Santorum ‘Snob’ Attack on College Collides With Wage Gains

Photographer: Eric Gay/AP

Rick Santorum at his primary election night party on Feb. 28, 2012, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Close

Rick Santorum at his primary election night party on Feb. 28, 2012, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Photographer: Eric Gay/AP

Rick Santorum at his primary election night party on Feb. 28, 2012, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Republican candidate Rick Santorum’s attack on President Barack Obama’s promotion of a college education conflicts with the broad appeal and economic value that higher education holds for young Americans.

With the economy still struggling after emerging from a recession, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults view a college degree as essential for getting a good job, according to a Gallup Poll published in August. And 94 percent of parents with children under 18 expect them to go to college, said Paul Taylor, executive vice president at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

“It’s a near-universal aspiration,” said Taylor.

It pays off: The median annual pay of those 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree was $56,472 in 2009, 70 percent more than those with a high school diploma, Census Bureau figures for 2009 show. A record 30 percent of adults have a four-year degree, the Census shows.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who has made social issues -- such as his long-standing opposition to abortion rights -- a centerpiece of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, knocked Obama for seeking to have more Americans attend college.

Shift From 2006

That’s a turnabout from Santorum’s re-election campaign in 2006, when he supported boosting grants for college students and was “committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education,” according to his website.

Obama has announced a goal of making the U.S. the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“He wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum told supporters in Troy, Michigan, on Feb. 25, in a speech promoting manufacturing jobs and warning that “some liberal college professor” would be “trying to indoctrinate them.”

“What a snob,” Santorum said of the president. “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, 53, has an undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University, a master’s in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law.

A father of seven who with his wife has home-schooled their children, Santorum has reported having five so-called 529 college-savings accounts for his children. Combined, they held between $25,000 and $375,000, according to his financial disclosure filing, which requires that holdings be listed only in ranges.

Vocational Training

Appearing Feb. 26 on ABC’s “This Week,” Santorum said that to lay out four-year college as a goal devalues the role of jobs that require vocational training.

Santorum’s comment during the last weekend before yesterday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona was “probably over the line,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a supporter of Santorum rival Mitt Romney.

“Every kid doesn’t want to go to college, but I think we should aspire to let every child reach his maximum or her maximum potential,” Christie, who earlier this year was viewed as a potential presidential contender, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Feb. 26. “I don’t think the president is a snob for saying that.”

Santorum lost the Arizona primary to Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, by 20 percentage points and the Michigan race by three points. In Michigan, 44 percent of voters with college degrees supported Romney and 36 percent backed Santorum, according to exit polling.

Foreign Competition

Competitiveness is the real issue, say Silicon Valley executives who long have complained that U.S. education policies aren’t producing workers with the necessary skills.

“Every other country is pouring money and time into educating their workforces to compete with ours,” said Dan Rosensweig, former operating chief of Yahoo! Inc. and now chief executive officer of the online education company Chegg Inc. in Santa Clara, California.

“I hardly consider it a snob to ask people of this country to prepare themselves and educate themselves for the kinds of jobs that will be available,” he said.

Culture Wars

U.S. colleges have been the target of Republicans in the so-called culture wars since the 1960s, when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan clashed with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrating against the Vietnam War. In 2006, Santorum complained that academia was in thrall to the left, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Santorum has a point, said Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queens College in New York City who has written about higher education.

“Colleges are, shall we say, a warm bed of fervent liberalism,” Hacker said. Still, he said the economic benefits are clear and Santorum probably won’t score much with voters by challenging it.

“There’s no question that a college degree gets you a higher salary for the rest of your life,” he said. “There’s no votes in trying to gang up on the colleges.”

The unemployment rate for high-school graduates who didn’t go to college was 8.4 percent in January, twice the 4.2 percent rate for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

‘Only Real Alternative’

Walter Howard, who works evenings stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart in Clay, New York, spends days in class at community college. He sees it as a way to a better life in that Rust Belt town where good jobs seem few and far between.

A 40-year-old Republican, Howard sees no merit to Santorum’s complaint.

“He’s wrong,” Howard said. “The economy’s not getting better. The economy’s not shifting and college just seems like the only real alternative to try and better yourself.”

Scott DeRuischer, 38, a Republican from Ionia, Michigan, said he didn’t recognize the importance of college when he was in high school and plans to encourage his three children to pursue degrees. The self-employed homebuilder wants to become an architect and is studying now at the community college in Lansing.

“I don’t see it as snobbish,” he said. “It makes sense, if you have the ability to do it.”

At a conference at the White House on Feb. 27, Obama urged visiting governors to avoid cutting resources for public education as they look for ways to trim their budgets, saying the economic growth of the U.S. will depend on a skilled workforce.

Obama’s ‘Strong Message’

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who drew attention for her pointed exchange with Obama when he visited her state in January, praised the speech.

Obama “has a good, strong message on education,” she told reporters. “That is one area on which we agree.”

At a polling place in Phoenix yesterday, Regan Widdifield, a 37-year-old IT project manager at Apollo Group, the parent company of the private online college University of Phoenix, criticized Santorum’s comments.

“I may not agree with Obama about many things, but getting smarter never hurt anyone,” Widdifield said after casting her ballot for Romney.

To contact the reporters on this story: William Selway in Washington at wselway@bloomberg.net; Timothy Homan in Washington at Thoman1@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva@bloomberg.net

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