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