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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Romney touts controversial business of big Fla donor



New York TimesAt a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire last month, listeners pressed Mitt Romney on the soaring cost of higher education. His solution: students should consider for-profit colleges like the little-known Full Sail University in Florida.

A week later in Iowa, Mr. Romney offered another unsolicited endorsement for “a place in Florida called Full Sail University.” By increasing competition, for-profit institutions like Full Sail, which focuses on the entertainment field, “hold down the cost of education” and help students get jobs without saddling them with excessive debt, he said.

Mr. Romney did not mention the cost of tuition at Full Sail, which runs more than $80,000, for example, for a 21-month program in “video game art.”

Nor did he mention its spotty graduation rate. Or, for that matter, that its chief executive, Bill Heavener, is a major campaign donor and a co-chairman of his state fund-raising team in Florida.

That team, Mr. Romney said last fall when he appointed Mr. Heavener, “will be crucial to my efforts in Florida and across the country.”

Beyond his fund-raising role, Mr. Heavener has committed his own resources to the cause. He and his wife have each given the maximum $2,500 to the campaign, and he gave $45,000 to Restore Our Future, a “super PAC” run by former Romney aides to bolster his campaign. The chairman of the private equity fund that owns Full Sail University — C. Kevin Landry of TA Associates — gave $40,000 to Restore Our Future, records show.

Mr. Romney has received financial support from other segments of the for-profit college industry as well, and he was quick to praise the industry as an affordable alternative to traditional colleges.

With for-profit colleges under siege in Washington over accusations that they defraud students, Mr. Romney’s full-throttled endorsement puts him squarely in the middle of a political debate over them and dovetails with his strong belief in a free-market system that thrives on competition.

[Last modified: Sunday, January 15, 2012 3:46pm]


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