforce, despite the craziness of a pandemic, still was more productive. I’ve heard that from so many people, whether they’re running call centers or have decentralized administrations.

Seth Odell:
This is I think where the rubber meets the road. If it hadn’t worked, I think it would’ve been the cultural understanding that we need to come back to the office. But the reality is, and this is the big one for higher ed, it did work and yet they’re still being asked to come back to the office. That’s where the disenfranchisement starts because we’ve seen it work. So if we know it works and we know it’s more productive, then why are you burdening me with this unnecessary decision to drag me back to an office I don’t need to be in to subject me to an environment that’s more dangerous than the safety of my own home, and all to scratch the itch of who?

Seth Odell:
That to me is where the disenfranchisement comes of the, oh, so this isn’t about the mission. Then why are you doing this? I have yet to hear an institution answer that well, and so I just want to call that out, that to me it’s like if it hadn’t worked, it’d be one thing. But study after study shows that the remote work has been effective, and any institution that is deciding to arbitrarily bring people back in person because an aged, gray-haired administration feels more confident knowing people are sitting in a cubicle two buildings over that they don’t plan to visit, I think they have a reckoning coming and I think that’s what’s playing out.

Kevin Tyler:
Let’s not forget about all the other conversations that came to the surface during this time around equality and access and where you’re living because of your job. If institutions have not learned from those conversations that bringing someone back, especially in LA, who has a two-hour commute from the Valley into wherever, those are the kinds of things people are more concerned about now than the work that they’re being called in to do. If it means either leaving this job for a more convenient kind of experience in my life that makes things in my life easier, then that’s what people are going to do. That is not something that you can just call people back and say, “Forget all that,” because we have all learned the last two years through all of this and had these important conversations in this regard.

Kevin Tyler:
When we talk about the job in higher ed used to be the most stable, used to be a coveted space, institutions had great, great needs during this challenging time, obviously, especially in the marketing and communications space. How can things like morale, how do we fix some of these things that people are leaving jobs for? Obviously, there’s a lot of different kinds of schools out there. There are publicly funded. There are privates. There are everything in between. You can’t just raise salaries at a public university just out of nowhere. That money has to come from somewhere, so what are some of the easier low-hanging fruit ways to start to improve morale and address some of the issues that people are leaving these jobs for?

Corynn Myers:
Again, I think this is a very individualized question. I think there is this interesting, for managers especially, understanding individual motivations. How do you want to receive feedback? How do you want to be appreciated? Will me buying you a Yeti be offensive or do you want to look at opportunities for education? These kinds of really easy questions, those are pretty easy questions to ask. What motivates you? What’s a good day at work? What’s a good week at work? What does that success look like to you individually and why can’t we individualize those things. There’s something to be said about, again, that empathy with managers talking to the people that are doing the work.

Corynn Myers:
I also want to point out, and I’ve seen this several times, I work now with universities across the US and in several different capacities. And what’s interesting to me is, especially in marketing/communications, they’re hiring these individuals who are highly skilled. They’re buying media. They understand Google Analytics. They understand market research. They’re doing all these things and they’re being hired in at market rate, which is questionable for higher ed, but fine. But they are sitting next to individuals who have been there for 30 years doing not the technical work that they’re doing but are being paid way more just because they’ve been there for so long.

Corynn Myers:
I don’t know necessarily if that’s right or wrong, but the issue is I’m looking at the person next to me who doesn’t know anything that I know and is not as highly skilled as I am but is making $20,000, $30,000 more than me based on just years of being in that same position. I think there’s a lack of adjustment on the salaries based on those skillsets. Being a performance marketer in higher ed, you are literally bringing students in to the university, and so it feels like sometimes that marketing is not actually given its praise it needs and the affirmation that it is an important part of the culture in the university and it’s achieving those business goals that are necessary. So I think there’s a lack of recognition that is impactful and real to those individuals.

