Why Some College Professors Struggle To Get Home Loans

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Barbara Need has to secure a bank loan before she can buy her dream house.

Unpredictability is one of the defining characteristics of life as an adjunct professor. Adjuncts’ income can change dramatically from one year to the next, or from one semester to the next. That makes it hard to plan long-term and make big financial decisions, like the one on Barbara Need’s mind.

Need is tired of sending big rent checks to her landlord every month. She wants to put that money into a house of her own. She’s ready to buy, and she has the place all picked out. It’s a one-story, white house on a quiet street in Cortland.

“There’s the two-car garage, which as far as I’m concerned is going to be storage, a breezeway, a family room with a fireplace,” Need says, standing on the sidewalk outside.

Before she can buy it and fill up that storage space, though, Need has to get a loan. It’s a big hurdle; two banks have already turned her down. That’s because Need works part-time as an adjunct professor. She teaches at Tompkins Cortland Community College and online for a school in Chicago. She makes a living, but her pay varies a lot from one semester to the next. It depends on how many classes – if any – she gets hired to teach. That doesn’t look good to a bank.

“It’s the ebb and flow of it,” she says, “And the fact that, no, I’m not guaranteed classes in the fall.”

It’s a common problem, according to Delia Yarrow, who counsels first-time buyers at Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Yarrow works with a lot of adjuncts. She says banks want stability.

“How steady is that income, have you been working at one place for awhile, is that institution willing to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to keep employing this person as an adjunct,’” she explains.

Yarrow says it’s only gotten harder since the recent foreclosure crisis. Risky bank loans triggered the crisis, and to keep it from happening again the government passed the Dodd-Frank Act. It gives banks strict prerequisites for giving out a loan. For people on the edge, like adjuncts, “Where our local lenders might have been willing to take a chance on them, now their hands are tied,” Yarrow says.

One of the biggest black marks on Barbara Need’s record is the start of 2014. Without warning, she was only assigned one class at Tompkins Cortland for the spring semester. Her income took a big hit. The drop has been hard to justify to banks.

A few counties over, SUNY Oneonta is employing adjuncts in a way that might help a little. They’re converting some part-time adjunct jobs to full-time, with yearly contracts. They’ve added 15 of these full-time jobs since 2010. These professors are still only hired for a year at a time, but they’re guaranteed work throughout that school year – no surprise drops in income.

For the college, it’s a compromise between budget constraints and quality. Nancy Klenewski is SUNY Oneonta’s president. She says the plan has improved the student experience.

“Students doing research with faculty members is increasing dramatically, and the number of students doing internships where they have to have a faculty supervisor has also been increasing,” she says.

It still might not be enough for the professors, though. There’s a lot of instability in any kind of adjunct work. If enrollment changes at the college, those full-time contracts might not get renewed.

No college these days seems to be adding permanent jobs. Across SUNY’s four-year schools, the percent of professors who are tenure-track declined for more than a decade up until 2013. In the two years since, it’s been nearly flat.

Barbara Need in Ithaca would love to get one of those scarce permanent jobs. It would sure make the housing hunt easier. For now, though, she’s trying to stay optimistic about a call from the bank.

“There are days when I’m feeling absolutely positive that this is going to work out, and there are days when I think, ‘Yeah, no,’” she says.

Just like her next adjunct paycheck, it’s hard to predict. Late last week, though, Barbara Need did finally get approval for a mortgage.

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