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Raul González Headshot

Was Rick Santorum Right About College?

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No, of course not. When Senator Santorum said that President Obama is a snob for suggesting that more Americans should get a college education, he was clearly wrong. If we're going to compete globally, more of us need to go to college. Americans with a college degree are less likely to be unemployed today than those with just a high school diploma. Today's manufacturing jobs require higher-level skills than those of previous generations. Clearly, a college degree is an advantage -- for those who can afford it. The problem is not that college is for "snobs," but that access to college is increasingly reserved for the most affluent among us.

For working-class Americans, a college degree is a ticket to the middle class and beyond. It captures the hopes and dreams of families who work hard so that their children can get a post-secondary education, climb the economic ladder, and become our nation's next generation of leaders. But four-year colleges have priced themselves out of the middle-class marketplace, placing at risk their ability to promote social and economic mobility. They are too expensive an investment for working- and middle-class families, whose children have to choose between being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from a four-year college and purchasing a home.

The current housing crisis notwithstanding, property ownership is typically a way to climb up the economic ladder and remains the embodiment of the American dream. It might not be available to a working- or middle-class college graduate awash in college debt. More affluent young people can either get help from their parents to pay for college or for their first homes. Could it be that four-year colleges, because of cost, are contributing to economic inequality gaps, rather than closing them? That's a critical question for our times, but some politicians don't seem to care.

The House of Representatives recently passed a budget proposal that would cut financial aid for those who need it most. Over the next school year, Pell grants could be cut by nearly $3 billion dollars -- completely eliminating aid for almost 400,000 students and affecting millions more. These federally funded grants help more than eight million low-income students, including 40 percent of Latino undergraduates, attend post-secondary programs all over the country. With the financial burden of college on the rise and post-secondary education necessary to compete in a globalized economy, now is not the time for legislators to remove rungs from the ladder to success.

Although Senator Santorum's comments miss the mark regarding who should attend college, they raise an important point about our nation's future -- how young people from working-class families fit in, and whether or not our country will invest in those families. Congress is currently in recess, so now is a good time to ask your senators and representatives what they're doing to keep the cost of college down, and what they're doing to help working-class families pay for college. Young people shouldn't have to choose between a better education and manageable debt.

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.