Kevin Tyler:
I just want to follow up on that point because I think that one of the things that you’ve just explained is something I think about often in that the amount of work that institutions do to attract students and all of the arithmetic and all the messaging and all the branding to attract students, none of that work is ever dedicated to the attraction of faculty and staff. It’s a different kind of conversation, and so what is some of the messaging or some of the tactics that we can use to make people who are trying to get to our institutions feel valued and that their expertise is valued?

Kevin Tyler:
That feels like it’s something that’s missing. Because as a prospective employee, I’m not going to pick up your view book and try to get a sense of what you stand for because I have a different kind of need or a different kind of expectations as an employee. I feel like that might be an opportunity is for schools to figure out how they can sell themselves not just to students but to the people that they need to work there too.

Corynn Myers:
I don’t think they’ve ever had to think about that. I mean, when I was hiring for positions at U of M, I had 100 applications per position. But now suddenly, I think that’s going to become a thing. It’s going to become a necessary thing because they’re no longer going to have that volume.

Seth Odell:
I just think that’s such a great point, Corynn, and I would add to that that I was sitting here thinking about this conversation and how do we connect people to the mission and to the work. I do think there’s tangible things, like how many folks work in administration and don’t have significant engagement with students? There are few things more exciting. So the folks that I see in good leadership have the departments volunteering on move-in day and commencement, all those things.

Seth Odell:
There’s a whole conversation there, but I will say there’s a bigger conversation that for some institutions, I wonder if there is a crisis of mission. And is it really about trying to determine how to attract others, or is it more about trying to self-reflect and be able to communicate our true vision for what we’re doing and why and allow that vision to attract people. What I mean by that is we’re an industry that has demonstrably built up buildings and infrastructure over the ’70s and ’80s and lazy rivers in the ’90s, and tuition has outpaced almost every other cost of good from an inflationary perspective. None of those things can be mission driven and nobody can really go back and say that those were really the things… We had to do that because of what we’re trying to serve.

Seth Odell:
So I do think the institutions that I know that aren’t as much in this boat are just doing really good, honest work trying to genuinely help people through the transformative power of education, and people are naturally being bought into it. I do think they need to communicate it better, big time, and I think your point’s spot on about really branding and recruiting that narrative. I also think that you have to have that narrative, so it has to be true and real.

Seth Odell:
So I will say that, I mean, if you’re losing a lot of talent and you’re a hiring manager at a college, I think the first step before freaking out like, “Oh, people are going to want remote work or work-from-home Fridays,” those are all things and they want better health benefits. Those are all very real, but before that I think we have to ask, what are we really doing and why? Why does the world need what we do? And if we could truly answer that, I think some of this naturally solves itself, if that makes sense.

Corynn Myers:
Yeah. I love higher ed. I think working at U of M and being a part of the Go Blue Guarantee for funding for unrepresented student groups, being there for the research and impactful and demonstrable research happening in the state, all of these things, I got to be a part of those strategies and communications and I got to see them every day. Granted, lots of other individuals across the campus probably didn’t and there’s probably something to be said about that. But I think there’s so much good that can happen and is happening in this space, and students are amazing. It’s such an interesting place to be, and I want to go back to higher ed, given a good opportunity to do that.

Corynn Myers:
But I think the issue again is this idea, and I’m going to say it again, is the focus on students but not the staff. I mean, I would argue that there’s some faculty recruitment that’s pretty robust. I would say staff almost gets the short end of the stick of all of those groups. How are we talking to staff, ensuring that even something as easy as I’m hired and I’m a young professional, what medical do I sign up for? I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what a Roth is. Even something as simple as that to help walk me through this and what you think and give me… That kind of stuff, I think it’s empathy. It’s walking them through their personal, individual journeys and retaining them and retention, and what does that look like at that level?

Kevin Tyler:
I think those are all great points. I want to revisit one of the points that Seth just made around the brand. The most powerful brands attract not just your target audiences but also faculty, staff, leadership as well. I think of also about the brand of higher ed, which to me feels like it’s in a bit of a vulnerable place. Generally speaking, when you take these articles that have just come out recently with the Florida issue with the three professors and academic freedom, South Carolina with this not being as forthcoming or forthright about the renaming of buildings, et cetera, these are all things that chip away at the brand of higher end. And it makes people have that kind of crisis of confidence and losing trust in the industry as a whole.

