Addressing Burnout in Higher Education

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Like much of the American workforce, higher education employees said they felt burnt out and exhausted during the COVID-19 pandemic — a phenomenon that led to resignations across campuses and teams being short-staffed. A new brief from the American Council on Education (ACE) released Monday explores concerns employees have with their jobs and possible solutions campus leaders can take. 

The ACE brief states many higher education employees are currently looking for other jobs. A 2022 survey from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) of 3,800 higher education employees found nearly 60% of those employees were likely to look for employment elsewhere in the next year. 

Additionally, institutions are having a hard time filling open positions. According to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 80% of respondents said their institution had more open positions in 2022 than in 2021, while 84% said they were having a difficult time hiring, according to the ACE brief. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought a slew of changes to higher education,” wrote Margaret Sallee, associate professor of higher education at the University of Buffalo and author of the brief. “Through a rapid pivot to virtual learning and in-person concerns about masks and vaccinations, many of these changes came at great costs to faculty and staff, who reported increased feelings of exhaustion and burnout. The most effective solutions rest not at the individual level, but at the organizational level."

And specifically within financial aid offices, a NASFAA survey earlier this year of 500 member institutions found that nearly 80% of respondents voiced concern about their ability to be administratively capable in the future due to staffing shortages. More than half — 56% —  said they were concerned about their ability to adequately serve students with current staffing levels. 

Aid offices across the country are also struggling with hiring new administrators, with 86% of respondents reporting not receiving enough qualified applications, and 67% reporting that the difficulty in hiring was because salary restrictions made the job uncompetitive. Some NASFAA members have also shared how it’s been difficult to cultivate a pipeline of young workers eager to learn the ins-and-outs of financial aid and pursue a career in the field.

The ACE brief states the main concerns many higher education employees share about their jobs are related to pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, a need for remote work and flexible schedules, technology overload, lack of meaningful work, and increasing workload.

The 2022 CUPA-HR survey, for example, found that 76% of respondents said they would seek new opportunities because of a desire for a salary increase. The brief notes that many higher education employees are leaving higher education to private industries, where salary offers are as much as three times higher. Additionally, the brief notes that higher education salaries haven’t kept up with inflation. 

In response, ACE recommends four action items for campus leaders regarding salary concerns. The first is to be forthright in advertising the salary ranges for positions, meaning that institutions should be forthcoming about their rate of pay so that candidates have complete information about a position before deciding whether to apply. Institutions should also offer competitive pay to attract and retain talent. 

Additionally, ACE suggested institutions should adjust salaries to the cost of living and said responding to inflation is “critical” to keeping employees. Institutions should also explore and promote benefits for employees, such as free tuition for employees and their dependents, no-cost access to campus fitness facilities, or meal plans or other food benefits. 

Higher education employees also are concerned with opportunities for advancement, due to competition with tenure-track positions or employees wanting promotions and more responsibility. ACE recommends institutions identify career paths and share with employees the skills needed to advance in a given career path. Institutions should also reclassify positions to create a less bottom-heavy organization by compensating employees for their work and providing them with an identifiable career path.

Multiple surveys show that many higher education employees want flexibility with their work schedule and the ability to work remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic. ACE recommends institutions create hybrid schedules to allow interested staff to work both in person and remotely and have flexible schedules that work for each office — such as employees working a shifted schedule from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

Another concern employees have is increasing workload because of unfilled positions. ACE recommends that campus leaders reduce communication during non-working hours, rethink traditional meetings, and explore a four-day workweek.

Addressing burnout and low morale requires committed effort on the part of institutional leaders, the brief states. The recommendations made by ACE “look to change how colleges and universities operate and treat their faculty and staff by creating workplaces that are humane and that support employees’ personal and professional lives.”

“Working in higher education used to be highly sought out,” the brief states. “Let’s change the culture so that it has that reputation once again.”


Publication Date: 10/20/2022

David S | 10/20/2022 3:12:19 PM

After 38 years in financial aid, I sure would appreciate it if campus leadership recognized me as more than a mid-level bookkeeper. I'm as respected and accomplished in my field as our most esteemed faculty are in theirs, but they're the superstars, and I'm lucky if the Dean could pick me out of a lineup (and I'm not exaggerating for effect there...I'm not sure she even knows who I am, and when a student emails her about a financial aid/affordability issue, she refers it to the Dean of Students).

And that doesn't even address the frustration of the work or being underpaid.

David V | 10/20/2022 10:48:39 AM

"Another concern employees have is increasing workload because of unfilled positions."

This is so true for our office and college district. I appreciate local leaders passing bills to support our students (such as waivers for tuition and fees, and vouchers for books and supplies), but they often underestimate the amount of work we as a financial aid office have to complete. We keep asking for more resources, but often times we wait for a long time for a decision to be made. The process itself is very cumbersome (writing a proposal, meeting with the admins about the process, and so on). I think leaders in a higher position than the Director have to be very flexible and understanding.

Angela R | 10/20/2022 10:40:32 AM

While I think my institution provides excellent pay and benefits, I'm exhausted from the high volume and outreach efforts. Multiple presentations each week, sometimes at the last minute, and just the other night I did a FAFSA completion event and got home at 9:00PM. I didn't get a chance to eat dinner, I went straight to bed so I could be at work on time to do it all over again. Not being paid for those hours is discouraging, but the outreach is exhausting. Our work is so important though.

Dianne P | 10/20/2022 9:47:00 AM

The pay would have to be the main issue. It seems like a thankless job and we are never recognized or rewarded for our performance. In our office there is lack of accountability for what we are responsible for and there is a high turn over rate. Young people only stay for maybe 2 years and then move on. Maybe hiring an older person may add some longevity. I used to be so proud to be an Financial Aid Officer and now I just feel like a clerk.

Justin S | 10/20/2022 8:22:51 AM

I fully agree with your statement that "institutions should also offer competitive pay to attract and retain talent." I believe this would go a long way toward plugging the talent leak that is so endemic in our industry.

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