by Barbara Shelley
College isn’t cool on the GOP campaign trail.
First we had Mitt Romney accusing President Barack Obama of hanging out, at least metaphorically, in “the faculty lounge,” a supposed bastion of liberal intellectual pontification that doesn’t really exist. University professors don’t have much time to lounge these days.
Now we have Rick Santorum taking umbrage at Obama’s suggestion that young people aspire to the college classroom.
“President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum said at a weekend tea party event. “What a snob. … 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.”
Santorum, like Romney, has three college degrees. But his studies in political science, business administration and law apparently never included a proper definition of snobbery.
According to Merriam-Webster, it is “one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior.”
A snob would convey the message to the children of blue-collar workers, minorities and immigrants that they aren’t good enough for college. Obama is instead inviting them to claim their place in the worldwide economy, and making the point – correctly – that the best way to do that is to get academic and/or technical education beyond a high school diploma.
As for Santorum’s indoctrination theory, I think I can put that to rest. He and I attended Penn State right around the same time. We both took political science classes. It’s likely that we had some of the same professors. Yet we don’t think the same way about much of anything and probably never have. Maybe one of us cut too many classes. Maybe both of us.
Fortunately, Santorum’s resentment of higher education isn’t shared by many. Even Republican governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Arizona’s Jan Brewer said this week that, yea, they definitely want people enrolling in college.
In the real world, college is cool. Once all of the candidates figure that out, I hope they will find some time in their busy campaign schedules to discuss how to make it work for more people.
The challenges are immense. High schools overall do a poor job of teaching the math, writing and critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in college or even a technical program. Frightening numbers of high school graduates require remedial work before starting college courses, and colleges by and large aren’t good at remediation.
Higher education hasn’t adjusted to the changing face of campuses. Only 25 percent of today’s students attend school full-time at residential campuses. Three-fourths of the total college enrollment is made up of part-time students who commute from home and juggle school, jobs and families. They graduate at a much lower rate than fulltime students do, which is a clear signal that educators haven’t figured out how to make the college experience work for most students.
I’m not a believer in the higher-ed bubble theory, which suggests that a college degree isn’t worth the money that people borrow to pay for it. Evidence is clear that people with some college spend less time on the unemployment line and make considerably more money over a lifetime than their peers with high school diplomas or less.
But too many people borrow too much money for their educations. That’s especially true in the for-profit sector, where students are most likely to borrow far more than their expected salaries after graduation would enable them to repay.
Romney’s faculty lounge comments conjure up an image of college as smoke-filled rooms in which arrogant professors sit around with their feet up. Santorum seems fixated by the notion of those instructors forcing their beliefs on malleable 20-year-olds. Both scenarios suggest a time warp.
Today’s college student is likely to be a 40-year-old mom taught by an overworked adjunct instructor, both of them more worried about paying bills than one another’s political beliefs. Discussion on the campaign trail shouldn’t be about whether that student belongs in college but about helping her get there and succeed.