Kevin Tyler:
I feel like that has to play a role in people either not entertaining offers or positions that are open at universities. I think about Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC. What is happening to black faculty who are looking at schools for tenure? These are things that are important and that affect the way that higher ed operates when there’s not enough people to do the work that you promised to do, to deliver on the mission that you’ve promised to deliver. At the end of the day, the students are the ones who carry the brunt of that.

Kevin Tyler:
I’m wondering how and if it’s even possible, I’m hopeful that it is because I too love higher ed, for the brand of the industry to have a bit more shine on it. What needs to happen?

Seth Odell:
Man, that is the million dollar question. I totally agree on everything you said. And as someone who’s been drawn to higher ed, my grandfather was a college president. My other grandfather was a chair of an English department. My mother taught junior college night school. My grandmother created the first adult academic advising division in the 1980s. I come from a legacy of higher ed, and I believe and am bought into it. I’m here. Life gave me a winding path, but it found me here for a reason.

Seth Odell:
That said, and I’ve been hesitant to say this publicly but I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it, I’ll just say is the future of college isn’t college, and I really believe that. I think that we are seeing this unbundling of what higher ed is and really purely more the ivory tower and the traditional institution. It’s not to say it’s going to go away, but the power and influence of the traditional academic institution is going to continue to shrink as we see this increase in unique third-party providers, whether it’s coding boot camp, short-form micro-credential education. Access to information is up and at the same time we are seeing at least with FANG, the major tech companies, none of them require a college degree anymore.

Seth Odell:
I do think higher education, there’s two things happening in higher ed. One thing about higher ed is that it is the single-most transformative thing that can happen in your life is to be provided a high-quality education that introduces you to opportunities and prepares you and propels you in life. I still believe in that, but there’s also a subset of higher ed’s legacy that has been a socioeconomic gatekeeper and it’s been designed primarily to serve folks that come from a place of privilege to then be candidates for jobs that provide them further privilege. And the folks that maybe qualified for that job didn’t get it because they didn’t have the degree.

Seth Odell:
There’s been unbelievable work for 100 years to try to solve that in various ways, and I’ll be the first proponent of community college and the unbelievable access it provides. But there is this fractioning that’s happening there, and it comes back to that question of is it worth it. I think that’s the question we have to answer, is the value that we’re providing, and there are institutions where it absolutely is… I don’t like to reduce it to debt-to-income ratios or just job placement statistics. I think some of that stuff is just a little too simple to a very complicated problem, but I think the question you’re raising is the entire question.

Seth Odell:
Half of it I’d say is I think higher ed is not purely the traditional 4,000 colleges and universities in this country that have financial aid, and that’s changing a little bit. I’ll also say that within that there are some that are just doing an unbelievable amount of good. If you really want to believe in capitalism, you would argue that the institutions that are closing and getting pinched should be closing and getting pinched because they’re the ones that don’t provide the value for the institutions that will remain and shine. I’m yet to know that I feel confident that this is a system that can self-regulate and solve that for itself. If it’s not, then I think the answer is that those of us that have the talent and the time to apply to an industry like this choose very wisely how we apply it.

Seth Odell:
My personal thought would be make sure that you’re totally aligned and in love with the drive of the institution you’re serving. And if you’re not, know that you’ve never been more employable. So find one where you are or, like you and I have both made decisions, determine that your best impact may be on the outside serving a select group of institutions as an outside partner. I’ve never been so satisfied as I am right now. I love the partners we’re working with. I’m so bought in. I mean before we hit record, I was telling you all about one of the institutions I work with and what a great value they are. I would say vote with your feet and that’s the best first bet is don’t try to fix a broken institution. Find yourself at one that’s a right fit and realize that you don’t have to take the burden on of fixing a legacy that’s been fracturing. Instead, find a flag you’re proud to stand with and fly.

Kevin Tyler:
Corynn, any thoughts on that?

