Opinion: Sailing Into A For-Profit Sun

Mitt Romney's otherwise extensive web site has no obvious link to his positions on education. That makes it all the more curious why he has been plugging for-profit colleges such as Full Sail University near Orlando, Florida, which trains students in film and entertainment, and the ubiquitous University of Phoenix, which claims to have a campus “within 10 miles of 87 million Americans.’’

Romney claims that Full Sail officials “hold down the cost’’ of education “by recognizing they’re competing.’’ He said, “I look at places like University of Phoenix and others, I think you’re going to find students saying you know what? That’s not a bad deal.’’

Most data on for-profit colleges say almost the exact opposite. In a 2010 review of for-profit colleges, the Education Trust, an independent think tank, found that the six-year graduation rate for 238,326 students of the University of Phoenix was 9 percent (including 12 percent at its Boston campus). The New York Times reported that graduation rates at Full Sail varied tremendously, from up to 80 percent in some programs down to 14 percent for a 21-month, $81,000 video-game art program that left its students saddled with a median debt of $59,000.

In recent reports, the Government Accountability Office found that only 3 percent of low-income students graduated within six years from for-profit colleges compared to 49 percent at four-year public universities. For those for-profit college students who do graduate, their average debt is thousands of dollars higher than for public college graduates.

For a candidate who is essentially running as America’s businessman, this is a bad deal to promote. But it just so happens that the CEO of Full Sail, Bill Heavener, is a top Romney fund-raiser and a significant pro-Romney super PAC donor. Romney says he wants to “build human capital through education.’’ And there is a place for for-profit institutions in education. But if Romney’s models for improving student access are Full Sail and the University of Phoenix, education is likely to sail into an unchartered future, with too many students drowning in debt.

THE BOSTON GLOBE

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