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Chartered-university initiative is likely to cause more harm than good
Date published: 1/4/2005
Is there a funding problem at the flagships? Absolutely. Travel budgets are down by two-thirds, class sizes are increasing, and so on. But the sky is not falling. These institutions continue to be highly ranked nationally and within their respective peer groups. At U.Va.’s College of Arts and Sciences, faculty retention has not been a problem, and salaries remain competitive in most departments. There is no risk of a brain drain because these institutions already have the flexibility to compile competitive compensation packages.
At first glance, what is so appealing about the charter concept is that it promises a more stable funding model. Once the enabling legislation is passed, each university would sign a charter agreement that codifies each party’s rights and obligations.
Contrary to the claims of charter proponents, however, these agreements are not contracts because their terms are not enforceable. A governor has no authority to obligate the legislature to a specific level of funding. If the flagship universities believe otherwise, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.
Although the charter plan does not offer the flagships a more stable funding model, it poses a risk to students of modest means. Chartered universities would move rapidly to what experts call the “high tuition/high aid” model.
While appealing as a concept, this model has two shortcomings. First, aid almost always rises more slowly than tuition. Second, students of modest means tend to avoid applying to schools with high posted rates of tuition.
What would chartered universities do to assure residents that the proportion of lower- and middle-income students would not decline once they secure tuition-setting authority? This question has yet to be answered by charter proponents.
Employees face risks
Chartering also poses a risk to employees. The example of U.Va.’s Medical Center, which was granted charter-like status in 1996, is instructive. In almost every year since, a substantial number of that institution’s employees got raises that fell short of those offered by the state.
Staff at our universities are hardworking and underpaid. Why should they be expected to support a proposal that is likely to condemn many of them to a gradual decline in real wages?
The interests of state and local government also are put at risk with this proposal. If the flagships are spun off from the state, how will future state leaders remedy crises such as labor shortages in nursing or family medicine?