There is a lot of criticism of higher education these days. Despite the growth of college enrollment in the past ten years, including the boom in online college programs, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that, “A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority—75%—says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.” Last week, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum declared that President Obama was a “snob” for supporting higher education. He said, “Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands! President Obama once said he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob.”
In addition to taking the President’s comments out of context, Santorum is just plain wrong, for a number of reasons:
- Earning a college degree has been part of the American Dream throughout the twentieth century—so much so that college funding was incorporated into the G.I. Bill, to help returning veterans of World War II improve their lives. James Truslow Adams, who created the phrase “American Dream,” is quoted on the home page of the Institute of the American Dreamat Penn State University:[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. [The Epic of America, 1931]
- If we accept the above definition of the American Dream, it means that Rick Santorum thinks that anyone who wants to fulfill all of his or her potential is a “snob.” Suspicions of good old fashioned book learnin’ have long been part of American life, as historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out decades ago in his landmark analysis Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and Santorum’s comments may reflect the current anti-intellectualism of our culture. At a time of economic struggle, some may view college study as superfluous.
- There’s also a touch of dangerous Social Darwinism implied by Santorum’s comments, because they suggest that only “gifted” people can or should go to college. But this argument runs counter to the ideals of a democracy, in which the only limitations that should be placed on an individual are those which he or she accepts. At the community college where I teach, some students have Down Syndrome, some are former drug dealers and ex-cons, some speak very little English, and some are just not great students. None of them conform to the definition of “gifted,” but since when was that an indicator of success or a reason to deny equal opportunity?
Santorum’s comments have generated a huge backlash, led by many state governors who are focusing their efforts on increasing higher education opportunities in their states. They know what everyone else seems to know: a college degree is incredibly valuable, especially in our current economic situation. According to Time’s education correspondent Kayla Webley, “encouraging Americans to get some form of higher education is not snobbery—it’s an acknowledgment of the shortfall of skilled workers that our nation is currently experiencing, which is only expected to worsen in the coming years.”
Here are some more good reasons to get a college degree:
- Competition: The job market is tight. Despite positive signs of recovery, unemployment is still over 8%. A college degree will help a job candidate stand out among hundreds of applicants for any given job who may not have a degree. It’s an essential edge in today’s job market because recruiters place a higher value on college graduates than non-graduates.
- Earning Potential: There’s no question about it: College graduates earn more over their lifetimes than non-graduates. Though many people will probably throw the examples of successful college-dropouts such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson at you, I would argue that the exceptions prove the rule: For every single college-dropout-turned-millionaire, there are probably millions for whom a college degree meant a significant improvement over their parents’ lifetime earnings.
- Freedom: Maybe the most important reason of all is that a brief examination of history shows that the opportunity to learn was not always available to everyone. In the United States, women were barred from colleges and universities until 1848; slave codes made reading illegal for slaves and prescribed severe punishments for anyone, whites included, who taught a slave to read, slaves were not even allowed to learn how to read. Why? Knowledge is power. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leader of the abolition movement, said “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” A college education gives you freedom because it gives you options. We cannot take that for granted.
Don’t get me wrong: People who choose not to go to college or are unable to go are equally important to our society as college-educated workers. In fact, I probably have a better understanding of the value of those who work with their hands than Santorum does: I’m the daughter of a factory worker who did not go to college, and neither of my siblings went. Santorum is the son of a clinical psychologist and a nurse, both of whom presumably went to college. His parents and mine are all productive, valuable contributors to the economy, politics, and society. Resting the value of America’s blue collar workers on a devaluation of those whose work relies on the college training they completed is therefore unfair to all.
Besides, it is not snobbery to want to follow your dreams.
Isn’t that what the American Dream is all about?