Corynn Myers:
Yeah. I think for institutions, I find it interesting in the work that I’ve been doing across universities and with U of M, there’s this kind of hesitancy to say, “We fucked up, guys.” Oh my God, can I say that word on this? Okay.

Kevin Tyler:
Yes, you certainly can.

Seth Odell:
I love it.

Kevin Tyler:
Yes, say it again if you want.

Corynn Myers:
Yeah. We fucked up, guys. This was wrong. The system’s not right. The processes aren’t right. We know we need to address this. It feels like sometimes higher ed is like, “Oh, yeah. That was bad, okay.” There’s no kind of ownership of humans make mistakes, and higher ed, for better or for worse, is under a microscope more so than the private sector and these other agencies. I think just owning the fact that, you know what, when the pandemic hit and we all had to go remote, we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re trying to figure it out and ask for feedback and ask for help because the people in the front lines doing the work have way better insight into how to make things better and operate than their managers and leadership because they’re doing the work and doing the things.

Corynn Myers:
So understanding even something as simple as I need a second monitor at home, asking those questions and understanding again, just be more transparent. It feels like transparency is lacking in all things across higher ed. We messed up. There’s these sexual assault cases that happened 30 years ago coming to light, and it’s like, you guys messed up huge. Admit it. Don’t just apologize, make changes. What are we doing to make changes and how do we incorporate the individuals affected in the process and then people who are going to be affected in the future, incorporating them into those changes.

Seth Odell:
Well said.

Kevin Tyler:
Totally well said. I think that these are really great points that you just raised. I’m currently reading a book and I’m reading this book now, The State Must Provide by Adam Harris, who is a reporter for The Atlantic. It’s basically about why we see the kinds of inequality that we see in higher ed, generally speaking. It talks about the formation of HBCUs, et cetera. I think about the smaller colleges, the colleges that are struggling, the way that we assess the quality of an education, and how that all feeds into a brand and how it’s perceived and its reputation and then what that means for the way that decisions are being made.

Kevin Tyler:
And what we know about gen Z and what their expectations are, again, not to generalize an entire generation, but there’s data that we know about the younger set and what their expectations are from brands around accountability, around transparency, around all these other things that important, purpose. Then we talk about the ways that decisions are made in order to increase rankings and to be the richest and grow our endowment and all these other things. It just feels like there is a disconnect between what the expectation is from incoming classes and from people just evolving as humans in this whole purpose-driven economy, et cetera, and building lazy rivers and climbing walls.

Kevin Tyler:
Can a thing like increasing faculty and staff salaries, that might not at the end of the day move your ranking up, but you’ll have a lot more happier employees. Does that matter anymore, do you think?

Seth Odell:
I think some of that matters, certainly. The one thing I want to hit on about what you just said, though, that I think plays into that conversation perfectly is when we talk about the traditional higher education residential live on campus market, something happened from a baby boomer population perspective. And so myself as an early… I guess an elder millennial they call me now, right, I’m 37, child of a boomer. Like many folks, when we started all going to college, and this was really mid-90s through 2000s, this was happening even a little bit before that. What happens when a campus reaches capacity? And that’s the question. When a campus reaches capacity, what do you do?

Seth Odell:
What we found is many institutions, rather than saying, “Let’s increase capacity,” made a decision that let’s cap capacity and try to increase selectivity. So let’s try to educate people that were already better off and already set up for success, and that’s driven in no small part out of a desire for prestige, a desire for rankings, which is all reflected by that. Worked for an institution previously, as did you, that would tout every year how many students they rejected, and it’d always break my heart. That’s not the metric that I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate graduates. I don’t want to celebrate applicants that were denied. That’s a cultural thing, and I do think that that is a thread underling it.

Seth Odell:
Until that kind of a component is solved, I do think you can increase salaries. You can do some other components, but it’s going to be hard to really help people feel really, truly tied to something unless they feel like it’s a bit more of a mission. I will say that was what drove me 10 years ago last September to leave UCLA and go to Souther New Hampshire University, a school at the time that nobody had heard of. I got laughed out of UCLA when I told them I was going there, but what I was tied to is this idea that we are going to serve as many people that need to be served. An open-access institution was an extremely exciting thing.

