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Are We Still Doing It for the "Work?" Student Affairs Educators and the Great Resignation

November 14, 2021 Michael J. Stebleton Melanie Buford

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 4, November 2021 

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

An August 2020 article titled, “The Great Disillusionment” immediately grabbed readers’ attention—especially those of us who work in student affairs. Written by Lindsay Ellis and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the feature included numerous examples of educators and administrators who were experiencing stress, burnout, and poor work-life balance in the last two years. Ellis noted that many educators are opting out of higher education to explore alternative career options. Winni Paul, a management consultant who was interviewed for the Chronicle feature stated, “The graciousness, the compassion, the ‘we do it for the students, we do it for the work’ –that’s gone.” How have the recent pandemics of 2020-2021 affected student affairs educators? What impact will the Great Resignation have on higher education? In this blog, I invite my colleague and PhD student Melanie Buford to discuss a range of factors related to the state of student affairs, the ethics of the new employee-employer contract, and how the Great Resignation may affect student affairs and higher education moving forward.

A Persistent Retention Problem Gets Worse

The Great Resignation, a term coined by Texas A & M professor Anthony Klotz, continues to garner media attention (Thompson, 2021). It includes the phenomenon of workers across industries who are taking the time to reevaluate priorities, values, and decisions about their work lives. A recent statistic highlighted that approximately 37% of workers under the age of 40 are thinking about leaving their current work (Long & Clement, 2021). More specifically, in a McKinsey and Company report titled “Women in the Workplace,” 1 out of 3 women have considered changing or leaving their jobs, often due to increased demands of family and child care during the Covid-19 pandemic (Burns et al., 2021).

Higher education and student affairs will likely be next, and not be spared from this trend. Student affairs has always had a retention problem (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). Although the statistics vary, approximately 50-60% of new student affairs educators will leave higher education within five years after graduating from their master’s programs (Marshall et al., 2016; Tull, 2006). It should be noted that this is about the same attrition rate of new kindergarten teachers after five years in the profession. Moreover, there are accelerated costs to the work—especially for those student affairs educators who engage in diversity work with BIPOC and LGBTQ-identified students—and those who identify as members of these communities, for whom the work may take a personal toll (Anderson, 2021; Pettit, 2021). The reasons for this exodus are complex and a holistic analysis is beyond the scope of this blog; yet it is important to discuss what might be going on with these trends.

Entering into the Dialogue

Melanie Buford, career education scholar/practiioner, and I decided to conduct an interview to discuss these trends and issues that are affecting readers of Connexions and JCC. We present highlights of this discussion in an interview format. Some excerpts were adapted to fit the blog structure. I asked Melanie to introduce herself and her interests in this topic.

Melanie: I am a teaching specialist for an undergraduate leadership minor program called the Leadership Minor. I have been working in higher education about 10 years, teaching career and leadership classes. I teach a field experience course that places students in community organizations and does leadership and some career development with them. And then I am Melanie Buford also a PhD student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in the OLPD, Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development program on the higher education track. I do also identify as a millennial. I was born in 1987, and so would be in the sort of middle range, maybe upper-middle range of what would be considered a millennial. I have a number of other identities I think bring some context to my work. I identify as African American. I identify as LGBTQ and have a number of marginalized identities. My research has been in the area of career assessment, looking at the unique needs of some marginalized students, including generational differences and how they relate to career development and decision-making.

Priorities Matter: The Great Quit and Exacerbated Inequities

Mike: There are complex reasons and events that have led to this Great Quit or Resignation. We are seeing evidence of this trend across different generations, across different industries, and much has occurred in the last 18 months. Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic is a factor. Additionally, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, among others, and the social injustice reckoning that continues to occur in the nation and globally play key roles (e.g., xenophobia and racism against Asians, Asian Americans, and AAPI communities). It is important to acknowledge that existing inequities in marginalized communities continue to be exacerbated by these events. What are your thoughts?

Melanie: I think definitely in the last year and a half, we have seen a lot of social change and political change and a sort of global conversation about what we value as countries, as communities, as a globe. I think we have thought a lot about what healthcare should look like, and what is inequality, and what should a more equitable world look like, and what are our priorities. I think as people, as you experience limitations and constraints and tragedy and loss, you sort of inevitably think about priorities, and with constraints, with limited time, with limited resources, what do we prioritize, right?

