David Driscoll, who recently served as Massachusetts' education commissioner, remembers touring the state's high schools to promote a new scholarship that promised free college tuition at in state universities for top-performing students. Often by his side was a political heavyweight who was bound to increase interest in the program: Mitt Romney, then the state's governor, and now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
"It was done under his regime, and he was very personally involved," Driscoll said, recalling the early days of the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program, which helped students scoring in the top quarter of their districts pay for college. "He would join me in going around to certain high schools. He certainly put the bully pulpit behind it."
It's a program the former governor still promotes on the campaign trail, saying in May that he "put in place a scholarship program, where if you graduate among the top 25 percent of those who take our graduation exam, you get a four-year, tuition-free ride at a Massachusetts public institution of higher learning."
There was only one problem: due to the structure of university costs in Massachusetts, free tuition meant little because non-tuition fees are egregiously high. For example, the scholarship covered only 7 percent of total costs at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, according to the Boston Globe. And while tuition leveled out, other college costs grew by 63 percent during Romney's tenure.
"The issue was free tuition, but it turns out in Massachusetts the tuition goes into a state pool ... which is why universities draft fees that can stay on campus," Driscoll told The Huffington Post. "Over time, institutions were charging more and more on fees but leaving tuition alone." (Driscoll added that the money did help somewhat, and Romney made some improvements to the program regarding eligibility.)
Eventually, parents became agitated about the Adams Scholarship's misleading promise. As the Patriot Ledger reported in 2009, Emily Schmarsow -- a single mother of two who said she was "dancing a jig in the kitchen" when her son won the scholarship -- "was really upset" when she received an activities bill from Amherst totaling $7,881, four times the cost of the waived tuition.
Paula Foster was similarly thrilled when her daughter won the scholarship. But, as she wrote in a 2005 letter to Romney, "it became apparent that this 'full tuition** scholarship was not even worth $300.00!" Foster called the scholarship letter "deceiving," saying it failed to explain that "tuition is a fraction of the cost of a school."
Romney has acknowledged the issue, telling the Detroit Free Press editorial board in February that "it's not entirely free, alright. You're still paying a lot of money, but it is help."
President Barack Obama's reelection campaign is preparing two speeches for Tuesday and a media blitz this week intended to make the case that Romney's higher education credentials -- including the Adams scholarship -- did not help enough, a campaign official who requested anonymity so as not to preempt the campaign's rollout told HuffPost.
On Tuesday, Obama will speak in Reno, Nev., and Columbus, Ohio, addressing Romney's higher education record in the context of vice presidential pick Paul Ryan's budget plan, the official said.
Obama intends to frame the issue as part of a stark choice between Romney, who has endorsed Ryan's budget plan, and Obama, who has increased funding for education.
According to nonpartisan think tank The Education Trust, Ryan's figures would cut slightly less than $170 billion from Pell Grants and loans over 10 years. Ryan's plan would also consider a maximum income cap for Pell eligibility, eliminate eligibility for students attending less than half-time, and convert the program into discretionary funding.
The Obama campaign's push will be accompanied by advertisements that highlight education issues -- in some cases, such as the Adams Scholarship -- and a new video from the Democratic National Committee that mocks Romney's higher education record.
An ad released in Ohio Monday describes the Ryan budget's potential effects on education: "How can Ohio's young people get the jobs of tomorrow if Romney and Ryan won't invest in education today?" a woman asks in the ad.
Together, the speeches and ad will kick off a focus on education in relation to the Ryan budget, which the Obama campaign says would reverse positive steps the Obama administration has taken regarding public schools and college affordability.
While Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have travelled the country promising more stability for college students, little of that has made its way onto the presidential campaign trail. Though Obama does mention education in his stump speech, debate moderators have so far not pressed the Republican candidates for specifics. The topic has previously caused Romney to stumble, with the candidate once saying students should get "as much education as they can afford."
The Obama campaign is using the Ryan budget, which Romney has said he would sign into law, as a platform for digging further into education issues. The Adams Scholarship, the campaign official said, speaks to the question of whether Romney's record shows commitment to college students.
The Romney campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
UPDATE August 21, 8:10 a.m.: The Romney campaign responded early Tuesday to Obama's education push, noting the increasing cost of college. “Under President Obama, the costs of college have skyrocketed — making it more difficult for students to attend college -- and his economic policies have made it harder for graduates to get jobs," Amanda Henneberg, campaign spokesperson, said in a statement. "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have a Plan for a Stronger Middle Class to get our economy back on track and ensure that young Americans – and all Americans – have the brighter future they deserve.”
The campaign included links to articles and studies about soaring tuitions and unemployment rates for young alumni, hitting Obama for saying Monday that recent graduates having trouble finding jobs should "look at my track record."
According to the Associated Press, Ryan will make two stops in Pennsylvania Tuesday before flying to Virginia, and added that he would focus on imminent cuts to U.S. defense that will come as a result of last summer's deficit deal. Ryan will also play up Romney's small business plan, a campaign official told AP.
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