Seth Odell:
That was really empowered in part by the ability for online education to just propel open access. It’s a real reality that open access is restricted from facilities, so it’s hard to be open access on ground. Community colleges do it by being commuter only and not offering residential, but it’s a challenge and community colleges struggle with that all the time, although now I think they would welcome a challenge of capacity rather than the other way around. But I just think that that is a big component of what’s happening is what are we trying to do here and who are we trying to serve?

Seth Odell:
Somewhere along the way in our history, a subset of our industry decided that it would be better to educate fewer people if it made us look better as opposed to educating more people, which would have a greater impact. I do think that when we look back and unwind the history of higher ed, that is one of the missteps that I think we’re still paying a penance for.

Corynn Myers:
I think I agree for the most part, but I do think that you can’t help society and the world if you’re bankrupt, if you don’t have the resources. You can’t do things unless you exist, right? I think there is something to be said about having to have business goals and reaching those goals and tuition and things like that. I think obviously, there are extremes here where if you’re pricing smart high school, anybody, you’re pricing out individuals from education, that is wrong, but they still have to be able to fund research and do the things they do in order to make an impact. I think it’s a hard balance between how do we ensure longevity but also do the right thing.

Corynn Myers:
I don’t know that they’re not trying. I think they’re trying. I think that they’re not communicating it well and some decisions are blown up and put into the media to make everything seem awful, which is how things are. I guess I don’t know the answer, but I think there is this balance and this misconception/perception that higher ed, all they do is take your money and they don’t do anything with it. But I think that they do good things. That’s why we’re here. We are all in higher ed area because we love higher ed and we know it makes a difference.

Corynn Myers:
So I guess the question is, how do they balance that need to be and exist and have money and have these things to make a difference and that kind of mission-driven thing that they have promised and those expectations students and employees and faculty have of that mission.

Seth Odell:
I totally agree and that’s a very fair point. I do think that we’re seeing that play out in the sense that so many institutions are caught in this downward cycle where they’re not in an economic position to be able to provide the kind of benefits and recruitment for staff and for faculty and then, in turn, they’re also not being able to effectively recruit students, and then they’re in a worse financial position.

Seth Odell:
I mean, people run from places they don’t feel safe from. So if you’re an institution that’s gone through layoffs and furloughs and all sorts of things and you’re seeing the student population shrink, it’s difficult to see how that turns around. That’s a very, very challenging position to be in, so I do think there’s a real cycle to it, if that makes sense.

Kevin Tyler:
It does make sense. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is I was listening to a speech a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it was AMA or Case or one of the higher ed conferences. Someone was talking about how once a thing becomes politicized in America, it can never become un-politicized. Since then, we have watched higher ed become wildly politicized and how folks from more conservative backgrounds have a higher distrust of higher ed and what it stands for.

Kevin Tyler:
We have a redefining what liberal arts means because liberal feels a bit too liberal in some conversations. I’m wondering if this has any impact or influence on the way or the direction of higher ed and how workers, knowing who we are as people and the attachments we have to brands for all types of different reasons, has on the industry?

Corynn Myers:
I personally have colleagues who I worked with prior to higher ed who would never work in higher ed because of their political leaning, so I know that is a factor. Do I care it’s a factor? I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s a lot to be said there, but I think that the politicization of higher ed is definitely a thing. I don’t think it’s a new thing though. I think it’s just been blown up again by these talking heads on the television. Unfortunately, it’s impacting real good work and it’s impeding it as well.

Corynn Myers:
I had colleagues who were conservative at U of M, and it was never really that big of an issue, it felt like. I think there were some tension, but I don’t know that that’s a unique situation to higher ed. I think that’s everywhere. But like you said earlier, gen Z and this new wave of employees are demanding brands aligned with their personal values and we are seeing they’re less conservative than other generations are. So I think you’re going to see this more and more is this kind of shift toward we have to align with brands.

Corynn Myers:
You’ve seen this with Nike. It may or may not be true or real, but you see those, the Kaepernick campaign and brands doing these things because they’re aligning to that shift. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing, but I do think it impacts some retention and recruitment for employees, but I don’t know that it’s a big or a large-scale amount.