Envisioning the Positive

Melanie:  That ethos is inevitably there, and I think the ability for many, admittedly not all but for many, to spend time being still for a moment, and the interruption to work as usual has prompted some reflection. It forced people to reckon with perhaps unhappiness, grief, stillness, and to examine why am I not thriving, how could I be thriving in my life, and how can I perhaps turn this really difficult situation into something positive—a positive change in my life, right, or at least find meaning in it. So, I think that naturally lends itself to people having all the ingredients to begin to rethink what their life should really look like, what a fulfilling life should look like, and work is such a big part of that, not only materially but in so many other ways. I think that reassessment piece makes sense to me.

The Impact of Burnout in Student Affairs

Mike: I think many of us in student affairs and higher education, even though we have been working from our apartments or our homes, we have probably worked more in the last 18 months than ever before because the boundaries have been in some ways eliminated or at least become ambiguous. How is this affecting educators? How concerned should we be? It seems that this feeling is affecting all levels and positions of higher education, not just new or emerging professionals.

Melanie: We should be very concerned. People are fed up. I agree in the sense that I am seeing a lot of burnout and frustration, in student affairs in particular, and not just student affairs, but any position that works directly with students and/or, any kind of service position where folks are serving students. I think that includes instructors. We are teaching. There is a burnout that is happening because of the need to tolerate so much uncertainty due to the pandemic affecting modalities and service delivery. There is so much back and forth, will we be in person, will we be online, in what mode will you have to deliver your content, content changes.

Now, I imagine a number of programs are thinking about how to address all the current events that we have experienced in the last two years. How do we talk about the presidential change, and the political evolutions, and all these events, the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and others? How do we talk about Black Lives Matter? How do we address racial equity in the classroom? These are all tough questions to grapple with. In addition, I think that uncertainty presents a challenge. Certainly, I know a number of professionals of color, especially in the classroom and in student services and student affairs have expressed exhaustion with being tapped to lead a lot of efforts around equity, in particular. Clearly, student affairs professionals’ quality of life and wellbeing merits attention (Chessman, 2021).

Mike: I see your point. Yet, some cynics may say that student affairs professionals are always tired, that this ‘service at all costs’ to students is part of what drew us to the profession. How is this time unique?

Melanie: I definitely see folks who are tired. I think there were many folks who are already tired and who have been tired for a long time, but I think what we are seeing now is that it is almost impossible to escape being exhausted at this point, regardless of identity, that we are seeing exhaustion from the top to the bottom. In addition, I think that is perhaps why it is getting wider attention. Therefore, I think we are just seeing that with burnout and higher education in student affairs; it was there already but has reached a kind of crisis point for those folks who were already tired, and now new folks have joined the conversation and really want to address this issue.

A Call for Change

Mike: This potential exodus may influence higher education broadly. I am concerned about issues of retention. Will this influence others? What might change?

Melanie: One way we might look at this is calling more urgently for the profession to evolve in order to better address the needs of the people currently in it, and the people who are coming. That certain things like flexibility, the ability to work from home, and work in different spaces, and work at different times have been a call for years from student affairs professionals and perhaps has a generational component to it, though not universally. It's been a call for years, and I have seen that and heard about resistance that there was really the fear that if student affairs professionals are not at their desks when students arrive, that this could be a crisis if they are perceived to be absent, and yet Covid-19 has demonstrated that that is possible and the world goes on.

All that is to just say that I think it is calling for an evolution. I think we should be concerned, and that this should warrant urgent attention. We can no longer ignore the need to evolve, as many professions are being asked to evolve right now, and we cannot take for granted that people are willing to stay in environments that do not feel like their needs are being met or that they are not healthy environments just because they care for students. I think people have the right to care first for themselves so that they can be of service (Jackson Preston et al., 2021). Right?

Are We Obligated to Stay? Job Shifting and the Employer-Employee Contract

Mike: There are some critics that might say, “Now is the time to stay, not leave,” and there might be an ethical obligation to our students. In other words, if you are truly committed to higher education, why isn't this the time to really step forward, knowing that there will be some difficult years until we get through this, but the benefit is going to be seeing these students through this challenging time. I am wondering how you would respond.

Melanie: I think many really care for this work, and at a minimum, there are those who feel the cognitive dissonance of having given so much of themselves to this work and to students for so long, I think that is a factor. I do not know that I feel it is a moral obligation, or an ethical obligation. I would say that it is a choice to choose to serve in this way. Right?

Student affairs is one form of service to students and to the common good. It is not the only way. But for those who choose this way, I do think that is a compelling concern. I will say for myself, I feel a responsibility to the students that I work with, and to the students that I manage, and to the students that I teach to be an advocate for them in what is a large institution. Navigating completion of education can be challenging—and especially now. I do think there are people, many people, who feel the weight of that responsibility, and I bet some view that as a moral obligation. Some probably do not.

