ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum calls President Barack Obama "a snob" for wanting all Americans to attend college, he may be out of step with the public's overall view of higher education.
Many Americans are suspicious of the culture of academia, and most are angry about rising costs. But they overwhelmingly – and increasingly – agree that higher education is important and aspire to it for themselves and their children.
On the campaign trail, Santorum has criticized what he perceives as the liberal nature of the higher education community. He upped the ante on his arguments leading into Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona.
"President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said Saturday. "There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to test, who aren't taught by some liberal college professor (who) tries to indoctrinate them. 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."
Santorum mischaracterized Obama's comments. In fact, the president has called for all Americans to obtain some form of education beyond high school, although not necessarily four-year colleges as Santorum has repeatedly implied, and for the United States to regain the global lead in those with college degrees by 2020. Many of Obama's higher-education initiatives, including a proposed $8 billion fund unveiled as part of his budget proposal earlier this month, focus on workforce development at community colleges that award certificates and degrees of less than four years.
The president, addressing governors at the White House on Monday, emphasized that goal again.
"When I speak about higher education we're not just talking about a four-year degree," he said. "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."
White House press secretary Jay Carney later said that he didn't believe Obama was specifically reacting to Santorum's "snob" comment. But Carney addressed it directly: "I don't think any parent in American who has a child would think it snobbery to hope for that child the best possible education in the future, and that includes college."
Santorum's main challenger, Mitt Romney, steered clear of pointedly agreeing or disagreeing with either Santorum or Obama.
"There's no question but that those who have the skills and the interest in going to college we'd like to see have that opportunity, but there are some people of course who have a different course in their lives," Romney said Monday in an interview with Detroit radio station WXYT. "Not all of our people are going to graduate from college, and we need to let people have their own course in life. But surely if someone wants to go to college we hope that the tuition cost of college will be affordable so people can make that choice for themselves."
Santorum and Romney each have three college degrees – a bachelor's, an MBA and a law degree. Obama has a bachelor's degree and a law degree.
Interviewed Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Santorum recalled a statistic that suggested more than 60 percent of kids who enter college committed to a faith leave without it. He said there are "some real problems at our college campuses with political correctness, with an ideology that is forced upon people who, you know, who may not agree with the politically correct left doctrine."
In December, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Santorum attacked the culture of higher education, telling voters that colleges and universities have become "indoctrination centers for the left." He also took a swipe at Harvard University's motto, "Veritas," which is Latin for truth. "They haven't seen truth at Harvard in 100 years," he said.
Santorum, a former two-term U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who lost re-election in 2006, has often criticized what he views as elitist. Some of his greatest levels of support have come from voters without a college education, said Chris Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
Santorum's more recent comments on education appear part of an effort to energize blue-collar Republicans, and the topic provides a backdrop for him to define his conservatism, Borick said.
Elite colleges have long faced accusations they are out of touch politically with ordinary Americans. And in recent years, polls show eroding confidence in the integrity of colleges and that they have students' interests ahead of their own bottom lines.
However, in the last decade the proportion of Americans saying higher education is essential for success has roughly doubled from about 30 percent to roughly 60 percent, said Patrick Callan, president of the California-based Higher Education Policy Institute.
"There's a strong American sense ... that everybody ought to have a chance, and if they don't it's not a fair system," Callan said. While resentment and frustration over affordability are building, "I've never seen anybody elected to governor or state legislature by saying, `We're letting too many people go to college,'" he said.
According to a Pew poll from last March, 94 percent of parents with at least one child under the age of 18 think their child will go to college.
In a 2010 Phi Delta Kappa poll conducted by Gallup, 75 percent of Americans called a college education "very important" and 21 percent called it "fairly important," with just 4 percent calling it not important.
"Nobody in any of (our) focus groups ever said, `I'm so suspicious of those colleges, my kids not going. I'm going to home-school my kids for college,'" Callan said.
In January, the national unemployment rate stood at 4.2 percent for workers with at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 7.2 percent for workers with some college. The rate was 8.4 percent for people with just a high school degree, and 13.1 percent for those without a high school diploma.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center, said Santorum's comments are simply a "strategic misstep."
"You don't ever attack the aspirations of the American people, and the American people aspire to have children and grandchildren get a college or university degree, and they do it on simple economic grounds," she said.
Even conservative leader Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for governor in the 1960s against student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, was supportive of higher education once elected, said John Thelin, professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky and author of a history of American colleges.
While it's true on balance that college faculty probably lean left, generally colleges are fairly conservative institutions turning out students who "aim to be employable, to fit into existing organizations," Thelin said.
"I think a candidate possibly in desperation will look for something to latch onto. Once in a while it may be convenient to cite a campus or colleges in general as a fall guy for something," he said. "It's never the full basis of a campaign."
Hefling, Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn, AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report from Washington.