Full Sail in the Spotlight

Mitt Romney has reinvigorated the national debate over for-profit colleges. The New York Times reported on his recent praise for the sector as a cost-effective option, in particular the relatively obscure Full Sail University, and critics quickly pounced on Romney's comments.

The Times article, which had home-page billing, contrasted the “sharp divide” between the Republican presidential front-runner's take on for-profits with that of the Obama Administration, which has pursued tighter regulation of the industry. It also described two Romney campaign boosters who have ties to the university.

But the bigger issue for higher education is whether Romney is right about for-profits like Full Sail, a privately held, Florida-based institution with offerings in film, game design, music production and related disciplines, most of which are bachelor's degree programs.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and financier, told The Ames Tribune last month (comments begin at 12:00 mark here) that, unlike President Obama, he thinks for-profits will bring innovation and healthy competition to higher education. He said students may look at the University of Phoenix and other for-profits and say: “That’s not a bad deal. I’m not willing to come out of college with $100,000 in debt.”

He also mentioned a recent visit to Full Sail, praising the university’s yearlong schedule, monthly class starts for new students and around-the-clock use of studio space. “They hold down the cost of their education by recognizing that they’re competing.”

Romney did hedge after being pressed on the cost and value of degrees from for-profits. “I’m not going to vouch for any particular university as being superior to another,” he said.

The Times article challenged Romney’s praise of Full Sail, describing the low "on-time" graduation rate of one degree program and the university’s apparently high tuition and student debt levels. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that graduation rates are not a major problem at Full Sail: the overall graduation rate is a fairly high 78 percent, according to federal data.
Cost is an issue for Full Sail students, however. While the university's tuition is more affordable

than that of at least some competitors among four-year institutions (community colleges are much cheaper), Full Sail doles out little financial aid.

Only 10 percent of full-time, first-time undergraduates at Full Sail receive any institutional grants or scholarships, and those who do receive $2,620 on average, according to federal data. As a result, students are on the hook for almost all tuition charges, which run as high as $48,300 per year.

University officials said Full Sail distributes scholarship money that is not captured in those figures, such as grants to continuing students and across multiple semesters. They also said that annual tuition amounts at Full Sail don't compare easily with those charged by traditional colleges, because bachelor's degree programs at the university are typically compressed into five semesters over 20 months, rather than the more standard four years. And in many cases students can take an identical program on a 36-month schedule for the same cost, university officials said, which decreases the annual tuition amount.

Full Sail’s accreditation status can pose problems for students. The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor, recognizes Full Sail. But it is not recognized by a regional accreditor or by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. As a result, most traditional colleges would not honor credits earned by transferring Full Sail students or those who attempt to continue their studies after earning an associate degree from the university.

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