What’s Causing Teacher Attrition in Higher Education?

March 7, 2023

The education system has long been marred with funding cuts, teacher shortages, and high teacher attrition. Although teacher education programs in post-secondary institutions and other teacher preparation programs have reported declining enrollment numbers for years, the drop in teacher retention has been exacerbated in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities within the education system, and rising political tension. Thus, teacher retention rates remain at an all-time low. 

Problems within the teaching profession can also be directly related to the Great Resignation, a term coined by Anthony Klotz to describe the ongoing mass exodus of workers from their fields following the COVID-19 pandemic. Both K-12 and higher education have been greatly impacted by this phenomenon.

How has the Great Resignation impacted education? 

The declining number of teachers was an issue well before the Great Resignation began. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 school years, the number of students pursuing a teacher education program declined by a third. Meanwhile, teachers were leaving the field at rapid rates without new teachers to replace them, teacher satisfaction was low, and low teacher salary was an issue in many states. Shortages exist among all teaching specializations. For example, special education is the second most popular teaching specialization, yet special education teachers remain in shortage, and special education teacher vacancy remains an issue.

The pandemic only exacerbated these issues, forcing many teachers into a state of burnout as they navigated fast-paced changes to their field and a shift to online learning. According to the National Education Association, the average beginning teacher salary is just over $41,000 a year with little potential for growth. Low pay is a commonly cited reason for leaving education. 

One area which requires improvement in teacher education is an improved teacher pipeline and transition into the field. Recruitment and retention in teacher preparation programs need to be prioritized, and teacher recruitment post-graduation needs to improve to provide prospective teachers with good student teaching opportunities and a steady path to a career. Furthermore, financial burdens are an issue for many students, indicating that the field of education is in need of funding, scholarships, and higher salaries. 

Diversity is also a major issue in education, causing many teachers in underrepresented groups to leave the teacher workforce. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 80 percent of teachers are white while less than half of public school students are. 

Why were higher education teachers considered to be “safer”?

While much of the discourse surrounding teacher attrition has focused on K-12 education, high attrition rates in higher education have not received nearly as much attention. Many misconceptions about teaching higher education exist, preventing college teacher attrition and other issues within the higher education system from receiving equal awareness. Some of these misconceptions include that teaching in higher education institutions is more prestigious, comes with higher pay, and was not as impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These assertions are not entirely accurate. 

In reality, teachers leaving higher education cite many issues, from lack of administrative support to sexual harassment. The field of higher education provides little job security, with a long road to tenure, and now there are several states attempting to pass laws that would cancel tenure entirely. Rigid teacher evaluation policies and dangerous state and federal education policies, as well as a high expectation of unpaid labor also prevent higher education teachers from thriving.

Overall, higher education teachers face many of the same roadblocks as teachers in elementary and high schools and across many school districts. 

What is causing teacher attrition in higher education?

As higher education teachers have become more open about their decision to leave the education field and some research, though mostly informal, has come together, it is possible to spot patterns as to why teacher retention rates are so low. Many of these reasons mirror why K-12 teachers have a high turnover rate as well. 

Burnout 

Burnout is one of the most commonly cited reasons for high turnover. The workload in academia is high while the salary can be low depending on the institution and subject of expertise. Higher education teachers also tend to teach more students, sometimes well over 1,000. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic also affected higher education, causing teachers to have to adapt to online learning, update their curriculum, change their class format and teaching style, and manage the emotions that came with the uncertainty of the pandemic. 

Lack of support for student needs

Many teachers leaving the field cite an inability to meet student needs due to resistance from school leaders and administration. Lack of funds is already an issue, but poor leadership and lack of transparency surrounding funding worsen teacher morale throughout the school year. 

Political divide 

In many states, laws have been introduced that have placed significant stress on the education system for several reasons. Political tension surrounding topics such as critical race theory, LGBTQIA+ issues, gender identity and expression, and more has placed undue scrutiny on teachers, creating significant pressure and interfering with their ability to safely teach the curriculum. 

Several states, including Florida, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have banned the teaching of critical race theory outright, with many other states introducing potential legislation to do the same. In Florida, the passage of the “Stop WOKE Act” allows educational institutions to be met with large financial penalties for violations. For teachers whose subject matter deals with issues interwoven with topics of race and other taboo issues under attack by lawmakers, laws like these are a significant impediment to their ability to teach effectively and accurately.

Laws directly aimed at the classroom are not the only laws driving higher education teachers out of the field. Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and South Carolina are among the states that have introduced bills that would cancel tenure opportunities for professors. If passed, these laws would decimate opportunities benefits, higher salaries, and job security for professors and would put tenured professors at risk of termination with little to no due process. 

Toxic work environment 

Another common complaint among teachers leaving education is toxic work culture, including sexual harassment, bullying, abuse from authority figures, racism and implicit bias, pressure to work unpaid hours, and more. 

One common issue is that teachers cite difficulties with getting the school administration to pay any heed to problems within the school. Complaints of harassment, funding issues, and other difficulties teachers face are not dealt with appropriately or with honesty. Teachers are distrustful of school leaders and feel unsupported in striving for student achievement. 

Lack of diversity 

A 2019 study showed that underrepresented faculty in higher education institutions play a disproportionate role in advancing equity and inclusion. This causes undue stress on underrepresented faculty members, who tend to be women as well as Black teachers and other people of color, and can lead to burnout. It also furthers a toxic work environment in which marginalized educators must shoulder a heavier burden than their non-marginalized counterparts. 

Other barriers, such as financial barriers to education and lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in school, cause underrepresented teachers to leave the field or prevent them from entering in the first place. 

Low pay

Finally, the rate of pay for professors has decreased dramatically. Wages for full-time faculty members fell five percent this year, accounting for inflation, making for the biggest salary drop in a one-year period since the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began tracking this statistic in 1972. 

What can institutions do to combat teacher attrition?

  • Cultivate a collaborative work environment: Many teachers struggle with feelings of isolation. Research shows that fostering a collaborative environment significantly improves teachers’ mental health and job performance.
  • Empower teachers:  A Harvard study found that teachers who doubted their ability to teach effectively were more likely to leave. This can be prevented by schools providing support to teachers.
  • Provide support: Providing administrative and moral support makes a huge difference. This can be implemented through one-on-one meetings, collaborative activities, and professional development opportunities. 
  • Improve working conditions: Teachers thrive in a supportive culture. Work towards creating a trusting, safe environment.
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