What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. today? Possible answers might be rising inequality, persistent poverty, inflation or crime. Perhaps you might answer political polarization. Anyone who reads Bryan Alexander’s extraordinary book Universities on Fire might nominate climate change.
While most of us would undoubtedly include those issues on any list of American challenges, the economic problem that most likely impacts most of us is the interrelated crises in staffing and housing. We are living through a worker and housing shortage with no precedent.
A major reason why hospitals can’t find enough nurses and preschools enough teachers is that these professionals can’t find housing that they can afford. While high interest rates are not helping, the underlying cause of the housing crisis is that the U.S. is short 6.5 million homes.
The causes of labor shortages are complex, but the result is that every industry seems to be navigating chronic understaffing. Where I live, this plays out in restaurants going out of business because they can’t find enough people to do the work and parents not being able to go back to work because they can’t find childcare.
Where does higher education fit into the crises of understaffing and housing shortages? What might we see if we looked at chronic labor shortages and a housing demand/supply mismatch through a higher ed lens?
While these challenges don’t show up in season one of Lucky Hank, a close observer of university life would notice:
- Staffing levels across university organizations, from the library to the IT group, are likely down as positions are not filled (or very slowly filled) when people leave.
- While the work of teaching and administration has expanded with the coming of the 24-7 university and the growth of online learning, the number of people who do that work has not grown commensurately.
- Recruiting the most talented faculty and staff to fill roles has become more complicated, as people are reluctant to move close to your campus because finding an affordable house to buy or rent is so difficult.
- The competition to recruit qualified master’s students has intensified (especially in online programs), as the combination of low unemployment and high inflation (including high housing costs) has lowered incentives and increased barriers for prospective students to pay tuition.
- While I’ve not seen any data, I wonder what the housing crisis means for student persistence. When off-campus housing is not affordable, then staying a student might not be possible.
Universities depend on large numbers of employees to show up on campus every day and night to make these places run. What happens when the people serving the food, cleaning the buildings, staffing the libraries, maintaining the grounds, teaching the courses, administering the programs and taking care of the students can’t afford to buy or rent a place to live anywhere close to the campus? Who will do those jobs?
Higher ed’s invisible understaffing epidemic is deeply intertwined with a growing housing crisis. Universities will likely need to get in the business of building (or at least backing) affordable workforce housing.
The demographic and public funding trends conspiring against the economic resiliency of colleges and universities are unlikely to reverse. Most universities are finding themselves in a precarious financial position. The permanent scarcity that defines higher education economics will manifest in chronic campus understaffing. Those who are determined or lucky enough to land university jobs must increasingly choose between suboptimal housing and epic commutes to campus.
How are labor and housing shortages playing out at your institution?