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WASHINGTON -- So far, the path Mitt Romney has set out for the Republican presidential nomination has not focused much on higher education.

Although President Obama has promoted a push for college affordability as a plank of his 2012 re-election platform since January, education issues of all kinds -- particularly those facing colleges and universities -- have been largely absent from the campaign for the Republican nomination.

Romney's top challengers for the Republican nomination have had more to say on higher education than he has. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose resume includes a Ph.D. and a past stint as an associate professor, has boasted of his credentials as a historian and proposed a few ideas for colleges and universities. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has not discussed education policy in depth, but has repeatedly attacked colleges as liberal "indoctrination centers" out of step with the rest of the country.

Romney, though, emphasizes his business experience and generally steers clear of criticisms of higher education. Education is not even mentioned on his campaign website's list of "issues," where several regions of the world get their own position papers; a section on "human capital" includes a brief mention of job training at community colleges, but nothing on student loans, Pell Grants or other issues important to colleges and universities.

Few people close to Romney's campaign or with experience dealing with him on higher education issues in the past were willing to speak about him publicly. Several Romney education advisers, past and present, did not respond to repeated interview requests from Inside Higher Ed, or declined to comment on the candidate's record and ideas on higher education. Nor did several people affiliated with private colleges in Massachusetts and the state's university system during his time as governor.

So the education policies and attitudes of a potential Romney administration remain a mystery. Romney’s campaign book, No Apology, sounds the same alarm about international competitiveness as the Obama administration to call for improving American education, but he writes largely about his work with, and ideas for, the elementary and secondary school system. What is clear is that as governor he had high-profile fights with the leader of his state's university system, that he is a generous donor to his alma mater, that he thinks highly of for-profit higher education and that a significant higher education software company, Jenzabar, is among his campaign's strongest backers.

Romney has no shortage of academic credentials of his own, including two Harvard University graduate degrees from a joint J.D.-M.B.A. program. He has a history of donations to colleges and universities, especially Brigham Young University, his alma mater. And given his oversight of Massachusetts higher education during his term as governor, he has had the most recent contact with the country’s colleges of any Republican contender.

One of Romney’s first acts as governor of Massachusetts was to pick a fight with the president of the state university system, William M. Bulger, a powerful Democrat. Soon after taking office in 2003, Romney proposed reorganizing the state's systems of higher education, making the Amherst campus largely independent of state aid, and arranging the other campuses, state colleges and community colleges into regional clusters.

Under the plan, tuition and fees would have increased, particularly at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But Democrats accused Romney of political ulterior motives: Bulger, the former state senate president, had reportedly angered the governor by refusing to testify before a Congressional committee investigating his brother, James (Whitey) Bulger, a notorious Boston mobster who spent 17 years as a fugitive whose whereabouts were unknown until he was arrested in July 2011. (Bulger eventually did testify, and said he didn't know where his brother was.)

Romney denied the accusations of political motivation, saying that the plan would have saved Massachusetts about $150 million, part of an effort to close a $3 billion budget deficit. In the end, state lawmakers killed the Massachusetts plan. Bulger resigned under pressure from Romney in September 2003. 

Higher education funding dropped in Romney’s first fiscal year as governor, cut from $1.2 billion to $1 billion, but increased every year afterward, eventually making up the loss. In an interview in January with the editorial board of the Ames Tribune (of Iowa), Romney said the chancellor of the system thanked him for the 10 percent budget cut, saying that he was able to get rid of departments that had not attracted student interest.

With state legislators, Romney also created a merit scholarship program for the state, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program. Students who scored in the top 25 percent on statewide assessments qualified for free tuition for up to four years at any public college. Romney made a personal visit to one high school each year on the day the recipients were announced, and described those days in his book, No Apology, as some of his favorites as governor.

“The cheers were deafening,” he wrote of those days, when top-scoring high school students were summoned to an assembly without knowing why the then-governor was present or what he would announce. “I got more hugs than I get around the tree at Christmas.”

Still, a study of the program by the Civil Rights Institute at Harvard found that it failed to increase access to higher education. More white and higher-income students qualified than did those who were members of minority groups or came from needy families, although students from needy families were more likely to use the funds and attend in-state institutions.

The Romney name is also prominent at Brigham Young University, where a $1 million gift from Romney helped rename the university's public policy center in honor of George Romney, the former governor of Michigan and Mitt Romney’s father.

In addition to that gift, the Romneys have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the university, which is affiliated with the Mormon church and where Romney earned his undergraduate degree in English, through their charitable foundation. According to tax disclosures from the foundation, the Romneys gave Brigham Young $200,000 in 2000 and $250,000 gift in 2007, as well as smaller donations in other years. They have also donated $70,000 to the Harvard Business School through the foundation since 2000, and in 2001 gave $50,000 to Weber State University, a public university in northern Utah.