Seth Odell:
I think an area where it’s playing out in larger fashion is more in the publics. There is an anti-intellectualism component that’s happening politically, and I do think that we’re seeing this dramatic underfunding of institutions that historically relied on the majority of their funding coming from state, as an example, and suddenly it’s much, much less. My father went to a state institution and paid nothing, essentially. It was free as a state resident and today you want to go and you’re paying $20,000. It’s just these things, there’s a total disconnect and that’s in part from the administration and funding and the business model change but also from a total reduction in funding.

Seth Odell:
I don’t know that we do overcome it, and that’s a challenge, I’ll say. To hit on two points with that, one, I do think the brand cache of working for a college or university has declined. I’ll come out and say that. I know the first time I went to work at UCLA in 2007, it was like, wow, really? To be fair, they’re one of the world’s greatest education brands ever, so I mean, I still think there’s a cache to that but I’m not sure there’s a cache to all and I think that wanes.

Seth Odell:
The other one that I’ll say that the politicization of higher ed that’s also I don’t know how you solve for this is that there’s been a very fair question about value and increase in price and what’s coming of it. At the same time, there’s as politicization that I think is turning college into a job factory and that your job is to go to college to get a job. While career is a humongous component of college and the predominant reason many go, to only think of it as job production is shifting a whole industry’s focus to business degrees, technology degrees, away from liberal arts. Yet at the same time President Biden last week took free community college out of his plans, and so it’s like it just seems like there’s this disconnect.

Seth Odell:
There’s so much data that shows a free community college model would work. Why don’t we do it? There’s data that shows that universal pre-K could be one of the most transformative economic opportunities our country could ever see, but we don’t do it. That’s the part that is a disenfranchisement that we can’t just back up and look at what’s best for the community we’re all a part of. Once those lines are drawn, and I haven’t heard that before, I do wonder how difficult it is to un-draw them. I have not heard that before the anecdote you shared, but I resonate with that for sure.

Kevin Tyler:
Yeah. I think about it in terms of the most recent example I can think is Ron DeSantis in Florida saying he’s going to cut funding to public schools if they have a mask mandate. So these things that are disconnected entirely from the educational experience is then lumped in and held hostage for political wishes. I just think that that’s more of what we’ve seen in the history of higher ed is this kind of weirdness. I don’t know even know what the other word is. It’s just this way of being that doesn’t feel as student-centered as it could be.

Seth Odell:
Yeah. I totally agree with that.

Corynn Myers:
The idea that higher ed, you go to college. For me anyway, it was more than just a job. It was an experience, being around people with different views and different types of people. I grew up in a small town in Michigan where the entire school was white. They were all conservative, white farmers. You go to college and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, the world is so much bigger than this little town I came from.” You change your opinions and you become less… You’re not caged in this box of conformity with who you were. I think that that scares individuals like the guy in Florida because it’s harder to control a population that has experience and immersed themselves amongst different types of people and sees the value in community building and ensuring that everybody has an opportunity because that then, it messes everything up.

Corynn Myers:
It’s like women going to college was this huge liberation for women and it wasn’t done before because women belong in the kitchen, right? So there’s this idea of the politicization of higher ed has this element or this part of it is because they’re losing control. They’re closing control of the populations they’re relying on for office, for laws, for their ideals that they want to keep and hold tight, and we’re taking it way from them. The next generation is doing that even more with this shift.

Corynn Myers:
I personally, one of the reasons I loved working in higher ed is because I’ve never been challenged more as an individual in what I believe and the things that I’ve experienced than working in higher ed and adding she/her to the end of my name in Zooms. I would never have thought to do that if it weren’t for working in higher ed. I thank higher ed for that and the openness and the conversations and the challenges and the pushback that you get in that industry. I think that it’s not for everyone, but I think they don’t talk enough about that, about that and the benefits you get as a human being working in this place of incredibly smart individuals but also individuals who experience the world and have a better understanding of these different ways to live and what’s the research-backed universal pre-K. It’s backed by research. Those kind of things, you don’t experience that in an agency in the middle of nowhere, Michigan. You don’t get that. You get that in higher ed.

