The Pandemic Has Pushed Hundreds of Thousands of Workers Out of Higher Education

The work-force that serves much of higher education in America has shrunk by at least 7 percent since Covid-19 arrived on American shores — a staggering, unprecedented contraction, according to federal data. And like the national economic downturn that is running parallel to this unprecedented viral outbreak, much also remains uncertain about what a “recovery” will actually look like for higher education.

An estimated 337,000 fewer workers were employed by America’s private (not-for-profit and for-profit) and state-controlled institutions of higher education in August compared to February, according to a release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates industry-specific employee estimates each month. At no point since the bureau began keeping industry tallies in the late 1950s have colleges and universities ever shed so many employees at such an incredible rate.

James Slowiak is just one of those 337,000 workers. The former tenured theater professor at the University of Akron said he surrendered to an early retirement this summer after he and others in his department became the targets of institution-wide austerity measures. The termination of Slowiak and other faculty members will allow Akron to permanently cut at least $44 million from its budget. But the future for Akron’s theater program remains unclear. The university told the Akron Beacon Journal in July that the program, with its “uneven or low enrollment,” would undergo a review this fall.

Slowiak’s abrupt termination resulted in whiplash elsewhere in his life. He and his spouse are in the process of selling their home of 10 years as the couple looks for somewhere to live that matches their new incomes. Slowiak’s elderly mother also had to move from Akron to South Bend, Ind., to live near her other son whose home and financial situation is less precarious than Slowiak’s.

Slowiak said all academics should appreciate that protections like seniority and tenure are not absolute. At Akron, it was the invocation of force majeure by the administration that ultimately resulted in the suspension of such protections for faculty members like Slowiak. An arbitrator would eventually uphold that declaration, finding that the coronavirus outbreak was sufficiently catastrophic to justify the invocation of force majeure by the institution.

“You can’t depend on tenure to save you. At the University of Akron, both of those things — service and tenure — were thrown out the window,” Slowiak said.

In retrospect, Adrianna Kezar, a professor and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, said these new federal figures may suggest institutions were too eager at the start of the pandemic to cull their work forces. Available anecdotes do not suggest an intense cratering of enrollments industry-wide, though auxiliary revenues at many institutions have collapsed.

“It seems to suggest that leaders may have jumped the gun, sending their staffs to plan for the worst. Of course that’s the safe thing to do,” Kezar said. “Yet, I felt as if they moved to that strategy quite quickly, and without waiting for some more data and signals.”

Knowns and Unknowns

The worst month for job losses in higher education was recorded in May 2020, when the bureau estimated that 457,000 fewer people were employed in the sector relative to February. At that point, higher ed’s estimated work force had been reduced by 9.81 percent since February.

But private colleges have mounted a small comeback. Between February and April, private institutions shed a net of 237,000 employees. But since then, the bureau estimates that private institutions have hired or rehired around 100,000 employees. By comparison, state-controlled, public institutions collectively have not posted cumulative month-to-month job losses of less than 200,000 since April.

Wendy Simonds, a professor of sociology and founding member of the United Campus Workers of Georgia chapter at Georgia State University, said membership in the organization has grown substantially since the outbreak of coronavirus and the controversial response to it by administrators within the university system.

“People have become very aware that their jobs are insecure, in a way that they didn’t feel insecure before this,” Simonds said.

It’s impossible to know yet which classes of employees in higher education have been or will be most affected by job losses.

Many colleges have moved to eliminate certain sports programs, like swimming and tennis. Other universities and colleges have cut traditional liberal-arts programs such as language studies and sociology.

Furloughs, layoffs, and contract nonrenewals continue to make the careers of adjuncts and contingent faculty members as perilous as ever. Even the job stability associated with tenure-track and tenured faculty members has been threatened as some institutions, like the University of Akron, invoke clauses within faculty contracts that supersede those protections.

While the industry in the coming months and years may recover the number of jobs it has lost, some of the types of jobs that have vanished are unlikely to return.

Higher education’s historic shedding of employees this year has mirrored historic losses on the national-level and across nearly all industries. An analysis by The Washington Post suggests this pandemic-inspired economic crisis may be the most unequal in modern history. The Post’s analysis of a monthly survey of 60,000 households also found job losses brought on by the pandemic “overwhelmingly affected low-wage, minority workers most.”

“Black women, Black men, and mothers of school-age children are taking the longest time to regain their employment,” The Post concluded.

Furthermore, none of these sources of information will be able to fully articulate the many employees who lost their jobs because of the scaled-back operations of third-party companies, which are traditionally contracted by universities and colleges to, for instance, prepare food and clean facilities for a fully operational campus.

About Our Analysis

The Chronicle’s analysis relies on Current Employment Statistics program data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. All estimates are derived from seasonal adjustment calculations.

Analysis of the period spanning from February 2020 to present day is derived from a broad suite of data series. The same is true of the period spanning from January 2000 to present day. These data series include:

For workers employed at private institutions of higher education (for-profit and not-for-profit): (1) private-industry colleges and universities [NAICS: 6113]; (2) private-industry junior colleges [NAICS: 6112]; (3) private-industry business, computer, and management training [NAICS: 6114]; (4) Private-industry technical and trade schools [NAICS: 6115]; (5) private-industry fine arts schools [NAICS: 611610].

For workers employed at state-controlled, public institutions of higher education: (1) state government, education.

While it lacks the relative specificity of subsector classes associated with private industry, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “state government, education” primarily consists of employment in publicly owned postsecondary schools (colleges and universities). Alternatively, the subsector class known as “local government, education” primarily consists of employment in publicly owned preschools, elementary, and secondary schools. For that reason, estimates associated with “local government, education” can not be used to identify employment trends at public institutions of higher education which are controlled by jurisdictions such as counties or municipalities.

Analysis of the period spanning from January 1958 to present day is derived from a narrow suite of data series. Private institutions of higher education (for-profit and not-for-profit) are derived from the series associated with (1) private-industry colleges and universities [NAICS: 6113]. State-controlled, public institutions of higher education are derived from the series associated with (1) state government, education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics did not begin to release work-force estimates for the additional types of private institutions of higher education (for-profit and not-for-profit) until 1990.

Work-force estimates associated with August 2020 and September 2020 are preliminary in nature. The Bureau of Labor Statistics may update those estimates in the coming months.

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