Preparing for Your Next Higher Education Job During a Market Downturn

by Dr. Shay L. Butler

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Taking or changing jobs in higher education these days is not a move for the risk-averse. The list of college closures is beginning to increase, in accordance with industry expert predictions. Let’s be frank, we did not need Moody’s “negative outlook” of the industry to tell us that higher education is undergoing “disruption” on a scale that few of us believed would happen. From the east coast (Massachusetts) to the west coast (Oregon) and several states in-between, closures result when mergers are not feasible. This trend is causing uncertainty for all higher education job seekers regardless of their area of ‚Äč‚Äčexpertise. However, with the right precautionary steps, you can make an educated decision about your next career move.

For those considering higher education as a career and for those of us who are so far into it as a career that it makes little sense to change industries, let me encourage you that talent is still needed. You can be part of an institution’s turnaround, if you do your homework and choose your next move wisely by researching the viability of your next employer. Turnaround goes beyond the standard Google search to a more thorough process. In other words, look under the hood before you take the car for a test drive. In our case, the test drive is a metaphor for the interview. If you visit a campus that “shows well” then you will spend more time convincing yourself of all the reasons why you should purchase the vehicle, ie, take the offer extended. A thorough look under the hood doesn’t mean that you won’t buy the car, it just means that you can better negotiate the sales price from a place of advantage and if it dies on the road, (ie, closes or merges and you lose your job) at least you saw it coming.

When an institution is struggling financially, yet they continue to hire, that is an indicator that the position you aspire to is viewed as mission critical with margin impact. In other words, it’s a position that the institution believes to be integral to fulfilling their educational mission and may also be tied to enrollment, important for institutions that are highly tuition dependent. Because what you need to know goes beyond Google and even beyond Google Scholar, here are five suggested ways to determine if your next employer is fit enough to pass its next stress test without stressing you out.

1. Accreditation Status
Checking the accreditation status of the institution may seem like an obvious research tactic but I know that I have overlooked the obvious sometimes and have had to live with the outcome. In particular, I recall applying for a position at an institution that I assumed was a private, nonprofit only to learn that it was a proprietary institution. The job ad won’t always tell you, so do your homework. Go to the accreditor’s website and learn how they are affiliated, their current accreditation status, and whether there have been any substantive changes to that status in recent years.

2. IRS Form 990 and other Financial Reports
While you won’t get the most current year, the IRS 990 form can be easily found online through Guidestar. The benefit of looking through the financials is that you can follow trends in the operational budget, get an estimate of how much is in the endowment, know whether the institution is running a structural deficit, and obtain a snapshot of their debt. Keeping in mind that you will be viewing dated data, you will have some information that you can use to ask informed questions during the interview.

3. Keeping Score with the College Scorecard
The College Scorecard, created during the Obama era, was and remains a tool to help consumers view college outcomes at a glance. This is important for your job search because low retention and low graduation rates are typically not indicative of a strong balance sheet. At tuition-dependent schools particularly, low enrollment means smaller profit margins (yes, even nonprofits must earn revenue) and over time this does not bode well. Therefore, for you to truly be informed, you must go beyond the scorecard to explore the trends.

4. IPEDS Data Feedback Report
Trend lines are important and you can follow an institution’s indicators and outcomes over time through the IPEDS Data Feedback Report. This is a great tool to use to track tuition changes (big jumps over a short period could be a red flag), enrollment numbers, completion rates, retention rates, and other outcomes that will help you put pieces of the puzzle together to know whether there’s been any investment in student success initiatives. Once you have a good picture of the data, then you can go to the college’s site and find out what infrastructure is in place to improve retention and graduation rates if the rates are low.

5. Who is your President?
I mean, who is s/he really? It’s hard to know any individual but you may be able to get a glimpse of what is important to the individual at the helm of the institution you are considering joining. When you conduct an online search, what’s most prevalent? Do you see them most often featured with students or donors? Are they cutting ribbons or cutting faculty and staff? You don’t need to know to pass judgment, you just need to know to make a decision. It’s important to ask, is this a place where the leadership shares my values?

Doing all these things still won’t guarantee that the institution isn’t struggling financially. Many institutions are challenged right now so fiscal strength should not be the primary focus of your research project. The focus of the project is to see beyond the numbers to get to the heart of what truly matters when you visit the campus, aka, take the car out for the test drive. If offered an interview, come early, maybe a day before and walk the campus without a tour guide. Do the students seem happy? Are they visibly diverse and if so, does the institution have a chief diversity officer? If retention and graduation rates are low, are they investing in strengthening academic success, emotional and psychological support, and financial interventions for the economically disadvantaged? Once you are armed with data, then you are ready to get to the core of the matter: understanding whether an institution that may be fiscally challenged is also poised for and open to transformative change. If yes, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be one of the newest innovators that will birth higher education into all that she can be.

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