July 15, 2024

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The Pay’s Not Always Great, but Academe Has Its Benefits

By Ben Gose (The Chronicle)

During the eight years Jessica Erb has worked at Southern New Hampshire University, her employer has offered up a feast of benefits that is probably every bit as valuable as her salary.

After starting as an administrative assistant at the university’s Nashua satellite center, Ms. Erb has earned a bachelor’s degree and pursued a long-held dream to play the piano, all on the university’s dime. The biggest benefit, free tuition to private colleges for her two sons, may be yet to come.

“I think I value the benefits more than the wages,” says Ms. Erb, who parlayed her four-year degree into a job as assistant director of admission. “The university has provided me with every opportunity to be where I am today.”

Few people work at a college looking to strike it rich. Salaries in higher education are often lower than in the private sector, and decisions on compensation are sometimes formulaic, with many institutions relying heavily on surveys conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and other groups. Many public institutions, meanwhile, are constrained by state formulas—and when state finances are bleak, as they are now, what seems like modest pay at the outset can flatten out for long periods.

John A. Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College, in Virginia, says his employees have had “no meaningful raises” in four years. Still, employees who responded to The Chronicle’s fifth annual Great Colleges to Work For survey gave Blue Ridge high marks in the category of compensation and benefits. Experts say higher education has many selling points that make it an attractive place to work—including the generous benefits that have meant so much to Ms. Erb and greater job stability than the private sector offers.

“If you need heavy-duty cash flow from week to week, higher education is not the place to go,” says Christine Sportes, associate vice president and chief human-resources officer at the Catholic University of America. “However, if you look at the big picture, it’s a pretty good place to be.”

Catholic, for example, had no layoffs or furloughs amid the recession of 2008 and 2009. “The only thing we did was to not award merit increases for one year,” Ms. Sportes says.

Some benefits offered by colleges are getting even better as leaders realize that what is good for employees can also be good for the institution. After the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, N.Y., became concerned about the deterioration of neighborhoods surrounding the campus, the university began offering financial incentives to employees who purchased houses in the area. The current benefit is a $7,500 grant toward the purchase of a house, and the grant doesn’t have to be repaid as long as the employee remains at the university for five years.

“The biggest issue for us was neighborhood stabilization,” says Marcus Buckley, vice president for finance at Saint Rose, which also ranked high in the Chronicle survey’s compensation category. “But there were other positive effects, too, like the fact that people who live in the area are much more likely to walk to work.”

The health benefits of having more employees walk to work directly affect Saint Rose’s bottom line, since the college self-insures its employees. Like many other colleges, including Southern New Hampshire, Saint Rose is bolstering wellness benefits for employees as it finds that program costs are offset by reduced health-care costs. In January the college did not raise the premiums it charges employees for either of its two health plans, for the first time in four years. “People were amazed,” Mr. Buckley says.

Many colleges pay tuition costs for employees seeking new or advanced degrees, but such policies are coming under scrutiny in the tough economy. Mr. Downey, the Blue Ridge president, says he is one of three recent vice presidents on the campus who now head community colleges in Virginia. All three earned doctoral degrees while working full time at Blue Ridge, in part thanks to the college’s policy of paying for six credits of coursework per semester, Mr. Downey says.

Some people worry that colleges may simply be grooming their employees for departure. “That does happen, but it’s not a bad thing—it’s helping the state system,” Mr. Downey says. “And the payoff on the people who do stay is worth far more than worrying about the people who leave.”

For employees, the most worrisome trend should be that a growing number of colleges now offer retirement plans that feature defined contributions, like 401(k)’s or 403(b)’s, rather than plans with a guaranteed payout, such as pensions, says Valerie Martin Conley, an associate professor at Ohio University who heads its Center for Higher Education. While that trend mirrors what’s happening in the corporate world, Ms. Conley says it puts the onus on new college employees to make sure they’re adequately saving for retirement.

“Historically, people have said, ‘If you go into higher education, you may not make as much salary, but you’ll get better benefits,'” Ms. Conley says. “If you start seeing erosion of those benefits, what’s left?”

Yet Ms. Erb’s experience demonstrates that many benefits remain robust. Shortly after she was hired at Southern New Hampshire, she began taking night and online classes at the university, and thanks to its reimbursement policy, she ultimately paid no tuition for her bachelor’s degree.

In 2008 the university established the Mini-Grant Program, which allows hourly employees to apply for funds to pursue a passion. Awardees have used the grants to learn how to ski, attend a crochet conference, and become a certified soccer coach. Ms. Erb won a $1,500 grant that paid for a used keyboard and a year of piano lessons. In the spring of 2009, she performed Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” at a public event held to celebrate the grant program.

Each year, meanwhile, the university deposits the equivalent of 9 percent of her salary into a retirement fund. But for Ms. Erb and her family, the best benefit may be yet to come: The oldest son will be a high-school freshman this fall, and the second child is just two years behind. If the boys choose to go to Southern New Hampshire or one of more than 400 private colleges that participate in a tuition-exchange program for employees, the family may end up paying no tuition at all. “It’s huge,” Ms. Erb says. “To be able to save your kids almost $100,000 in debt—I can’t think of a better benefit.”

Southern New Hampshire has also modified its merit-pay policy to better reward truly outstanding performers. In the past, says Pamela Hogan, the university’s vice president for human resources, more than half of all professional, nonfaculty employees received small merit raises each year. Now the university is awarding much larger annual bonuses—averaging about $5,000—but only for the 10 percent of the professional staff that does the best job at setting and meeting measurable goals.

Such narrowly focused bonuses remain rare in higher education. Officials at both the College of Saint Rose and Blue Ridge Community College, for example, say they fear such large bonuses could add to concerns about equity, between men’s and women’s pay, for example.

But others, including Ms. Sportes of Catholic, are more open to the idea. “We’re going to look at what we can do to more appropriately reward the higher performers,” she says.

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