What Rick Santorum Got Wrong in His College Rant
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 1:23pm
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Candidates in the thick of a presidential campaign can say the darndest things, but Rick Santorum made even some fellow Republicans uncomfortable when he criticized President Obama for wanting Americans to go to college.

Speaking at a Tea Party event in Michigan this weekend, the former Pennsylvania senator may have been looking to play up his blue-collar appeal and paint Obama as an elitist when he said this:

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

Leave aside Santorum’s claim that Obama is pushing college as a tool for liberal indoctrination, and never mind that Santorum himself has a Bachelor’s degree from Penn State University, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a J.D. from Dickinson School of Law. (Obama may have a degree from Harvard Law School, but as the Santorum and Mitt Romney camps would undoubtedly point out, he doesn’t have an MBA.) Santorum’s swipe at the president was wrong on a couple of key economic points.

First, Obama’s call for higher education isn’t limited to four-year college degrees. Back in a 2009 address to Congress, Obama made this call for Americans to pursue higher education:

“And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.”

The president also seemed to respond to Santorum by clarifying his aims in an education-heavy speech Monday at a meeting of the National Governors Association. Saying that the importance of higher education shouldn’t be a “partisan issue,” Obama again said that going beyond high school was an “economic imperative”:

“The jobs of the future are increasingly going to those with more than a high school degree.  And I have to make a point here.  When I speak about higher education we’re not just talking about a four-year degree.  We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment.  And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”

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That sounds very similar to Santorum’s own vision, which he explained in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

“There's technical schools. There's additional training, vocational training. There's skills and apprenticeships. There's all sorts of things that people can do to upgrade their skills, to be very productive and great workers here in America who provide for their families and build their community.”

It’s true, as Santorum says, that not everyone wants or needs to go to college. But despite huge increases over the past half century, less than 30 percent of Americans age 25 and over have a college degree, according to Census data.

Santorum’s charge is even more questionable in light of economic research that shows that those with education beyond high school have greater success in landing jobs and earning more money. The unemployment rate among those with only a high-school degree is 8.4 percent. For college graduates, it’s half that, 4.2 percent. The general trend is just as pronounced when looking only at recent graduates. The unemployment rate for those between the ages of 22 and 26 with Bachelor’s degrees 8.9 percent, according to an analysis of Census data released last month by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce. For job-seekers with only a high-school diploma, it’s 22.9 percent, and for high-school dropouts it’s 31.5 percent.

Obama is right that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue – and it isn’t really. Republicans including Newt Gingrich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell have all questioned Santorum’s college comments. On the "Today" show Tuesday, Gingrich responded to Santorum’s comments by saying, “It doesn’t matter what your degrees are. It matters if you’re employable.” And he called Obama’s comments “perfectly reasonable.” That praise from a Republican fighting to stay in the presidential field may again just prove that as elections drag on, candidates say the darndest things.

Executive Editor Yuval Rosenberg oversees coverage of business, the economy, technology and Wall Street. A former web editor at WNYC, Fortune and Newsweek, he also writes on a wide range of subjects.