Depending on how you look at it, Rick Santorum’s war on higher education is either an interesting reflection of American discontent, or just another shameful political gambit.
His most recent addition to his rhetorical attacks on the American university came this past week when he told Glenn Beck that “62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”
Religious experts in a USA TODAY article later refuted this claim, but in politics, perception is reality.
This follows a statement he made, and then later defended, that President Obama is a “snob” for declaring that all Americans should go to college.
The question is, no matter how flawed the premise that college is a bad place for Americans of faith, whose reality is this perception? And what does that say about whoever’s doing the perceiving?
Education is quite simply the key to unlocking the social mobility that comprises the American Dream. This great nation was founded in part on the notion that all citizens are entitled to a certain equality of opportunity.
There’s no tried and true formula for how to best achieve the American Dream. Political candidates and parties rightly differ on whether we are all born with some measure of equality of opportunity, or whether varying degrees of intervention are needed (like social welfare programs, progressive tax rates and/or affirmative action) to provide it.
Santorum is striking a chord with conservative voters as the latest and most enduring titleholder of the coveted Republican-not-named-Mitt-Romney position. But what does Santorum stand to gain from college bashing?
Santorum is likely either reflecting public opinion or he is charting it.
If its the former, and Santorum is reflecting a change in public opinion, it might be best understood as fall-out from the Great Recession and the creeping, growing inequality of the Clinton boom years. “Go to school, work hard and get ahead or your money back,” is what the popular conception of American opportunity might have been.
Instead, millions of Americans find themselves unemployed and underemployed. They went to high school, they got their college degrees and they feel betrayed that the promised ladder of social mobility was ripped from their hands. In a way — not terribly unlike the Occupy protesters on the other end of the political spectrum — this feeling of betrayal is expressed in backlash towards the system and towards an investment of which they have yet to see a return.
However, if it is the other way around, and Santorum is leading public opinion against higher education, then the former senator’s position is morally reprehensible. Americans already expect so little of our campaigning politicians, but Santorum is leading his base against their own economic interest and development to score a few political points.
What are Santorum’s goals in putting down higher ed? Painting Ivy League-educated President Obama as elitist and out of touch obviously serves its own political purposes. Santorum also cited concerns that liberal professors would needlessly indoctrinate Americans who are already equipped with employable skills.
To Santorum’s credit, a 2010 Intercollegiate Studies Institute report did find that college graduates are likely to be more liberal on conservative bread-and-butter issues like same sex marriage. However, the report did not detail anything about ideologies being “forced upon” students like Santorum claimed.
The striking, non-partisan economic realities are why I’m so disappointed in Santorum trying to turn education into another wedge social issue.
As Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last month, outsourced jobs are simply not coming home. America instead must invest in, well, themselves, to continue to be competitive in a global economy.
Furthermore, the inequality between those with and those without college degrees is growing. In 1979 when Santorum was an undergrad at Pennsylvania State University, the average college graduate earned 38% more than the average high school graduate. According to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, by 2011 that difference had almost doubled to 75%.
Santorum is clearly, willfully ignorant or lying about the decisive benefits rendered by a college education. Either possibility is unacceptable — regardless of whether he’s following public opinion or leading it.
If (when) Santorum loses the nomination or the general election, it’s not going to be because his rich education is holding him back: it’s going to be because Romney or Obama will take his outdated ideologies back to school.
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