On the Campaign Trail

Romney is said to have several advisers working on higher education issues, but only three advisers on education have been announced by the campaign, and all appear to focus on elementary and secondary education: Nina Rees, a former Education Department official in the George W. Bush administration and the senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Knowledge Universe, a for-profit provider of early childhood education; Martin West, deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard; and Phil Handy, chief executive officer of Strategic Industries and a former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. (The campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, or to a request to provide the names of other education advisers.)

The advisers specialize in issues surrounding charter schools and the private sector’s role in public education. Romney is “interested” in higher education but has yet to come up with detailed policy proposals, Rees said.

“It’s an issue he’s interested in, both because so many students are unable to pay off their student loans and the rising costs of higher education,” she said. But the campaign has not yet put together official proposals, she said.

In contested Republican presidential primaries -- and often, even in the general election -- higher education isn't a top issue for many voters, but there are many who care about private or charter schools. The DREAM Act, which would provide citizenship to children who immigrated illegally with their parents to the United States, has been an issue in the debates, and Romney has vowed that he would veto the bill.

Romney’s advisers, including Rees, tend to have a private-sector bent. Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who spoke at a policy roundtable on education as part of a Romney fundraiser, has pushed online education in his state. Luna and West did not respond to repeated requests for an interview from Inside Higher Ed. Nor did Bill Hansen, a deputy education secretary from the Bush administration who serves as finance co-chairman for education of Romney's campaign and also spoke on education policy at the fundraising event, and is said to be advising Romney on higher education (although the campaign has not publicly announced him in that role).

On the campaign trail, Romney has praised Full Sail University, a for-profit college with links to some of his campaign donors, but has not addressed the issues facing the for-profit sector, or the Obama administration's increased regulation, in detail. In the interview in Ames in January, he said he likes the idea of competition from for-profit higher education providers. "Our institution of higher learning just keep passing on higher and higher costs," he said. "They don't recognize that they need to compete, that they need to keep their prices down."

Full Sail, by contrast, holds down the cost of their education "by recognizing they are competing," he said. "We're going to have to have greater competition among institutions of higher learning, and I believe they're going to have to become productive."

“His focus will definitely will be on finding ways to give access to those who need help the most,” Rees said. “I think leveraging technology in the higher education space will be something he’s focused on, based on his views.”

Jenzabar and For-Profits

That could be good news for one of the top donors to a political action committee supporting Romney: Jenzabar, Inc., a company based in Boston that sells administrative software to colleges and universities.

So far, Jenzabar has donated $250,000 to Restore Our Future, a “super PAC” that under new campaign finance laws can raise unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals. Like many top Romney donors, the company has links to Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney helped found. Robert Maginn, Jenzabar’s chief executive officer, worked at Bain with Romney in the 1990s. In 2008, he was a finance co-chairman of Romney’s bid for the Republican nomination.

All but two of Jenzabar’s eight top executives have donated the maximum $2,500 personal contribution to Romney. They did the same in 2008, when Maginn served as Romney’s finance co-chairman. (Among those who have not donated is Maginn’s wife and Jenzabar’s chief operating officer, Chai Ling.) For most, the two Romney donations are the sole political contributions they have made since 1990, although one executive donated $250 to Obama in 2008.

In November, Maginn was elected chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, with Romney's support. Since then, Jenzabar has become increasingly intertwined with the state GOP: Jenzabar has hired two former Republican Congressmen, including a possible challenger to Maginn, and a former executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party as consultants, according to The Boston Globe.

Two of the three men are working at no charge for the state party while consulting for Jenzabar, leading to accusations that Maginn is blurring the lines between his business and his political leadership. The company’s headquarters have also played host to a fund raiser for Republican Senator Scott Brown.

Jenzabar representatives did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s questions about the donation or other political activity.

So far, Romney hasn’t dropped Jenzabar’s name in conversations about educational technology, as he did when praising Full Sail University. And the company’s clients are individual colleges, not students or sectors, so it’s unclear whether they would benefit more from a Romney presidency than from a second Obama term.

Unlike Full Sail, most for-profit colleges have stayed out of the Republican primaries. Political action committees for some of the largest publicly traded colleges and universities have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Congressional candidates and affiliated committees so far -- largely to Republicans -- but appear not to have jumped into the presidential race yet.

Apollo Group, which includes the University of Phoenix, is the exception: the company’s political action committee has given $5,000 to Romney’s campaign, the maximum allowed in this election cycle and the group's only donation to any presidential candidate (including Obama).

That could change once a nominee is in place -- and once that nominee unveils more about his plans for education policy.

So far, the only reference to higher education and the Romney campaign comes from an endorser, Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and California gubernatorial candidate: "From preschool to Ph.D., America must have the best education system," Whitman wrote on Romney's behalf. "If we want to turn things around, and for our economy to bloom in the future, we need an absolute focus on educational excellence."

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