Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Academic Salaries and House Prices

At my current school, we’ve had multiple searches recently go South when finalists withdrew their applications. If it happens once, you shrug it off, because it could be anything. When it happens over and over again, you start to wonder.

I honestly don’t think it’s the college. As community colleges go, this is a damn good one – generally well-run, beautiful campus, pretty area, etc. While the culture can be a bit staid, it’s really a great place to work, and most of the people are both sane and friendly. (Exceptions exist, obviously, but we try not to put them on the search committees.)

The culprit, I think, is the runup in house prices. Prices here have doubled or more in the last five years, while salaries have crept up 3-4% annually. The house-buying-power of a salary here has plummeted precipitously. With the annual increase in houses running at 15% or so, it doesn’t take long for academics to be priced out of the market.

Yesterday I ran into someone at lunch who works in one of the campus offices. She has one of those 35-40k office jobs that form the backbone of the economy. She and her husband, who has a similar job elsewhere, still live with her parents, because they can’t afford a place of their own within a reasonable commute. They’re college grads with full-time jobs and without children, and they live with her parents. They can’t even save, really, since the runup in prices is faster than their savings accumulates. They’re starting to look at jobs in flyover country, just so they can live like adults. She doesn't want to leave the area, since she has so much family here, but she doesn't really see a choice.

I’ve noticed that many of the more recent hires here (myself included) live out of county, tolerating longer-than-normal commutes, because we can’t afford to live closer. We're economic expats. The surrounding counties are also quite pricey and climbing fast, though, so if you didn’t buy at least three years ago, you’re SOL.

By our local affordable housing guidelines, a new tenure-track instructor with relatively little experience would be eligible for subsidized housing. Stay in school, kids!

What’s frustrating about it, besides the obvious, is that the longtime faculty here talk about the runup in house prices as an unalloyed Good Thing. They bought back in the 1970’s, so their mortgages are paid at this point, and the runup represents pure, painless gain for them. They haven’t connected the dots: higher house prices means fewer community college students. Our demographic is moving farther and farther away. And we’re having trouble hiring people, even in this employer’s market, because what we pay just doesn’t match what it costs now to live here.

I don’t have a clue how to solve this one. It would be lovely if our salaries kept pace with the housing market, but 15% annual raises are about as likely in this political climate as pigs growing wings.

Weirdly, this hasn’t affected our ability to attract adjuncts. As near as I can tell, this is because adjuncts are either married to wealthy people (we have an astonishing number of those), or willing to live like church mice. Some bought back in the 1970’s or 1980’s, so they’re pretty much immune.

Presidents sometimes get housing allowances, but I don’t see that happening for faculty, staff, or administration lower than President. The cost would be prohibitive, and the precedent would prove toxic over time. We’re not about to build faculty housing – we don’t even have student dorms – so I really don’t know what to do about this.

Any ideas out there?