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The State of Higher Education: Top Four Hiring Takeaways from the New Report

Gallup and Lumina’s State of Higher Education 2024 Report is officially here, bringing the latest insights on higher education, what students need and want, and what institutions are (or should be) focusing on. It’s not just a useful tool to drive strategy for attracting and retaining students, it also helps align your hiring strategy to focus on the most relevant areas.


Four top takeaways from this report, plus how they might impact your hiring strategy in the months to come, are as follows:


1. Career outcomes are tied to pursuing higher ed.

According to the report, 84% of current or prospective students cite at least one employment-related factor as part of the reason they are enrolled in a program or, at least, considering pursuing a degree or credential. These employment-related factors include getting a job that pays more or is more fulfilling, improving their competitiveness in the job market, or getting a salary increase or promotion. Interest in industry certifications saw the biggest rise with a nine-point increase since 2021.


It’s a clear indicator that the link between higher education and career success remains strong. To take full advantage of this, enrollment teams need to focus on hiring talent who can connect with prospective students by drawing lines between university offerings – including traditional degrees and more tailored certifications – and desired life and career outcomes.


The key is finding people who can go beyond merely quoting statistics that people can very easily search for themselves. Enrollment teams need talent who can employ reflective judgment – that is, who can find the relevant information, draw the necessary conclusions, and then use it as part of their strategy to close the sale. This is a key part of what makes counselors so successful, and it’s not something that can necessarily be taught. When interviewing talent, consider exercises like providing a case-based study to see if the candidate can use deductive reasoning to make the pitch.


2. The primary barriers to enrollment are cost and lack of financial aid.

Understanding why prospective students don’t enroll is just as important as understanding why they do. The report found that financial factors are the biggest barriers, but flexibility in course delivery is also highly relevant, especially for non-traditional students. Interestingly, the study found it is more likely that stopped-out students than enrolled students find the availability of online or remote courses highly significant in their decision, and they are more sensitive to the distance between the campus and their home.


Even in today’s highly polarized world, public policy factors (including regarding firearms, reproductive rights, and topics of discussion on campus) are not among the most important factors in students’ enrollment decisions. Still, one in three adults say these policies are highly significant in their decisions. While it matters to have people who are comfortable communicating around these topics, it’s more vital to work closely with college relations and media teams to craft institutional responses that are ‘owned’ by the university and can be provided to frontline people for one voice across the board.


When it comes to addressing the big financial factors, enrollment teams need to focus on talent – especially leadership – with strong financial understanding and who can help students and families find solutions that work. They also need to shape a strong communications strategy around policies. In the interview process, that might include things like the following:


  • Asking behavioral questions about how candidates have handled these situations and conversations in previous roles.
  • Asking hypothetical and/or case study questions to gauge candidates’ communication skills.
  • Asking references directly about financial and communication elements.


3. Over one-third of students have considered dropping out or stopping their degree program.

Enrolling students is only half the battle, the other half is retaining them, and this report reveals just how challenging that might be. Specifically, 64% of students who have considered stopping say that emotional stress or mental health concerns are significant reasons for this option, which is more than twice the number who say their program’s cost is what may cause them to stop out.


The study further notes, “Scaling this number across the entire student population suggests that more than one in five students (22%) have considered stopping out due to mental health challenges or emotional stress.” It also found a gender divide: 28% of female students have considered stopping out due to mental health or emotional stress, compared with just 15% of male students.


In terms of hiring, these numbers reflect a growing need for higher education teams to consist of people who deeply understand these factors’ nuances and have the skills and resources to address them. It’s about dedicating resources to providing strong student support in multiple forms and, once again, effectively communicating what’s available to students so they don’t simply disappear while assuming the support they need isn’t there.


4. One in six students say they have at least occasionally felt disrespected, discriminated against, or unsafe in their program.

Perhaps more worrisome than general stress in students is the number who say they feel directly discriminated against or actively unsafe. These negative experiences go beyond generic anxiety or burnout; they’re tied more closely to issues of identity, equity, diversity, and inclusion, issues that have been the subjects of heated conversations and equally heated backlash in recent years.


This level of disrespect or fear can seriously impact student experiences and the relevant institution’s reputation. In the study, the students who report these seriously negative experiences are less likely to say the quality of education they receive in their program is “good” or “excellent.” Additionally, women and students of color were less likely than their white, male peers to report feeling cared for, mentored, respected, and like they belonged.


There may be politically driven DEI backlash, and higher education is still dealing with the aftereffects of the SCOTUS ruling against race-based affirmative action. These survey results indicate that students are still having discriminatory experiences that adversely affect the quality of their educational experience. It’s clear, then, that enrollment teams – and higher education in general – still need to focus on hiring people with the skills and dedication needed to manage DEI issues. This might include driving culture changes (student problems could be an indicator of a wider culture problem that could affect employees, too), handling reports effectively, and providing the support needed to address these issues in the short- and long-terms.


Hiring in higher education today requires a deep understanding of students’ biggest concerns. Your team should be comprised of people with the skills, experience, perspective, and commitment to respond effectively to student concerns, whether financial, professional, or personal. Blue Rock Search is here to help institutions find transformative leaders in the most mission-critical roles so you can withstand changes and maintain a high-quality experience for the students who form the backbone of your school.

By Jacquelyn D. Elliott, Ed.D.


About the Author

Dr. Elliott is a Higher Education subject matter expert across multiple functions, including Strategic Enrollment Management, Financial Aid, Institutional Advancement, Student Life and Retention, and Academic Affairs. Dr. Elliott brings to the table a unique understanding of an institution’s need for specialized talent and the candidate’s desire to affect positive change. She has worked with more than 200 schools across the globe in a consulting capacity and has coached countless cabinet-level executives on strategy, job placement, meeting enrollment, net tuition, fundraising goals, and faculty development and training.


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