Staffing Woes Continue at Community Colleges, Stalling Their Pandemic Recovery

Community colleges are still struggling to recover from the “Great Resignation” that hit higher ed during the pandemic — with persistent staffing shortages directly affecting students’ experiences.

That’s the top-line takeaway from a December webinar presented by consulting firm EAB and the League for Innovation in the Community College. The troubled state of community colleges’ work forces could compound enrollment challenges that are already wreaking havoc on institutional bottom lines, experts said.

Two-year institutions saw a 13-percent reduction in total employee headcount between January 2020 and April 2022, EAB’s analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data found. Much of that dip occurred in the spring of 2021, at the same time four-year institutions began to slowly regain employees.

Those trends are likely related, Tara Zirkel, EAB’s director of strategic research, said in the webinar. Several community-college leaders told her team they’d lost staff members to local universities that offered higher salaries for similar roles. Simultaneously, the information-services sector has seen a steady increase in jobs — climbing 16 percent between January 2020 and April 2022 — providing another source of competition for a small pool of qualified candidates.

The result, Zirkel said, is a need to shift from the “cost-containment” mentality that pervaded higher ed before the pandemic, in which institutions may have sought ways to reduce staff by offering early retirement, to an “asset-management” approach that emphasizes retaining existing talent and aggressively pursuing new employees.

Among the concerning trends is a precipitous drop in faculty members at community colleges: an 8.6 percent decline between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, according to the American Association of University Professors’ latest “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.” No other higher-ed sector had such a steep overall decline, Zirkel pointed out during the webinar.

Small class sizes and the close connections between students and professors are among the biggest draws of a community-college experience. Students are sure to feel the effects of short staffing in the classroom — if their institution is even able to keep offering those classes.

“Look at a college where we have an automotive program or a welding program or a mechatronics program,” Zirkel told The Chronicle in an interview. “The folks that teach in those programs are very hard to come by, and they also can earn really amazing wages in their craft and industry. So it’s difficult to build a value proposition to keep those folks on campus.” In turn, she added, modernizing curricula or creating new programs without a clear picture of which faculty members might be on the payroll becomes a tall task.

We are stalling our students, potentially. It’s not necessarily the student that is stalling themselves.

It’s also more difficult for students to get into the classroom at all, EAB’s analysis found. Members of the research team acted as “secret shoppers,” pretending to enroll at community colleges, and found that what used to take a single day of in-person interaction — during which a student could apply to college, take any necessary placement tests, and receive career counseling and academic advising as well as meet with financial-aid officers — could stretch to three weeks of online back-and-forth during the pandemic.

“Some of the barriers that our staff saw were tied to simply not being able to access an actual human being that could answer the student’s problem,” Zirkel said. “There’s not enough people to respond to email. There’s not enough people to take advising appointments.” For students whose life circumstances make it difficult to plan a month ahead, that three-week lag could mean the difference between being able to start a semester on time — or could prompt them to enroll elsewhere, she said. “We are stalling our students, potentially. It’s not necessarily the student that is stalling themselves.”

That loss of momentum also applies to already-matriculated students, too. EAB’s modeling, based on interviews with college leaders and data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the Community College Research Center, shows that for every 1,000 students who apply to community college, 300 will complete a semester of classes, and just 200 finish a year of education.

So what should community colleges do? Many of the staff-retention strategies Zirkel proposed in the webinar — raising salaries, offering flexible-work policies, delineating advancement opportunities for employees who may feel they’re stuck in “dead-end” jobs — will sound familiar to administrators throughout higher ed.

One suggestion that may be especially germane for two-year institutions, though, is using technology to streamline processes that are often done by hand. For example, institutions could build self-service tools that let students schedule their own advising appointments and placement tests, rather than going through a staff member. That, Zirkel said during the webinar, “frees up more of your staff time for the more moderate- or high-support issues that need that one-on-one interaction with the student.”

With projected declines in the U.S. working-age population — which is expected to drop by six million people by 2028, according to data Zirkel cited in the webinar — and staff members’ demonstrated willingness to go on the job hunt, community colleges’ work-force problems aren’t likely to ease.

“This is not something we’re going to solve this year, next year,” Zirkel said. “This is really a shift that needs to be a long-haul change in how we do business.”

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