Seth Odell:
I totally agree. It almost begs the question of like, is the answer on how to help people stay the same reason why they’re leaving? Because everything you talked about too, I feel like that’s been propelled by the pandemic, that there’s this real sense of self-reflection. So one of the reasons I think we’re seeing such a talent migration out of places is that I think people had a chance to stop and ask themselves what they’re doing and why and what they want out of life. I think that it was a chapter where few of us were fully satisfied and fulfilled, and many of us dealt with dramatic challenges all the way from losing loved ones to health scares to job loss. And just as a society feeling this sense of suffering.

Seth Odell:
I mean, I know that played no small part in my role. Several things happened, one of which was I really reflected on what do I want and what would my life look like if fear wasn’t the primary factor in the sense of being so afraid to lose my job while unemployment’s going through the roof, there’s a pandemic happening. All that said, if there is this sense of self-reflection of like, who am I and what do I want to do? And how do I want to apply my talents? It goes back that, well, higher ed is not a bad answer for that. I mean there are institutions that are making an unbelievable impact. As I tell my team even, “We don’t sell vacuums.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Dirty floors got to get cleaned, but we’re helping institutions of meaning meaningfully promote their message.

Seth Odell:
It does go back to is the reason people are leaving a true loss of faith or is it a crisis of faith, in which case it just needs to be addressed and to have these conversations. I mean, I think that’s a really fair question because this is a noble field to serve in. I mean, I guess okay, I’m so sorry I’m rambling on your podcast, but I guess-

Kevin Tyler:
Don’t apologize.

Seth Odell:
Okay. The question to me right now is like, are people leaving because there’s a true disconnect and they’re not bought into the mission because the mission was BS and you’re not really what you’re saying you are and having the impact you’re having? Is this a real crisis of faith or is it you’re not communicating your mission well? You’ve taken me for granted, and now people are knocking on the door and they’re offering me better benefits, better flexibility, and you were really rude to me telling me to come back to the office when you didn’t need me to. So you know what, screw you.

Seth Odell:
If it’s that, that’s solvable. That’s solvable through much better benefits packages, through listening to your teams. So I actually don’t know where I fall on that. Is this a true crisis of confidence that the industry has failed and people are waking up and feeling it, or is it just like, you’re not really reminding people of your mission that well and you’re taking people for granted? That’s a solvable situation.

Corynn Myers:
Yeah.

Kevin Tyler:
While the two of you have been talking, I’ve been thinking about the intersection that higher ed currently sits in, and it’s a rough one. We’ve got crisis of faith, confidence in brands and the brand of the industry. We’ve got a spate of terrible news headlines around racism and untruths and whatever else, varsity blues. We’ve got price. We’ve got accessibility. We’ve got all the other things that existed before the pandemic even started. And now we have people who have a lower bar of exit, right?

Kevin Tyler:
So while it used to be like, “I can’t quit this job. Are you crazy? I have nothing else lined up,” has now become, “I’ve been upset for these many days. I’m overworked, I’m underappreciated, undervalued, underpaid. I’m leaving.” It feels like it’s a lot easier now for people to leave because of the reality that we’ve had to live through the last two years, right? This feels like a motivating event. I feel like I can take control of my life more now because I’ve been out of control for the last… sitting at home and doing these things and living at work, essentially, and having other people dictate what I’m going to do when. I’ll just leave.

Kevin Tyler:
What is it that can happen in higher ed that, first of all, I would say that this is a really distinct time and opportunity for higher ed as people are transitioning to offer some sort of certificate or stack or whatever else to help upscale folks. That’s an aside. But for the employee piece, once people have started looking, you’ve lost them, and so what are the things that can be done inside of the industry to help people feel like they’re more valuable? I don’t know what the answers to that are, and I think that, to your question, is it the crisis of confidence or is it… Yes, it’s all of that.

