Pay is No. 1: The 8 factors that might help colleges retain employees

Notre Dame is one of many universities offering increases to workers, but are they enough to offset inflation?
By: | July 22, 2022
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Calling it “the right thing to do” for its employees, the University of Notre Dame announced it is giving raises to 6,000 staff, faculty and students that includes a boost to its minimum wage of $17.50 per hour for most workers.

Part of a $75 million, three-phased approach to increase compensation, Notre Dame’s latest round includes $25 million that it says is in appreciation for the commitments employees have made over the past two exhausting, pandemic-plagued years.

“The work of Notre Dame is done by you, the dedicated faculty and staff I am proud to call colleagues,” President Rev. John Jenkins told the community. “We are grateful for your daily efforts to serve our students, our community and the world, and I am delighted that we are able to make this momentous investment in you.”

That investment is necessary, however, because of two other factors: Inflation has soared to its highest point in four decades, according to data from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, impacting the spending power of workers. And labor shortages are affecting even the most prestigious institutions of higher education. Job openings remain at more than 11 million nationwide, as businesses including colleges and universities struggle to retain employees. A new Employee Survey report from CUPA-HR shows that 57% of those working in higher education are considering leaving, and it’s because they want better wages.


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“Purpose matters, but pay matters more,” Kevin Kruger, CEO of NASPA said during NASFAA’s recent national conference. “We believe [student affairs] work is so valuable. That’s less important for younger employees. Millennials and Gen X are looking for pay.”

At Notre Dame, the raises amount to around 3%, but workers also have received merit bonuses in what the university said has been the largest recurring compensation in its 180 years. Public universities are doing their best with the funds they’re getting to keep up with inflation by announcing raises, too, although some are hiking tuition and fees to do it. Notre Dame is not. However, even the 1.5% to 3% proposed increases across states such as Minnesota, Pennsylvania and North Carolina will do little to help workers offset rising costs. According to a report from advisory firm WTW, those raises will not meet the national average expected from employers this year of +4.1%. The University of California, for example, is poised to meet that target with a proposed 4% to 4.5% for its employees for 2022-23.

“Compounding economic conditions and new ways of working are leading organizations to continually reassess their salary budgets to remain competitive,” said Hatti Johansson, research director of Rewards Data Intelligence at WTW. “With such a dynamic environment, it’s imperative for organizations not only to have a clear compensation strategy but also a keen understanding and appreciation of the factors that influence compensation growth. If an organization is planning to increase budgets, it’s best to be prepared as to how to award and communicate pay changes as quickly and effectively as possible.”

WTW says nearly 95% of all businesses across the U.S. admit they are struggling to attract new talent, and nearly the same amount have said retaining workers has been challenging. However, forecasts could be better in 2023, and so any incentives, including boosts to the minimum wage, as Notre Dame has done, might be one way to limit workers from leaving. So what are higher education employees really looking for? The latest CUPA-HR story offers some insight:

  • 76% want pay or salary increases
  • 43% want more remote work
  • 32% want more flexible schedule
  • 30% want more responsibilities or a promotion
  • 19% want a new challenge
  • 14% want the chance to work with other employees
  • 11% want the chance to relocate
  • 7% want better benefits

“Higher ed institutions are not providing the remote work opportunities that employees want,” survey researchers at CUPA-HR say. “Nearly three-fourths (71%) of employees report that most of their duties can be performed remotely. Higher ed employees are working longer and harder than ever. Two-thirds (67%) of full-time staff typically work more hours each week than what is considered full-time. Nearly two-thirds (63%) have taken on additional responsibilities of other staff who have recently left.”