Charter Universities: More for Less or More of the Same?

Guest blogger Gary Rhoades is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, for which he served as director from 1997-2008.  Recently, he served as general secretary of the AAUP.  Rhoades’ scholarship focuses on the restructuring of higher education institutions and of professions in the academy, evidenced in his books, “Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor” (SUNY 1998), and “Academic Capitalism and the New Economy” (with Sheila Slaughter, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

Charter Universities:
More for Less or More of the Same?

Some variation of  “charter universities” has been implemented in public policy in several states (and is being considered in others, such as Ohio) as an innovation that enables institutions to be more productive with less public money.  The attraction of the charter concept to many policymakers and university presidents lies in its promise of more entrepreneurial opportunity and less governmental regulation.  A prominent feature of most charter policies is that in exchange for less state appropriations universities get less state regulation over certain budgetary (e.g., construction projects) and personnel (employment rights) matters, and tuition is deregulated, with universities getting greater flexibility to differentiate and raise tuition.  Not so prominently featured is the greater regulation of academic matters, in stipulations to meet performance measures in various student outcomes.  Charter policies seem to offer a new path for what many see as the new normal of limited or less public funding for higher education.  It is said to solve the challenge of how to provide more students with more effective, high quality education for less public money.

Yet the evidence indicates otherwise: charter universities are more of the same.  Moreover, they not only offer little promise of resolving the key social, educational, and political challenges of the day, they actually exacerbate the problems we face.

One key shortcoming of the concept is that it is applied to only the four-year part of public higher education, cutting out much of the system that serves many and in some states most of the college student population.  Indeed, the policy generally applies only to a select few of the universities, which already have become less dependent on state appropriations and less devoted to the needs of the state they were created to serve.
Charters lead elite public universities to continue to increase tuition far above cost of living indexes even as institutions decrease access for in-state students of modest means and less.  Charters incentivize universities to charge students more.  That is leading more students who previously would have started at a university to go to a community college.  And that, in turn, is reducing access for first generation students, students of color, and immigrant students—the growth populations of the 18-24 year old population—as community colleges cap enrollments, turning students away because they lack the human capacity to serve them.  Charters exacerbate the social problems of heightened tuition and reduced access, rationing higher education by money not just by ability.  They continue a thirty-year pattern of academic capitalism in which flagship universities, in pursuing more revenues, have become engines of social inequality.

Charters also compromise public higher education’s ability to increase quality and effectiveness.  By incentivizing efficiency in producing more students for less money, they encourage universities to continue down the path of increasing class size (and student faculty ratios), reducing the proportion of tenure-track faculty, and increasingly exploiting contingent faculty who are subjected to sub-par working conditions, leading to sub-par learning conditions.  The overriding emphasis on narrow conceptions of productivity encourages universities to demand less of students.  It also encourages them to pursue the easiest path to increased graduation rates (which rather than student learning, satisfaction, or success after graduation, becomes the sole measure of “effectiveness”), to chase those students most likely to succeed and run away from the growth population of students.  Ironically, universities spend increasingly less, on balance, on educational personnel, programs, and activities, investing more in leisure facilities and activities to attract those upper middle class students who are most likely to succeed and least likely to require financial aid.

Finally, the public policy of charter universities fails to focus universities on serving the state, its students, its communities, its small and medium sized businesses, its social and technological challenges, and its future vitality.  Charters isolate institutions from one another, pitting them against each other in pursuit of revenues, prestige, and “world class” status.  This individualistic focus comes at the expense of institutional cooperation and coordination in the broader interests of addressing states’ structural challenges, for instance, in laying the foundation for a new economy.  Charters reflect a failure of political vision and will to undertake the major collective project of investing in the state’s future.

In sum, charter universities do not offer a new path to do more with less.  They are more of the same.  They fail to redress the basic challenges in public higher education—limiting tuition to ensure access, increasing quality and effectiveness, and holding institutions accountable for better serving the public interest.  Charters offer a continued path of heightened tuition and social stratification: charging students more for less access to smaller proportions of professors and student service professionals.  They encourage institutions to continue to pursue efficiency measures that compromise quality.  And in focusing on universities that have been reducing their commitment to the public interest, and in formally releasing them from obligations to the communities in which they are situated, the charter concept fails to provide systemic strategies for laying the foundations for the future.  Finally, charters offer universities more regulation of academic matters for less public money and less regulation of financial and personnel matters.  Charters chart the wrong course for all concerned.

By Gary Rhoades

6 Comments on “Charter Universities: More for Less or More of the Same?”

  1. apscuf says:

    Great commentary Gary, and thank you Teri for hosting this forum for discussion! APSCUF has shared this blog post on our Facebook page, I know our members will enjoy your insights, as it’s only a matter of time before the charter university idea makes its way to Pennsylvania. Sharing this sort of information is why the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education is so important!

    Thanks again!

