Obama and the Cult of College: Why Rick Santorum Had a Point

He called the president "a snob" who wants everybody in America to go to college. He was wrong -- but not completely wrong.

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A week and a half ago, at a Tea Party rally in Troy, Michigan, the GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum said this: "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!"

To rapturous applause, Santorum went on: "There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him." And then, the kicker: "I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image."

The audience, mostly older folks in working-class garb, laughed with Santorum.

Everyone else, it seemed like, laughed at him, with more than a few pointing out that the candidate himself owns both MBA and law degrees. "Politicians say the darndest things, especially when their lips are moving," Republican columnist Kathleen Parker japed.

And indeed, strictly speaking, Santorum was wrong upon wrong upon wrong. First of all, Obama never said that everyone in America ought to go to college. Second, he manifestly doesn't believe it: In the quote Santorum is apparently referring to, from the first February of his presidency, Obama asked "every American to commit to at least one more year of higher education or career training" – at a four-year school, or, he specified, at community college or in an apprenticeship or vocational training. In fact, the president is on the same page as Rick Santorum, who in his Michigan speech pointed out, correctly, that "not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands … and want to work out there making things." And they’re both right; in the coming years, "mid-skill" careers like dental hygienist, construction manager, and electrician will be where more and more of the good jobs are.

So, Santorum’s claim that Obama wants everyone to go to college to become Marxist deconstructionists was wrong. In fact, it was so wrong that it didn't even survive Fox News, where, presented with evidence that Obama, like him, favored all kinds of educational opportunities, including but not limited to college, Santorum replied, sheepishly, "Maybe I was reading some things" that gave him the wrong impression, and "if it was an error, then I agree with the president."

But wait. Stick to your guns, Rick! The thing is, you exposed a poetic truth: While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it, and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price.

Here’s how. One of Lyndon Johnson's aides once joked that his boss so worshipped the power of education that "he seemed to think it would cure everything from chilblains to ingrown toenails." Barack Obama errs on the side of the chilblains theory of education, too. Most of us do, especially educated Democrats. Liberals tend to stress how marvelous education is, in and of itself, and also adore it as a vessel for genuine equality. (That's me, by the way: Hell, I think we should be spending $50 billion a year to make college education free.) Few of us take seriously enough the moral wisdom  of the great populist leader William Jennings Bryan, who said in the early twentieth century, a time when only six percent of Americans graduated high school, "I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it."

Do you? Does Barack Obama? Not exactly. "The administration has done a good job of talking about, and even funding, career training for high-school graduates," says education expert Dana Goldstein of the New America Foundation. "What they will not do very much is talk about or fund career training for teens, even though there is good evidence that if you don't offer career and technical training via the public schools, you may lose people forever." A democracy of the heart that acknowledges there are simply some people who will never step into an academic classroom post-high school, and that this is alright, seems a bridge-to-the-twentieth-century too far for our schooling-mad politicians these days.

Meanwhile, those find their way into technical and career training after high school have a nasty surprise in store: crippling debt. Student debt, which, as President Obama pointed out in proposing a relief program last fall, has now surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever, has become a major burden for all kinds of Americans, but an especially heavy one for those who sought vocational training. That's largely thanks to the rise of a corrupt $30 billion for-profit education industry that came into being to the vast sums of money that liberal legislators keep throwing at student loans, and which deploys high-pressure sales tactics to sell an often-shoddy product. Corruption is common (See this Facebook page if you don't believe me). One former admissions counselor for a major for-profit vocational school wrote, "The pressure to sign people incapable of doing the work was overwhelming." Graduation and job placement rates are terrible. Of the 2008 graduates of one typical school, the Art Institute of Dallas, which teaches design, fashion, media arts, and culinary programs, about a fifth defaulted on their student loans within three years – because they couldn't find the jobs they'd been trained for. In 2010, the Obama administration began drawing up proposed new "gainful employment" regulations for the industry under which graduates would have to actually be getting value from their educations in order for programs to keep getting federal funds – a reasonable enough imposition, considering that these schools get 90 percent of their revenue from our tax dollars.

The industry went berserk, blanketing Washington with a shameful $16-million lobbying campaign. Democrats with close White House ties were especially active, including former WH spokesperson Anita Dunn who helped "Kaplan University" come up with a message that the problem was only a few bad apples (it isn't); Kaplan's owner, the Washington Post Company, deployed CEO Don E. Graham, who "made impassioned appeals" to policy-makers. A mendacious ad campaign played to liberal guilt: Earnest minority folk in nurses' scrubs and mechanics' togs implored, "I don't count? Some in Washington think I don't." The Art Institute of Dallas's celebrity grad (and former instructor) Tiffany Derry of 'Top Chef All Stars' wrote in The Hill about how the government was out to hamper "at-risk, minority, and low-income or older students who may be raising a family by themselves." In fact, the claim was wildly misleading.

Even so, the Obama administration caved, watering down the proposal. (Here's an account of what the sausage-making looked like up close.) "The stock market declared a winner," the Washington Post reported: "the industry and its network of lobbyists."

Clearly, then, we don’t exactly make it easy for kids to take the alternative-to-college route. What about the ones who do go to college? Well, as Dana Goldstein has pointed out, many don’t make it through; only 53 percent of students who enter four-year colleges graduate in six years.  Even for the quarter or so of Americans who graduate from four-year colleges, the numbers on the value of higher education don't always add up, at least not like we once thought. A major grievance of Occupy protesters is student loan debt; on the Tumblr site "We are the 99%" it is the most frequently cited concern. The "educated unemployed" are a rising social problem; what's more, even real earnings among college graduates who are employed are down – over 19 percent for young male college grads since their peak in 2000. And even over the long term, between 1975 and 2004, real earnings for college grads rose by less than one percent a year, notes Paul Krugman. One reason more and more people are willing to go into more and more student debt is that they were told this is a commodity whose value can only increase, much as homeowners were told the value of their homes could only increase. And, even if the value of a college degree has certainly not collapsed, more and more young people feel like those underwater homeowners – owing far more than their degree could be possibly be worth.

So there are plenty of substantive reasons why Democrats should dial down the college boosterism. And here's a political reason – one that speaks directly to why Rick Santorum thought he could gain mileage from slamming the cult of college. Roughly speaking, the Democratic Party is a coalition of the undereducated and the hypereducated: Barack Obama won 63 percent of voters without high school degrees and 58 percent of postgraduates, compared to 35 and 40 percent for McCain. Every time a Democrat tells one of the 73 percent of American adults who don't have a bachelor's degree that the answer to their economic problems is to get one, they demoralize the former component of that base. "The only way for the Democrats to stay in power," the lawyer and social critic Thomas Geoghegan has written, is ultimately to "tell people we will create an economy in which a high-school degree will mean something." But I don’t see Barack Obama getting there anytime soon. He is not only our first black president. He's also the first one whose parents both earned graduate degrees.

I don't see us – the broader community of high-minded literate folk – getting there, either. "I SEE SMART PEOPLE," read one of the signs at Stephen Colbert's and Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity." Not that smart – not if our narrow-minded zeal for academic accomplishment keeps us from making a society that creates opportunity for all.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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