The big resignation was sparked by a pandemic that saw employees leave their jobs in droves in search of more autonomy, higher pay and new lines of work. Unfortunately, even as places of work and education reopen their doors, not everyone is eager to walk back through them. For higher education specifically, the Great Teacher Attrition will have a long-lasting negative impact on the next generation unless colleges adapt to the changing landscape, invest in faculty, and make real learning (not just passing tests) a priority.
Like everyone else, professors faced severe burnout during the pandemic amid constant adjustments to COVID protocols that required a rapid shift from in-person teaching to online learning. The drastic change has created a whole host of logistical challenges from classroom discussions via Zoom to crafting new course plans that accommodate online and/or hybrid learning environments. At the same time, professors are dealing with the same anxieties other Americans face, including economic stress from rising inflation and difficulty finding childcare.
As a result of these and other factors, professors are fleeing the profession.
Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed a drop in postsecondary instructor employment between May 2020 and May 2021 (1,369,930 vs. 1,340,560). Meanwhile, the American Association of University Professors’ annual faculty salary survey report shows a 0.6 percent decline in the total number of faculty between fall 2019 and fall 2021.
As professors walked out, universities also froze hiring, so even those who wanted to enter the field were unable to find work, with faculty openings at US institutions down 70% from 2019 to 2020 .
This bottleneck has led to increased workloads and exacerbated stress for educators during an already difficult time. And the stress doesn’t go unnoticed by students, with a joint Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse study finding that students notice faculty showing signs of stress. During the pandemic, much of the unity of connecting with students and meeting them where they are has fallen to faculty. One-on-one meetings, additional office hours, and more administrative duties related to the pandemic continue to add more work for each student without adequate support for faculty to effectively handle these new demands.
As the pandemic eases, many universities have begun canceling online and virtual offerings that have helped higher education survive the public health crisis. But with the shortage of professors, higher education not only needs to reinvest in more professors, but also lean on these online resources.
By hiring new faculty and strengthening virtual courses and online academic resources, colleges can better serve students while easing teacher workloads. For students, flexible course offerings in both manner and time, along with online resources they can access on their own schedule, are vital to helping them succeed in the classroom and earn their degree. Promoting online offerings also gives faculty more flexibility to teach classes at different times and reduces travel time, allowing them to teach more courses than they otherwise could if they were all in person.
Virtual resources also offer 24/7 support and can help reduce stress for the limited number of faculty still on campus. Services like Chegg, Quizlet, and Khan Academy can provide step-by-step guidance on different concepts and help teach students who may be falling behind or who are hesitant to seek help. These resources can help ease the burden on educators as they can direct students to resources for ongoing support, which will also help students who are struggling or have gaps in their education beyond the scope of a particular course.
Meanwhile, unless colleges invest in more professors, those who remain are more likely to turn to predesigned test questions provided by textbook publishers to save time. Publishers offer these test banks along with their expensive textbooks, which are usually distributed to students at the beginning of the semester. Textbook costs can average over $1,000 per year. Unfortunately, in addition to resulting in an expensive bill for students, these test banks are becoming more readily available online as students seek help with questions.
Because multiple-choice questions determine a larger percentage of their grade and less opportunity for students to study with classmates along with limited hours to seek help from faculty, students understandably turn to outside resources for help. This leads to a worse education for students and a problem with the academic integrity of teachers.
To stop the mass exodus of faculty leaving the major, universities must strike a balance between easing the burden on current faculty and recruiting new talent. By supporting virtual course offerings and expanding access to online learning resources, universities can help faculty manage their current workloads while working to invest in new faculty and revise academic policies to be clearer and more -applicable to advancing technologies.
Dr. Guadalupe Vasquez King is a retired professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Technical College.