Rick Santorum is stretching his criticism of President Obama’s advocacy of universal college attendance into a broader attack on college itself. Santorum has three college degrees, which provides a good indication of how seriously one should take his assault on what he is labeling as Obama’s elitism. As with so many of Santorum’s statements, this criticism contains a grain of perception smothered in reactionary dogma.
“President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said last weekend. “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.”
This is not new. For months, Santorum has been making the point that encouraging all Americans to earn a college degree reveals Obama to be hopelessly elitist. Blue-collar work done with skill and pride is as honorable as any pursuit that requires first enduring courses on 20th century feminist poets or the fundamentals of marketing, he’s been saying. Alas, instead of sticking with that point, he shifted the debate to the corrupting effect of college itself.
On ABC’s This Week, Santorum noted that a large percentage of students who enter college professing a religious faith lose it by the time they graduate, and he complained of political correctness on campus.
All of that is true, but beside the point. The president is vulnerable on this subject, but Santorum’s barbs fail to sting because, as usual, they narrow rather than broaden his appeal. Santorum’s criticism is not of the president, but of college. In his telling, college is no place Americans should send their children. It is a place where radical leftists turn the budding youth of capitalist America into unthinking socialist drones.
The contrast Santorum presents is this: Obama wants your kids to go to college so his radical professor buddies can indoctrinate them. The American voters should pick Santorum instead because he wants the country to have enough high-school-level jobs so you never have to send your kids to one of those socialist re-education camps in the first place.
In a nation in which almost everyone aspires to upward mobility, how is this a winning political argument?
Sure, colleges are hothouses of liberalism. They have been for generations. And yet Americans of all political persuasions continue to send their children there en masse.
“Enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 9 percent between 1989 and 1999,” reports the National Center for Education Statistics. “Between 1999 and 2009, enrollment increased 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million.”
Santorum’s message to these millions of Americans and their families is: Suckers. You fell into Obama’s indoctrination trap!
Instead of attacking college, Santorum should be attacking Obama. The president’s college promotion scheme is vulnerable to two criticisms that seem to have largely escaped Santorum’s notice because they don’t fit his ’80s and ’90s-era conservative talking points on the subject of higher education.
The first is the cost. If millions more Americans go to college, who is going to pay for it? Obama’s answer is, of course, the taxpayer. He wants to turn higher education into yet another federal entitlement. Can’t afford college? Don’t worry; Washington will subsidize it. This mentality is the reason why Obama projects a $25 trillion federal debt in 10 years.
College confers advantages for many graduates, Santorum should say, but this is crazy. If America’s families cannot afford college, the answer is not to further socialize the cost. That does not make college cheaper. It only encourages colleges to keep raising tuition and fees because the beneficiaries will pay a shrinking portion of the bill directly. Obama proposes for college the same system that has helped make medical care so expensive — a major shift to third-party payments.
The second is the naked political cronyism. Obama’s college scheme is a double vote-buying plan. With one initiative he buys the votes of middle class families who want to pay less for higher education AND everyone who draws a paycheck from an American college or university. This is the auto bailouts and the stimulus bill all over again. It is a transfer of taxpayer cash to a crucial Democratic Party voting bloc — college and university faculty and staff.
The president is running the country into previously unimagined depths of indebtedness with blatantly obvious vote-buying schemes. His college initiative is the latest in a long line of examples. It clearly fits the pattern and helps confirm what so many Americans already believe or are coming around to believe about this president — that he is a financial incompetent who has nothing to offer but the channeling of taxpayer money to political constituencies he personally favors.
Yet, instead of taking this opportunity to further expose Obama as a charlatan, Santorum denigrates college.