Seth Odell:
Yeah. Let me take a stab at both as best I can. On the surface one about what can institutions do, I do think the one piece of advice I would give is the worst thing you can do is nothing. I can’t tell you how many people are reaching out to me running an education agency that have had conversations with me about possibly coming on board. I’ve had multiple, as in more than 10 people, reach out to me saying, “I’m looking for a remote opportunity. Let me know when you’re hiring.” We post jobs and we’re getting 100-plus applicants of high quality, but it’s not just that we’re remote.

Seth Odell:
For us at Kanahoma, we’re fully remote, unlimited PTO. We’re asynchronous, so we don’t have client meetings. We work whenever you want, no set hours. 100% healthcare insurance premiums for employees, dependents, staff. 401(k) that vests day one, and we pay off student loans with an education benefit on behalf of our team. We’re not just doing that out of the goodness of our hearts, although I do think employers should play a different role and we’re trying to do that. We’re doing that because that’s where we’re going. We’re trying to Steve Jobs this thing, skate to where the puck is going.

Seth Odell:
As a new employer, we’re acknowledging the power dynamic has changed. And if we’re going to have a top team of top talent, we have to have the benefits package to recruit them. Even though today when we talk to people, they’re like, “How do you make that work?” We’re a small team. We’re going to finish the year with probably 10 people, and it’s like, how do you pull that off? The truth is no, you don’t understand, everyone’s going to have to pull this off in five years. I don’t believe anything… We’re just early, we’re not different. You know what I mean?

Kevin Tyler:
Exactly. It’s about the future of work. And if higher ed is not looking at what the future of work is going to look like, then people will work somewhere else. That’s just the way it works, right? The expectations are different. Oh, Erin said, “The lights are on in the bar. Time to wrap it up.”

Seth Odell:
Can I hit one very small anecdote then super, super quick?

Kevin Tyler:
Of course.

Seth Odell:
I just want to say when it comes to finding the right institutions, I think it’s looking for institutions that can prove they’ve done something recently to try to challenge the system and improve access. I haven’t worked at Southern New Hampshire University since 2015, but I still love that organization and I believe in Paul LeBlanc and the institution, what’s happening there.

Seth Odell:
During my time there, they stopped taking fees for textbooks. They said, “Why are we marking up books? We want every student to buy a book, so let’s not… We’re going to sell books at cost.” And then just last year they stopped charging for transcripts. If you drop out because you can’t afford college, you should be able to get your transcript. We shouldn’t then charge you a fee that now you’re locked out of even having access to the credit you earned. That’s total BS.

Seth Odell:
I think it’s not about which ones you solve but it’s about there are other institutions like that. Hope College is doing this really interesting new payment model. It’s just about what have done lately to show that you are trying? I think that is the line to draw, and you’ll find institutions on one side or the other.

Kevin Tyler:
Totally. And you don’t have to do all the things at once. As long as there’s demonstrable movement towards the future, I think that’s all you need. There are people who are taking out the CSS form because it’s too hard for low income… These are the decisions that need to be made that show people what your culture is and what you’re about, and I think that’s going to be the most important thing. That is part of your brand and that is the welcome mat for people you’re trying to attract. Seth, Corynn, any final thoughts you’d like to leave with us since Erin is flicking the lights?

Seth Odell:
I’ll just say thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you. I mean you are two people that I’ve known for quite a while and respect a lot, and so I really enjoyed the conversation. I miss you both. I hope that this is a conversation that keeps happening. I believe in this industry and I think that this is simply a transitional time for us. That’s both okay and scary. I think the dialog was great and I really appreciate this chance to be a part of it.

Corynn Myers:
Yeah. I think we’re here because we care and we want to see change and growth. Again, thank you so much. This was great.

Kevin Tyler:
Thank you both for joining us today on Higher Voltage. Hope to see you again soon, Seth. And Corynn, we got to meet in person at some point, but in the meantime, have a great week. Thanks again.

Kevin Tyler:
That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. We’ll be back soon with a new episode, and until then you can find us on Twitter, @volthighered. And you can find me, Kevin Tyler, on Twitter, @Kevinctyler2.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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