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Richard Schiffman

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Should Everyone Get a Chance to Go to College?

Posted: 02/28/2012 6:20 pm

Of all the things that Rick Santorum loves to hate, the latest, and also arguably the oddest, is college. The Republican hopeful's curious antipathy to higher education is a recent development. Santorum himself attended Pennsylvania State University as an undergraduate, then the University of Pittsburgh for an M.B.A., and finally the Dickinson School of Law where he was granted a law degree. As a senator, Santorum stated that he was "committed to ensuring the every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education."

Yet he criticized President Obama for suggesting that the same opportunity should be made available for all young people. "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!" Santorum said to laughter and loud applause at a campaign stop in a Detroit suburb last week.

The candidate was reacting to the president's comment that, "higher education cannot be a luxury; it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford." A White House statement clarified that Obama wants "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."

Whether these idealistic ambitions can be realized in an era when tuitions have risen even faster than health care costs for most of the past three decades is another matter. The modest proposals that the administration has put forward to extend low interest rate subsidized student loans, and to reward institutions that keep tuition rates in check will doubtless still leave millions of lower and middle income families still unable to afford to send their kids to college.

But even these reforms may be too much for Rick Santorum. "Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college," Santorum said of Obama. "He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his." What jobs exactly the former senator expects to create without strengthening the education system, which is the backbone of a strong economy, Santorum didn't say.

Thanks to his own college education, Santorum was lucky enough to pursue a career in law and politics. Without those degrees, he might well be working in a coal mine in Western Pennsylvania, as his immigrant grandfather did. He certainly would not have become a comfortable member of the upper middle class, as he is today, nor have risen to a position of national prominence. Not that there is anything wrong with digging coal, or flipping burgers, for that matter. But as Santorum must know, those are the entry level jobs that are available for people without college degrees. Does the Republican hopeful expect to revive our flagging economy by creating lots more minimum wage jobs?

But in fairness to Santorum, he wasn't thinking about the economy when he disparaged higher education. He was thinking of votes. He was doing what he is good at -- playing to the prejudices and fears of the blue collar voters who form his base. The candidate revealed his real motive in an interview with Glenn Beck last Thursday when he remarked, "It's no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs at American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America."

Still one wonders whether this rant against college will fly with the voters Santorum is trying to appeal to. America remains a land where most people still wish more for our children than we may have had ourselves. So long as a university education is the key to social advancement and a good career, I suspect that even many amongst Rick Santorum's supporters will prefer Obama's plan to make it a bit easier for their kids to go to college, than Santorum's quixotic desire to prevent them from entering these liberal hotbeds.

And let's not be too hard on the candidate for his absurd remarks. They have put the national spotlight on a crucial issue. Can we afford to give all of our young people the opportunity to go to college without breaking the bank? In an era when the U.S. is falling behind other developed countries in its educational prowess, can we afford not to?