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Funding Comprehensives and Charters

On July 21st, I attended an event at the American Enterprise Institute called “Comprehending Comprehensive Universities.” A fitting title – since my exact purpose in visiting the institute was to learn more about what a comprehensive university is. KC Deane, Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program Manager, spoke to this question first.

Like many other panelists, she defined a comprehensive university by what it is not. A comprehensive university is not a research university. It is also not a community college or a flagship institution. Rather, a comprehensive university is best defined as a four-year, public university. Alisha Hicklin Fryar, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, urged the audience to think of “state schools and the University of’s;” Fryar insisted that most of these schools will be comprehensive universities, and often times the backbone of higher education. Her research indicates that 69% of undergraduates are enrolled in such institutions. Diversity in student population is largely present: 74% Latino, 70% Native American, and 65% African-Americans. Comprehensive universities are also diverse in size, ranging from 711 to 56,326 students. They are located in 400 of 535 congressional districts.

Fryar further mentioned that the majority of students enrolled in comprehensive universities are graduate students, studying topics focusing on education, business, and health. Such institutions work to train a large majority of the workforce, yet they are only minimally studied (compared to community colleges, research universities, etc.). They also receive less funding than other university models.

In a way, comprehensive universities remind me of charter schools – a lot of people today do not know exactly how to define a charter perhaps in the same way that they might not know how to define a comprehensive university. Yet, much like comprehensives, charter schools serve a larger part of the American student population than the public realizes. Still, they receive little attention and also not enough funding.

William Doyle, an associate professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University, stated that the goal of a comprehensive university is to increase the production of bachelor degrees—to prepare students for a successful future after college. The inputs include the faculty, students, and money. The output is simply the degree. If we desire to increase bachelor degree production, money must be spent at the comprehensive university.

I think back to charters once more. During the first semester of my sophomore year in Boston, I visited one of the elementary schools in the Boston Collegiate Charter Schools chain. All the homeroom teachers decorated their classrooms in accordance with their alma mater in an effort to instill in the minds of their students that college can be a possibility for them. This charter school, like a comprehensive university, is working to pave the way for future movers and shakers – yet they do not receive adequate funding despite providing services to the majority of the population.

Jeffrey Selingo, the author of “College (Un)bound” continued to state that comprehensive universities are innovative. Austin Peay State University developed a program called “Degree Compass,” which takes in student data and enables advisors to provide more accurate guidance to students so as to enhance their college careers. This program has worked very well and Selingo states that the University of Massachusetts – Amherst might adopt this program as well.  This also speaks to the innovation of charters – so many of the clips I read from The Media Bullpen speak of news about a new online tool or an afterschool program to improve students’ proficiency in math to meet state standards. Comprehensive universities are clearly doing the same.

Kim Clark, senior writer for Money Magazine, concludes that like K-12 schools, comprehensive universities are teaching the toughest crowds. I believe that charter schools are as well. Attending this event was a very humbling experience. I learned something new and was able to connect it back to something I have heard talked about at Boston University’s School of Education and at The Center for Education Reform.

Both comprehensive universities and charter schools serve so much of the student population – they certainly deserve more attention from both our citizens and our government, and from me as a future educator even more.

Navraj Narula, CER Intern


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