At a campaign rally at a technical college in North Carolina on Sunday, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, sought to introduce his newly-selected running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, to voters as someone whose "career ambition was not to go to Washington."
Within Washington, though, Mr. Ryan is already a well-known quantity. The seven-term Republican Congressman from Wisconsin has built a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative and the architect of budget proposals that called for deep cuts to government programs, including funds for higher education.
In March, Mr. Ryan, who has served as chair of the House of Representatives Budget Committee for the past two years, released his party's budget proposal for the 2013 fiscal year, "The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal." The plan succeeds and is similar to a proposal for the current fiscal year that was approved by the House in April 2011, but died in the Senate.
Mr. Ryan's plan would slash federal spending for nearly all non-defense-related programs, including many of concern to higher education. It would cut spending on programs that support academic research, such as the National Institutes of Health, and would make several changes to the federal student-aid programs. It also calls for a complete spending cut for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
While Mr. Romney said in campaign appearances on Sunday that the Republican team would be running on his budget plan, not Mr. Ryan's, President Obama and other Democrats zeroed in on Mr. Ryan's positions and sought to frame him as the "ideological leader" of the Republican Party.
Following are some of the ideas and proposals Mr. Ryan has advanced for dealing with some issues important to colleges.
Federal Student Aid
Among the largest higher-education items targeted for cuts in Mr. Ryan's budget proposals are the federal student-aid programs. He has called for ending the in-school interest subsidy on undergraduate Stafford loans and tightening the eligibility requirements for the Pell Grant program. He would completely cut off Pell eligibility for students attending college less than half-time.
"That budget would have decimated all education, from K-12 through higher education," Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said of the proposal approved by the House last year. "But it was more of a political rallying cry than a reality," he said, since the plan was certain to fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The proposed cuts in the plan are "not necessarily a shot at higher education," Mr. Draeger said, "but in an effort to keep all spending down, student aid becomes collateral damage." He pointed out that Mr. Romney earlier this year supported a one-year freeze on the interest rate for certain student loans and that Mr. Ryan had voted last year for a debt-ceiling deal bringing $17-billion to the Pell program.
Of more concern to student-aid advocates, Mr. Draeger said, is the philosophy that underlies some of Mr. Ryan's proposed cuts. Mr. Ryan has been vocal in saying he thinks that increasing federal student aid enables institutions to continue to raise tuition.
"The goal of federal financial aid is to make college more affordable, but there is growing evidence that wholesale increases in aid have had the opposite effect," Mr. Ryan wrote in a column published in May. "Instead of helping more students achieve their dreams, these increases are simply being absorbed by (and potentially enabling) large tuition increases."
Mr. Draeger countered that line of reasoning. "What we have to continue remind people," he said, "is that student aid benefits students."
State Support of Education
While Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney are united by a desire to cut government spending, one of their biggest differences on higher education is their experience in working with public colleges and universities.
As governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney unsuccessfully pushed for an overhaul the state's university system that would have privatized three public colleges and merged several others, among other changes. But he was otherwise fairly moderate on higher education, especially compared with the large cuts being pushed today by Republican governors in states like New Jersey, Texas, and Florida, according to Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.
Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, has not built much of a record when it comes to state public institutions.
"He hasn't really spoken much about higher education in Wisconsin," Mr. Radomski said. "He has been noticeably quiet." Mr. Radomski added that Mr. Ryan's budget plan would have reduced work-force development initiatives even as his district in Southeastern Wisconsin faced high unemployment from the loss of manufacturing jobs.
Mr. Ryan has said he believes investments in education are best made at the state level. On his Web site, he writes, "Rather than relying on the federal government to ensure that students are given the capability to fulfill their potential, education ought to be governed by state and local boards more ably qualified to determine student need."
"Being a fiscal conservative isn't necessarily anti-education," Mr. Radomski said, but Mr. Ryan's leave-it-to-the-states approach is a matter of concern for advocates of public higher education as states continue to disinvest in higher education.
Mr. Ryan, like Mr. Romney, has been a strong supporter of for-profit education. He joined many House Republicans last year in opposing the Education Department's "gainful employment" regulations. Those rules were designed to ensure that federal dollars are helping students attend programs that are good investments and help prepare them for jobs that pay well.
On Sunday, just a day after Mr. Ryan was announced as Mr. Romney's running mate, the two men held a rally at a for-profit college, the NASCAR Technical Institute, a Universal Technical Institute-owned campus in Mooresville, N.C.
At the event Mr. Romney delved into his campaign stump speech, pledging to fix the economy, repeal President Obama's health-overhaul legislation, and undo burdensome regulations on business. Neither he nor Mr. Ryan specifically addressed some of the political issues facing for-profit education.
Thev visit to the NASCAR Technical Institute is at least the second time Mr. Romney's campaign has made a stop at a for-profit college. In January, he praised Full Sail University, in Winter Park, Fla., as an example of how for-profit colleges can hold down the cost of higher education. The chief executive of the university is a donor to the Romney campaign, it was later reported.
Steve Gunderson, the president of the Association of Private Colleges and Universities, said that he wished that more candidates would take the time to visit for-profit colleges.
"Our institutions will open their doors, but one side comes and the other refuses," Mr. Gunderson said, alluding to the support for-profit colleges enjoy among Republicans and the criticism they've received from Democrats.
A Republican administration would allow for-profit institutions to operate in a more friendly regulatory environment, but the types of spending cuts on federal aid that the Ryan budget proposes could also adversely impact those institutions. In many cases, for-profit colleges rely on federal student-aid programs for close to 90 percent of their revenue, the maximum amount they are allowed to receive by law.
"I've told our institutions: Deficit reduction can impact us," Mr. Gunderson said. "I will be pushing for funding for access to higher education regardless of the next administration."
Still, it appears that regulatory issues are driving for-profit education's support for Republicans in this election.
Although Mr. Gunderson's association is "being careful to be bipartisan to the maximum degree possible," individual for-profit colleges are mostly supporting Republicans this fall, he said.
"There's no question that the past three years have seen a pretty significant assault against our schools by this education department," he said. "It is a distinct bias against our schools, simply by virtue by how they're organized legally."