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Shifting Priorities: Black Women and Higher Education Career Decisions

On the heels of the great resignation, some postulate that more Black women now have additional motivations to seek emancipation from their roles due to a decreased debt burden. The Biden administration announced plans to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loans. With women holding two-thirds of America’s $1.7 trillion student debt, the erasure of up to $20,000 may shift the career-making decisions of many, especially Black women in higher education. But an important question to consider is, how?

As a Black woman with a life-long career in higher education, I understand the precarity of career decisions. Navigating through the labyrinth of career advancement as a Black woman with student debt compelled me to make some intentional turns early in my career that I may not have made had I not faced the heavy load of student loan debt. Although I am pleased with my career advancement and trajectory, my peers and I acknowledge the influence student debt has on our career decisions. Not novel or unique, this shared experience has informed researchers and practitioners to explore Black women's career advancement.Monica Majors GuientMonica Majors Guient

One of the top reasons Black women give for their career choice is their desire to make a change and serve others. Outside of altruistic reasons, the need to earn enough to financially support themselves and their families while balancing their personal and professional responsibilities is a critical factor influencing career decisions and the pursuit of career advancement. Therefore, many Black women pursue roles that will allow for public service loan forgiveness (e.g., jobs in higher education) while earning enough income to maintain their financial obligations.

However, within higher education, Black women are disproportionately represented in instructional faculty roles and experience pay inequity. Black women are also often in lower-level, service-oriented staff positions instead of leadership positions. Many women work in student affairs and managerial roles. Yet Black women might stay in these roles due to their entanglement with student loans. This contributes to many Black women deciding to accept toxic or chilly workplaces and only dreaming of exploring other opportunities. According to a new Ed Trust report, many Black borrowers' mental health suffers due to the stress of bearing a hefty student debt burden. In response to student debt and efforts to decrease the mental burden, Black women consistently "hustle" and work hard, pursuing opportunities to increase cash flow and meet their financial obligations with less regard for their career desires.

With the student loan relief announcement, the factors influencing Black women's career decisions and advancement may shift in priority, leading to visible outcomes in recruiting, retaining, and advancing Black women within higher education careers. Loan forgiveness may lower the hurdles to realizing a career that allows for autonomy, entrepreneurial creativity, lifestyle, and financial security/stability in ways previously unexperienced by many. To recruit and retain Black women, intentional efforts to support their desired careers must shift. Black women are reflecting on what they really want and are betting on themselves to go and get it with a slightly lighter burden to drag along.

This is not to say that a mass exodus of Black women will leave the public sector or higher education. Still, it may mean that the heuristics used by human resources and academic leaders when recruiting or developing Black women higher education professionals and faculty are no longer valid. They must shift to understand that the strong Black woman no longer must endure; some of us have given ourselves permission the thrive.

With several Black women concentrated in the lower ranks of higher education positions, many may now pursue professional development to make a career shift and advance their careers while attending to their other passions. An institution consistently seeking to support and maintain a diverse and representative workforce may consider providing and broadcasting professional development opportunities that may appeal to the shifting career priorities of Black women. More holistically and in alignment with supporting a diverse workforce, more will have to be done to mitigate the harms and change the culture to one that appreciates diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce.

Higher education institutions must recognize the unique challenges to Black women’s career advancement. Optimally, a diverse team would coordinate to create professional development programming. Invite and compensate Black women and other minoritized group members to develop offerings that support the needs and address the challenges common within the institution. Provide funding to support conference attendance and grant writing training. Coordinate formalized and institutionalized programs that support gaining a network of mentors, coaches, and sponsors to support Black women. A concerted effort to develop, broadcast, and fund professional development should yield benefits for the institution as Black women continue to excel and consider their next career decision.

Monica Guient is assistant vice president for diversity, inclusion and opportunity at the Louisiana State University AgCenter and College of Agriculture. 

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