Mike: There has been a lot of talk about job-hopping and shifting positions. When I was a new student affairs professional years ago (mid-1990s), I got the message from mentors that I should stay in a new position for at least two years before transitioning to a new one. Is there an ethical concern here?

Melanie: Many of us, especially those born in the 1980s, graduated into a bad recession in the wake of '08 and onward.What I heard was this idea that the contract of loyalty between employer and employee is just no longer a reliable thing. Organizations began to become leaner, and reduce entry-level positions, and ask for more experience, and replace things with automation, and people began to say, "Where are the openings and opportunities?" I think there was the sentiment among many Millennials, and this was something we circulated around, that if an organization is not necessarily going to be loyal to us, then there's no expectation in return that we would be loyal to them for any particular reason. And that perhaps it has nothing to do with morality. Perhaps this is business.

I think many of us, and myself included, do not necessarily see it as a moral thing whether or not you stay at a job for more than two years. That was represented to me when I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2010. Friends and coworkers told me that was normal. Now, my parents told me that was unusual, but my peers told me that was normal and appropriate, and actually should be encouraged, that growth and learning is as important as staying and security, staying in one place and that you actually perhaps have a certain obligation to continue to grow and learn and cross-pollinate ideas in different organizations. I think that you can look at that a number of different ways.

Community Matters

Mike: Thank you, Melanie. As a proud Gen Xer, I think there are definitely some generational differences that play out. For example, this historical period may affect how Gen Z students and workers approach work and life/work integration as students enter the workforce. I am concerned about community, including how the workplace has changed in student affairs, especially since March 2020. What are suggestions for readers?

Melanie: I think there is a decaying of the community now, for sure. I think many, many of us have felt that, and I think there is a chance that we adapt to rebuild and repair in these new conditions, this new community. We have had many conversations in my office about how we preserve community and how  we support our student employees and come together as a group to build connection and maintain connection through physical separation. In addition, I think that it takes a lot of deliberate practice and trial and effort right now to begin to discover those ways. I do think that as we have a million little experiments going on in different work communities where knowledge will cross-pollinate and technology will catch up.

Mike: Well said. Thanks again, Melanie. I appreciate your insights.


Discussion Questions:

1)      Given the events of the last two years, there is a "Great Quit" or "Great Resignation" taking place across industries as workers reevaluate their relationship to work and career. How do you think this might affect student affairs educators?

2)      Student affairs, arguably, has always had an attrition problem. How do you think recent socio-political events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, might influence the current (and future) generations of student affairs educators? 

3)      Many professionals across industries (including higher education) are leaving jobs, often after short tenures. Is this a problem? What are potential ethical concerns that younger student affairs professionals might be concerned about? (e.g., frequent job shifting)

4)      Student affairs professionals who identify as marginalized (e.g., BIPOC staff) have experienced heightened or exacerbated "emotional labor" in the past 18 months following the murder of George Floyd. What have you noticed? What can be done to support staff? What are the obligations of the university to provide resources and support? How might this impact attrition?

5)      There is a great deal of attention around wellness and self-care in the workplace. Ex: Nike giving employees (HQ staff only) a week off. Are these acts mostly performative? How might these initiatives be sustained, moving forward? What can higher education leaders do to support their employees?


Anderson, R. K. (2021). Burned out or burned through? The costs of student affairs diversity work. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 58(4), 359-371. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2020.1822853

Burns, T., Huang, J., Krivkovich, A., Rambachan, I., Trkulja, T., & Yee, L. (2021, September 27). Women in the Workplace. McKinsey and Company Report. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace

Chessman, H. M. (2021). Student affairs professionals, well-being, and work quality. Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice, 58(2), 148-162. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2020.1853556

Ellis, L. (2021, August 25). The Great Disillusionment. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-great-disillusionment

Jackson Preston, P., Peterson, H., Sanchez, D., Corral Carlos, A., & Reed, A. (2021). Serving students takes a toll: Self-care, health, and professional quality of life. Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice, 58(2), 163-178. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19496591.2020.1853558

Long, H., & Clement, S. (2021, August 16). Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/08/16/us-workers-want-career-change/

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from student affairs: Perspectives from those who exited the profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359

Pettit, E. (2021, January 13). They’called #TeamNoSleep. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/theyre-called-teamnosleep

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the national study of new professionals in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319-335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022

Thompson, D. (2021, October 15). The great resignation is accelerating. The Atlantic Monthly. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/great-resignation-accelerating/620382/

Tull, A. (2006). Synergistic supervision, job satisfaction, and intention to turn over of new professionals in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 47(4), 465-480. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2006.0053