Adrian Davila Saenz, a recent graduate of Full Sail University in Orlando, did a double take when he read this week that Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has touted Full Sail as a paradigm for American higher education.
Saenz, who took seven online classes on his way to a film degree from Full Sail in October, wasn’t alone in scratching his head after Romney mentioned the 15,000-student for-profit university by name several times on the campaign trail during the fall and winter, saying Full Sail was able to “hold down the cost of education” and serve as an example of how competition can improve higher education.
Romney’s praise for Full Sail—sometimes without being prompted by Republican primary voters or reporters on the campaign trail—comes as for-profit schools face scrutiny from the Obama administration, which pushed through “gainful employment” rules in 2011 to enforce basic graduation and student debt standards as a condition for for-profit colleges to receive federally-backed student loans.
Romney’s high esteem for Full Sail also coincides with campaign contributions from the university’s CEO, Bill Heavener, who 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 governor, as first reported by the New York Times.
“It was very surprising, because you’d never think a school like Full Sail … would be labeled like that by someone running for president,” said Saenz, 24, who was hired shortly after graduating from Full Sail. “I think this is a huge issue and something that students will definitely look at before [they vote].”
Romney, however, wouldn’t be the first presidential hopeful to rake in donations from the Orlando-based technical school. 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 made news last year when an internal White House memo was leaked showing concern among Obama officials that Haddock could support the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 after Haddock expressed dissatisfaction about his access to White House decision makers.
Activists who track the political involvement of colleges and universities said the White House should worry about for-profit schools throwing their considerable financial resources behind whoever wins the Republican nomination.
“My assumption is that it has become Republican orthodoxy that [for-profit colleges] deserve all the favors they could ever want,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), adding that Romney’s support for Full Sail could prove a political liability in the fall. “If that’s his remedy, I think he’s going to have a very hard time explaining his idea of what higher education should be.”