• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Housing, Part II

When faculty members can't afford to live near a college.


May 21, 2017


Last week I did a post, inspired by Richard Florida’s work, detailing why property taxes tend to be the most loathed, and therefore politically vulnerable, form of tax.  Continuing on the theme of housing, this one is a response to the Chronicle piece about faculty not being able to afford to live in some expensive areas.  

In Monmouth County, I see it. Northern New Jersey isn’t Manhattan, but it isn’t Kansas, either. It’s one of the most expensive areas of the country. Combine an overall high cost with extreme income polarization, and folks on the lower end of the salary scale face some difficult choices. Getting a full-time faculty job is hard enough, at least in the liberal arts. To actually get one and then discover that you can’t afford to live in the area just adds insult to injury.

I’ve seen the mismatch between local housing prices and academic salaries before. When I worked in Morris County, many faculty and staff managed the pay/cost mismatch by living in Pennsylvania. Eventually the state passed an in-state residency requirement to stop that, though it didn’t increase salaries accordingly.  It effectively mandated a lower standard of living, though, of course, it grandfathered those already in the system. In Massachusetts the union contracts were statewide.  Boston-area faculty supported a higher teaching load to support a higher salary; in the western part of the state, where I was, faculty never stopped complaining about “the fifth course.”  (By the time I left, the “fifth course” was fourteen years old, yet I still heard about it every single week.) I’d bet that the key variable was the difference in housing cost between Boston and Springfield.  

Part of the issue with housing costs is that they’re most salient relatively early in a career, when salaries tend to be lower. For academics, the family-formation years are usually the thirties.  If you’re trying to find a place in a school district you’d feel good about sending your own children, and you’re making an assistant professor salary, you’re probably going to struggle. The ones who make it work typically have partners who make far more than they do.  If you buy a house in your early thirties, then get tenure and stay, the monthly payment gets progressively smaller for a long time as a percentage of income. That’s what thirty years of raises in pay, combined with a flat monthly total of principal and interest, will do. But if you’re starting out now, buying those homes from the generation that bought them cheap is a different matter. That’s especially true if you’re also carrying substantial student loan debt.

In this, as in so many economic issues, the key divide is between people with school-age kids (or nearly school-age) and everyone else. If you can afford to be indifferent to school districts, your options open up. If you can’t, it’s tough and getting tougher. 

Some universities handle the mismatch by supplying some faculty housing. I’ve never heard of a community college doing that; most don’t even house students, let alone faculty.  In low-cost areas, that’s probably fine; extra supply would be redundant. In high-cost areas, though, I’ve seen the recruitment and retention challenge posed by salaries that don’t align with what it costs to live there.  

Conceptually, the answer is easy: just pay people more. But that raises some obvious issues of its own. Most basically, where does the money come from? When state and county appropriations are flat, and health insurance rates are climbing quickly, there’s no easy and politically palatable way to do that.

In practice, I’ve seen people adopt several different strategies. One is to teach lots of overload classes for extra pay. That’s straightforward enough, though it raises the real possibility of burnout. (It also makes the college vulnerable if someone gets sick. Replacing someone teaching five classes is hard enough; replacing someone teaching seven is that much harder.) Some have side businesses, though that tends to vary by discipline. Some marry well. And some leave for other places or lines of work after a few years.  

It’s not an easy one to solve. I’ll admit not being a fan of coercive measures, like residency requirements; in practice, they tend to double down on intergenerational imbalance. If school districts everywhere were terrific, that would certainly help, but it would probably require political changes far beyond what a college can do.  Help with down payments or low-interest loans would be something, but they both strike me as falling well short of the magnitude of the problem.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better way? Given the geographic spread of community colleges, some of them will be in expensive places.  Is there a better way to handle that?

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Matt Reed

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