Few students go off to college planning to one day work in higher education. People often discover a career on campus through their interests in an academic discipline or in professions such as student affairs or admissions.

As such, institutions historically didn’t pay much attention to developing or cultivating talent through mentoring and coaching. Nor did colleges spend much time on overt succession planning to build the next generation of campus leaders.

But higher education’s approach to the workforce is shifting as colleges face pressure to innovate and a new generation of professionals arrives on campus demanding a different culture.

Here’s what you need to know.

The ranks of full-time faculty are slowly making a comeback

Since the 1970s, the academic workforce on campuses has been shifting to a majority of non-tenure-track faculty, many classified as part-timers. As recently as 2015, a slight majority of college instructors on campuses were working part time, according to the U.S. Education Department. But in just the last few years, the number of part-time faculty has been falling, while full-time instructors have slightly increased.

There are several reasons for this change. Colleges and universities are experimenting with new faculty models that unbundle the roles of research, teaching, and service. More institutions are hiring teaching-only faculty, but instead of bringing them on as part-time adjuncts they are giving them full-time positions with renewable contracts.

The reason colleges want more full-time faculty – but with the flexibility that doesn’t come from hiring tenure-track professors – is that research shows the proliferation of adjuncts has had a negative impact on student success and outcomes. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that a 10 percent increase in part-time faculty positions at public universities results in a nearly 3 percent decline in graduation rates.

More options for full-time teaching positions beyond the legacy tenure model also has fans among the faculty. A survey of 1,500 professors and administrators, conducted by the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California, found that 50% of tenured faculty and 70% of full-time, non-tenured faculty said the idea of new pathways through the professorial ranks was appealing to them.

The student body is diversifying much more quickly than the campus workforce

Think about it: on most four-year campuses, a quarter of the students are new to campus each year, but the faculty and staff turn over at a much slower rate. The result is a growing gap between the racial, ethnic, and economic composition of the student body and that of the faculty and staff, especially as the number of white high-school graduates nationwide is falling.

Just among the faculty alone, about three-quarters of professors in the U.S. are white, compared with around half of undergraduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The fastest growing group of students in higher education are Latino. They now make up 20 percent of undergraduates, but only 5 percent of faculty members are Latino.

This growing divide has critical consequences for student success. Research has found that students who have professors of the same race or ethnicity are more likely to stay in college and graduate and perform well in class.

The sharp contrast between a college or university’s workforce and the student body has also led to high-profile protests on several campuses by undergraduates who say they don’t see their experiences reflected in the classroom or among the faculty and staff. The same criticism is true among less-visible markers of diversity. As colleges try to enroll more low-income students who want their college education to result in a job afterwards, college faculty members still hold the view that their job is not to help students find a job. Compared to previous generations, Generation X students, those born since 1995, are interested in practical subjects with clear paths to careers and hands-on learning that provides them with skills needed in the workforce.

A multi-generational workforce with vastly different priorities is making its home on campuses

More than a decade ago, higher education was predicted to undergo a wave of retirements among baby boomers on campuses. The boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, made up a significant share of campus workforces given that their working lives coincided with the growth of American higher education.

The retirements didn’t materialize as expected, however. The Great Recession delayed the plans of many staff members for financial reasons. And faculty members who were ready to retire money-wise didn’t want to walk away from the professional and personal lives they built on campus (faculty can retire “at will” since end of mandatory retirement in 1994). The share of faculty members in higher education age 65 and older has grown three-fold since the late 1990s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, campuses leadership positions are increasingly being filled by Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980. They are managing not only the older baby boomers, but the equally large millennial generation who occupy a significant proportion of faculty, staff, and administrative roles on campuses. What’s more, the first wave of Generation Z is beginning to get full-time jobs on campuses.

In higher education, a sector that’s known to be slow to change, a multi-generational workforce presents challenges for colleges because what employees want out of their job and career varies widely. Some might want private offices while others want to work in collaborative open spaces; some will value education benefits while others want family benefits. As a result, employees in higher education are going to expect a greater personalization of benefits.

The 4 Generations

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers

Workplace Desires:

  • In-person contact.
  • They want to be seen as still contributing while slowly transitioning to retirement.

Generation X

Generation X

Workplace Desires:

  • Personal time and autonomy.
  • Less trustworthy of large institutions, such as colleges and universities.



Workplace Desires:

  • Feedback and recognition.
  • Less trustworthy oUncomfortable with ambiguity.
  • Want career opportunities or they become job hoppers.

Generation Z

Generation Z

Workplace Desires:

  • Want prompt feedback
  • Value-conscious and looking for new types of benefits, particularly assistance with student-loan debt


Build centers for academic career development

While institutions have improved teaching and learning centers in recent years to help faculty members redesign courses, campuses haven’t followed a similar strategy to assist professors or administrative staff members in building networks and relationships to enable them to advance in their careers. Campuses should develop career centers to provide mentoring and coaching to cultivate the next generation of leaders. They need to help the academic workforce understand their options as they explore new opportunities.

Design new faculty models

Although the number of full-time faculty is on the rise, it’s unlikely higher education will return to a single model where the majority of faculty are full time and tenured. The generation of academics hitting the job market now want flexibility in their career tracks, so it’s essential that institutions develop new pathways through the professoriate. One track might be a dual model where some faculty focus on teaching and others on research. Or colleges might adopt a team approach to building courses by using instructional designers to reduce the workload for faculty. Another approach might be to broaden the definition of faculty research and service to give credit to professors who don’t follow the traditional models of publish or perish.

Strengthen midcareer pathways

The midcareer point for the academic workforce is fraught with anxiety about what’s next. For those on the administrative track, the ranks of middle managers are often thin in higher education. Institutions should also consider annual workshops and leadership programs to develop the managerial skills of midcareer academic staff who demonstrate ability and promise. Meanwhile, faculty who receive tenure are no longer protected from a heavy load of committee work. Some remain stuck as associate professors for years without a promotion. Even when faculty members become full professors, they essentially do what they did as associate professors. Unless they are superstars in their fields, it’s not easy to get a job elsewhere. One approach is release time for faculty and staff to advance their research or other creative work.

Provide training on cultural competency

As the enrollment on college campuses becomes more diverse, a critical part of any student success strategy will require that faculty and staff members understand a student’s culture in order to develop the necessary relationships. Such “cultural competence” isn’t the result of a single training video or a reading, however. Faculty members need a diverse set of training tools and learning communities to gain a better sense of their students’ cultures and background. This cultural competence will give them the context for providing focused classroom instruction.

Offer personalized benefits

The multi-generational workforce requires colleges and universities to think differently about their pay and benefit policies. Through surveys, focus groups, and data mining of current employees, institutions should categorize the various groups making up their campus workforce to assess needs and design offerings accordingly.

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