Friday, December 26, 2008

More Charter Universities

A friend and colleague of mine, Peter Ingle, posted the following comment on my previous post about charter universities:

Since k-12 is required and has a set curriculum, charters provide options. But in Higher education, the curriculum is not set and schools have to differentiate in order to attract students. Aren't there a number of institutions that offer much of what you suggest? I think so. The only real difference is the way that they are administered.

Peter is a former public school teacher, and his wife still teaches at an elementary school in Park City. He's also really smart about curriculum and American higher ed, so I trust his impulse here.

I still think charter universities might be a good idea, though. Here is why:

1. Administrative freedom is a big deal. It is true that most colleges and universities have some form of faculty governance and processes in place to bring about changes. But that said, they are slow moving beasts, in large part because they are so big. This is especially the case for state schools, which have an added layer of administration at the state system level.

2. Public higher education, at least in Utah, seems to be in a race to sameness. Schools seem to be competing to offer the same majors and set of services. Charter universities would be a way for state systems to innovate at relatively low cost, and offer meaningful options to students. Andbecause they are small and inexpensive they would be a way to open higher education to people where they live. If we want to build sustainable communities, having a small university in town dedicated to that community might be really valuable. As it is, rural and poor communities lose their youth in part because there is nowhere in town for them to attend college.

3. All higher ed, be it public or private, is missing some key opportunities. We all know that demographic changes and the economy mean that higher education needs to be less expensive and better suited to first-generation and low income students. We also know that there is a huge market out there for schools that serve these students well. But who is doing a thorough-going job of it? I don't mean offering a program here and there, but giving an institution wholly over to that mission.

4. Size matters. American higher ed is still fixated on bigness. This fixation dates to a time when every campus needed one of everything--a library, a gym, a cafeteria, etc. Today, I'm not sure that every campus needs that. (For example, lots of towns have their own theatres which could be shared with the theatre program at a charter university. Same with gyms and libraries. Not to mention the information available electronically.) I am sure, though, that every student needs a mentor, and that faculty need to collaborate, and we need to embrace pedagogies that really lead to active learning. Those things are possible in big institutions, but they are probable in very small ones, where everyone is committed to the same, clear end.

5. Entrepreneurial opportunities. Higher ed doesn't have much room for entrepreneurs. But across the world we see social entrepreneurs doing a lot of good in education. (Look for example, at the progress that small private K-12 schools are making in the very poorest sectors in the developing world.) A look at the most innovative institutions of higher ed in the US (Alverno College, Portland State, CSU-Monterey Bay, Evergreen State, College of the Atlantic, etc.) indicates that they got that way because they took advantage of crisis or new creation to form a powerful culture for learning.

None of this is to say that charter universities are a solution. In fact, new private institutions committed to the public and private purposes of education might do just as well. And as Peter points out, there are many small, innovative schools out there. But the vast majority of students in higher ed don't attend those schools, in part because of their high cost, in part because with very few exceptions they are clustered in the northeast and midwest, and in part because K-12 and higher ed in the US tend to point students to big schools.

At the very least, we ought to think about whether charters, a useful innovation in K-12, might serve a similar purpose in higher ed.


Peter said...

Is this about having a "charter university" or is it about setting up a new university from scratch? I would like to read about how you differentiate the two.

Bryce said...


I came across a talk that I thought might interest you ( It features Dennis Littky who is an entrepreneur and educator. He and some colleagues have started a collection of high schools with a unique curriculum and approach to learning based in relationships, community, and a melding of learning and doing. They are also planning on starting a university built on the same model in the near future. The first school they opened and their crown jewel is "The Met" in Providence Rhode Island (