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College cost website raises questions about Romney’s higher-ed stance

The for-profit Florida university that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supports as a model for holding down college costs is one of the country’s priciest schools, according to a new Education Department (ED) website that helps prospective students compare tuition costs.

The College Affordability & Transparency Center, launched June 12, compares college and university net prices, or the tuition and fee costs minus grant and scholarship money given to its students. The federal website also lets students see where net college prices are rising at the fastest rate.

Full Sail University, a school based in Winter Park, Fla., has the third highest net price of all U.S. for-profit colleges, and it costs more for students than any public or nonprofit college, according to the Transparency Center’s online calculator.

This, some observers say, could be noteworthy because Romney—during his bid for the Republican nomination—often presented Full Sail as a model for colleges and universities looking to make higher education more affordable.

Romney, in an interview with a pool of journalists last fall, said Full Sail was committed to “hold[ing] down the cost of their education.”

“You are going to find students saying, ‘You know what? That’s not a bad deal. I’m not willing to come out of college with $100,000 in debt,’” he said. “I happen to think competition is a great source of invention and improvement. Our institutions of higher learning … don’t recognize that they need to compete and keep their prices down, they need to keep their tuitions competitive.”

Romney’s support for Full Sail and other for-profit colleges—which receive more than $30 billion in federal student aid annually—came as Full Sail’s CEO, Bill Heavener, gave the maximum $2,500 to Romney’s campaign and another $45,000 to a so-called “super PAC” that supports Romney for president and is run by aides to the former Massachusetts governor.

The unveiling of the College Affordability & Transparency Center comes amid President Obama’s legislative battle with Congressional Republicans, many of whom support an increase in student loan interest rates scheduled to kick in July 1.

David Halperin, a senior fellow for United Republic, a site that tracks how money is used in national politics, said Romney’s outspoken support on behalf of Full Sail and the University of Phoenix should be more closely examined as college affordability becomes a central issue of the 2012 race for the White House.

Romney, if elected president, “would allow federal financial aid … to continue to flow to even the worst offenders in the industry, schools that lure veterans and low-income students with deceptive and coercive recruiting practices,” Halperin wrote in a blog post. “This is about as cynical as politics can get—telling voters complete falsehoods in pursuit of policies that help your donors and business associates, while abusing struggling students and fleecing the taxpayers.”

Still, the president’s campaign could find it difficult to criticize Romney’s lauding of Full Sail because Ed Haddock, Full Sail’s founder and co-chair, served on the Obama for America National Finance Committee and helped raise more than $200,000 for Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, according to public records.

Haddock, according to a leaked White House memo, was considering shifting his support to the Republican nominee in 2012 because the Obama administration pushed through “gainful employment” regulations for for-profit colleges.

The much-debated set of rules would require for-profit schools to meet a range of standards in order to receive federal money, which accounts for almost 90 percent of for-profit college funding.

If higher-education costs remain an important campaign issue, the Obama campaign team could use Romney’s Full Sail support against him in the contest’s final months, said Neal McCluskey, associate director at the libertarian Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“It fits with the theme that Romney only cares only about rich people making a lot of money and not about the little guy,” McCluskey said. “So I think it will be a tool for [the Obama campaign].”

Continuing to rally around for-profit schools as a financial model for all college campuses, McCluskey said, would be a mistake for Romney and his campaign.

“I think if he kept [supporting Full Sail], it would be a tactical error,” he said. “But I think the Obama team will have a hard time making it seem like Romney is making a big deal about Full Sail.”

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