    — Kirstin

  2. Interesting comment, but it misses the main point. There is not a cause and effect relationship between “charter univerisities,” leading to higher price and loss of public support. The loss of public support is the cause, not the other way around. The problem is the broken public system of financing public colleges, built only during the past 50-60 years. The states that educate the vast number of undergraduates are bankrupt (e.g. CA,OH,IL,MI,NY,NJ PA), or nearly so. States will not fund the enterprise as in the past. See reports for SHEEO, NCHEMS, NASBO and others. See also Greer and Klein ” A New Model for Financing Public Colleges and Universities,” in On the Horizon, 2010. NJ is a prime example where public colleges were never well supported, and are now down to about 20-25% of total spending from the state. Yet, with more autonomy won systematically over 25 years, they out perform many peers and are extremely diverse, and still dedicated to public serve. They are highly priced, and do have high debt, as a result of state disinvestment since about 1991. We are rationing, too, student financial aid-a key to access and affordability, both at the state and national levels. For example, Pell cannot continue to grow as it has, and does not have the political constiuency to sustain continued growth. Accordingly, the hope for the future is to define a new means of financing public colleges, at the core, to sustain public missions and the commitment to access and public service. Many states are poor partners and will not sustain higher education, given other entitlements to fund and diminished revenues. To hope to continue as we are is doomed to failure.

    • Gary Rhoades says:


      You seem to suggest that there is a “new normal,” that states are broke and that universities can not expect even level investment. Yet on the home page of the NJ State Assoc of State Colleges and Univs, of which you are the executive director, a major headline is that OVERWHELMINGLY voters believe the state should invest in public hed as a high priority, and they believe public higher education is doing a good job:
      “Voters See Public Colleges as a Priority Investment Linked to Jobs and Future Prosperity, But Don’t See a State Plan – NJ likely voters say state colleges and universities are key to economic recovery, merit more state investment to fulfill this role, and are trusted to make educational and financial decisions. However, these public institutions need to do more to show the public they are working hard to contain costs and keep tuition affordable — a big concern of Jersey residents, many of whom have experienced economic setbacks.”

      It is time for leaders in the academy to not only call for innovation but also to call for new investment, rather than the decreased investment that the charter and other “popular” ideas offer. Because the tired mantra of doing more public work with less public money is not just doomed to failure; it is currently failing this generation of students and undermining our future as a nation.

      Many policymakers believe that it is impossible for states to provide sufficient support to public higher education. You can look for the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education’s virtual think tank, which will be launched in the coming months, to provide important data and reports underscoring the problems with our current policy paths and the feasibility of alternative paths for investment. For a description of the campaign’s principles, which I hope you will find worthwhile, Darryl, see

      Gary Rhoades

      • Gary- I have had the chance to read the OH report. It is disappointing in a policy sense. It fails to discuss in detail the state’s responsibility for public colleges, except to get out of the way. It almost absolves the state from funding the universities in a meaninful way to achieve strategic goals, except for more freedom from regulation, which some don’t need, or could not use effectively in the final analysis. The relatively modest amount of student aid created by disinvestment does not serve well college access and affordability. Finally, the brief summary on NJ is too cursory and just plain wrong. This report is not the way forward, I think we will agree.
        Darryl G. Greer,CEO
        NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities

  3. Thank god smart people like Gary are speaking out against these efforts. During similar efforts at UW-Madison, far too many faculty jumped on board without asking such critical questions. I only hope that when this issue heats up again here in WI, Gary continues to blog.

  4. Gary- Thanks. I did take a look at campaign objectives. I think we share many similar values. What is missing is how we are going to pay for achieving them. Regarding NJASCU polls, which you site, what is missing is that there is a major disconnect between citizens desire for college, willingness to help pay for it, and public policy. This is why we have been conducting scientific polls for about 12 years. No one in the country other that my friend of 30 years Pat Callan (National Center for Higher Ed. Public Policy), has done more polling. While I admire the outline of the campaign, more information and lobbying alone will not fix the problem. It certainly will help to educated citizens and policy makers. The political will needed is not to sustain the model we have for financing public colleges, highly dependent on state tax support for direct appropriations, capital support and student financial aid, but instead to find new models in different states to sustain access, affordability and public service with less state investment. I don’t know a single leading national expert on higher ed. finance who thinks the status quo can hold or come back regarding state funding of public colleges. Frankly, states in many cases, beyond being a disinvesting partner (which will continue after this economic mess), are terrrible partners regarding regulation that stiffles innovation and productivity. I would not look to most governors and legislators for a solution to the problem. This is another reason I appreciate your approach to involve citizens directly, and push educators to take the lead in defining a new way forward. One size will not fit all. For example, there really is not a national market for higher ed. although our current model of student aid suggests that there is. Over 80% of students go to local and regional institutions where markets are well established. Accordingly, solutions will be found at that level, too. The pending OH example demands scrutiny, as you suggest; but the move to greater autonomy and freedom from state control is not an ideological matter. The proof is in the pudding. I think states such as NJ and VA stand out as models where institutions are performing, fulfulling missions and being innovative with less state support, and where citizens pay more for the opportunity. Recent events in CA, NY, PA, WI, OR and other states suggests for many different reasons, exploring greater independence from the state will be the trend, especially in the states with high production capacity and diminishing resources. Best wishes fo success. I’ll keep an eye on progress.

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