Romney’s support for Full Sail University raises eyebrows in higher ed

A Full Sail official gave money to a ‘super PAC’ that supports Romney.

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.”

As tuition and student fees at U.S. colleges and universities have risen sharply over the past decade, Nassirian said it would be difficult to use Full Sail as an example of schools can provide affordable, high-quality education in a down economy.

Full Sail’s video game arts program, for instance, saw 14 percent of its students graduate last year. A degree in video game arts would cost $81,000. While other Full Sail programs have higher completion rates, all of its programs are many times more expensive than nonprofit and public universities.

“Full Sail is a cure worse than the disease, because it vastly outstrips costs in every way,” Nassirian said. “And the issue is not necessarily that it’s expensive—sometimes paying a little extra is well worth it. It’s that [Full Sail] is extremely expensive and has a fairly miserable track record when it comes to outcomes.”

Saenz said he knew a film degree from Full Sail—a school specializing in film, video game development, sports management, and a laundry list of related fields—would cost $75,000. His post-graduation loan payments, however, leave little leeway in his monthly expenses.

“My student loan payments are surprisingly high. It is very stressful thinking about the fact that I will have to make high payments every month for a long period of time, but at the end of the day, it was my decision to get a degree,” Saenz said.

Dissatisfaction with Full Sail sparked a website called Full Sail Review, which seeks to advise prospective students before they commit to attending the for-profit university. The site rails against the school for deceptive recruitment practices and the poor quality of Full Sail’s online course selection, among other complaints.

The site appears to be run by a disillusioned former Full Sail student, although no one from Full Sail Review responded to interview requests from eCampus News.

Saenz said the immaculate facilities at Full Sail make it difficult to ignore for prospective students, even if they are skeptical about costs and quality of the school’s various programs.

“Full Sail was so convincing because of the brand-new equipment, and [its] facilities are awesome,” he said. “They always keep the school looking brand new. … I wouldn’t say I wish I’d gone somewhere else, because I’m not sure what else is out there. The only thing I’m not happy about is the amount of money I owe.”

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