Romney’s higher ed overhaul in Mass. fizzled

Romney has stayed largely silent on higher education issues.

Mitt Romney took over as Massachusetts governor in 2003 with a sweeping plan to overhaul the state’s public college system to cut waste, reduce costs and boost efficiency.

“This is my opportunity to be bold,” he said in announcing the plan.

But when Romney left office four years later, not a lot had changed. His strongest mark on higher education was for a merit scholarship program he championed for top high school students.

Romney’s restructuring plan was stymied by a Democratic-run state Legislature where many lawmakers were irked about his bitter public feud with William Bulger, the University of Massachusetts president and one of the state’s most powerful and entrenched Democrats.

Romney had criticized Bulger’s silence on his then-fugitive brother, a legendary Boston Irish-American mobster. Bulger ran the UMass system with an iron hand and had plenty of old pals in the Legislature eager to thwart Romney.

“The governor can play such an important role in higher education,” says Phil Johnston, a member of the UMass board of trustees and a former state Democratic Party chairman. “The bottom line is that after his reorganization proposal collapsed, Romney pretty much forgot about higher ed, except for his fight with Bulger.”

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Romney’s campaign declined requests for comment. Bulger, through a spokesman, also declined to comment.

Now the likely Republican presidential nominee, Romney hasn’t said much on the campaign trail about his higher education proposals, so his record in Massachusetts could offer clues about his approach to the issue if he wins the White House.

The wealthy former businessman was mocked by Democrats for saying in March that financially strapped students should “shop around” for the best loans and affordable schools.

In a recent speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Romney touted how as governor he put in place the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program providing four years of free tuition at any state college or university for Massachusetts high school students who score in the top quarter of their school district on state standardized tests. More than 18,000 students in the class of 2012 won scholarships, which for the 2011-12 academic year ranged from about $700 to $1,700.

Romney has called for simplifying the federal financial aid process and re-opening the federal student loan market to private lenders. He says President Barack Obama’s increases in federal student aid such as Pell Grants have driven up college tuition rates.