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Campus Crusade

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There's going to be a lot of election talk about education between now and the time the voters finally go to the polls in November to elect a president. Both GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama are going to try to convince college students and their parents -- a rather large voting population -- that their plans to reconfigure American education are the best ones for our future.

Our presidential candidates take two distinct approaches to higher education. President Obama still believes that the federal government has a role to play in educating our young people, especially qualified students who come from families of modest means. Governor Romney, who calls himself a "business guy," seems to favor a more corporate, for-profit approach to education.

In unscripted moments, Governor Romney has told students that no one is going to give them money for free -- no handouts for young people. Championing the competitive nature of the free enterprise system, Romney has famously advised college students to "shop around" for the best loan rates. As for his educational philosophy, Mr. Romney seems to be crusading for private for-profit institutions of higher learning, outfits that process a large number of students with efficiency and good returns on investment. Growing class sizes, of course, also increases profitability. On a recent trip to a public school in Philadelphia, Mr. Romney conveniently suggested that class size had no bearing on successful student learning. The teachers in the audience disagreed -- some not so politely.

Such push back doesn't seem to have changed Governor Romney's educational mindset. His model of for-profit education is Florida's Full Sail University. According to David Halperin in The Huffington Post, Governor Romney has suggested that Full Sail, which is an institution that I, like most of the university educators I know, have never heard of, is an inventive and efficient "leader" in the world of colleges and universities.

Mr. Halpern writes:

Never mind that Full Sail has sky-high prices and, at best, a mixed record when it comes to helping students. Romney did not inform voters hat his campaign and Super PAC have received nearly $100,000 from Full Sail CEO Bill Heavener and from C. Kevin Landry, chairman of TA Associates, the private equity firm that owns Full Sail.

In short, Governor Romney is pushing for much more privatization in higher education. Given his way, Romney's plan could transform our system of public higher education, once the envy of the world, into a disconnected tangle of diploma factories. These institutions would spit out into our increasingly complex and challenged society an increasing number of poorly trained students.

In Mr. Romney's America our colleges and universities would be increasingly operated as if they were for-profit businesses. In the past, the campus crusade targeted the transformation of wild-spirited agnostic men and women into God-fearing Christians. These days the campus crusade is not only about religious transformation, but about bottom lines, performance incentives, and class size quotas -- the corporatization of higher education -- all to the advantage of investors in private equity funds or other corporate entities that have invested in for-profit education.

Mr. Romney's ideas about for-profit education suggest a much more fundamental difference between the GOP nominee and President Obama: the role of business in our society.

Should you use a business model to run a university?

Should you use a business model to run a government?

President Obama clearly sees some fundamental differences between the social life of corporations and the cultural climate of our universities. He doesn't believe that the complexities of our society can be unimaginatively reduced to a business model. Mr. Romney, a "business guy," seems to have a narrow risk/reward orientation to not only the game of venture capital, but also to the irreducible complexities of the contemporary world. He wants to run colleges and universities as if they were businesses, believing that our government would work better it were run like Bain Capital. Put another way, Mr. Romney's private equity tunnel vision may work well in the clubby atmosphere of the corporate boardroom, but is a prescription for the rapid spread of educational mediocrity that will retard social and economic progress. Mr. Romney's worldview charts a path toward more -- not less -- social inequity, which, if history is a reliable teacher, suggests a future of broken dreams and social chaos.

There is trouble afoot when a presidential candidate touts Full Sail University as a model of higher education. Would Mr. Romney, who holds two degrees from Harvard, send his grandchildren to study in the heady halls of Full Sail University?

As a professor with more than 30 years of experience in university education, I'd prefer to send my loved ones to a non-profit university in which (small) class size matters, in which education is more than learning how to score well on an exam, in which scholarship is more than acquiring a set of marketable skills. Promoting the spread of 21st century" diploma factories" condemns our children and grandchildren to dull, bleak and unproductive lives.

If we don't publicly invest in the education of our next generations, what will be left for our children?