Say what you will about this era's Republican presidential candidates, they at least have chutzpah.
Millionaire blue-blood George W. Bush pretended to be a down-home cowboy. Two-time divorcee and longtime Washington influence peddler Newt Gingrich struts around preaching about traditional family values and insisting he's a D.C. outsider. Now, topping them all is Rick Santorum, who last week declared that only "snobs" support efforts to make a college education more accessible to all Americans.
Santorum, of course, has not one, not two, but a whopping three separate degrees, two of which come from public universities—that is, two that were taxpayer-subsidized, courtesy of the "Big Government" Santorum now claims to loathe.
Hypocritical--and dare I say, snobbish--as it is for someone with such a pedigree to attack President Obama's college affordability initiatives, Santorum did inadvertently stumble into a significant question: Is higher education for everyone? The answer today is not necessarily, but that's precisely because of the affordability problem Obama aims to solve.
N+1 magazine notes that since the late 1970s, when Santorum was enjoying his taxpayer-subsidized higher education, "the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased over 900 percent." In 2011, that meant the average total cost of a year at a public university was $21,477, up 5.4 percent in just 12 months. Thanks to cuts to programs that make college and vocational education more affordable--cuts Santorum supported in Congress--those tuition increases promise to get even steeper in the coming years, all but ensuring that a future college student will have even more than the $25,250 in education debt that today's average student carries.
With higher education this unaffordable but with most decent-paying jobs in our economy still requiring a degree, the trends have created another bubble scenario. Those lucky enough to get a job out of school can barely pay back their now-massive loans, and those left jobless in the recession can't pay back their loans at all, leaving us facing the potential of mass defaults and yet another financial meltdown.
Not surprisingly, this frightening situation has initiated a debate over whether college remains a good investment. Most of the data say that on average it still is--that the money typically spent on higher education is made back in comparatively higher wages during a career. However, that data is less clear than it once was, and that typical experience is no longer such a guarantee. Indeed, there are more and more situations where college might not be such a solid financial investment--not because it's wrong for a particular student's interests, but because the economics of tuition prices and the anemic job market make it too risky a gamble.
Those economics are an obvious symptom of a larger crisis involving all sorts of cuts--revenue-draining tax cuts, cuts to education budgets and cuts to public programs that sustain decent jobs. But because any critical discussion of those policies offends the GOP's corporate financiers, Santorum is trying to define the crisis on unrelated, culture-war terms. He would have us believe the emergency is about "snobbery" from Democrats arrogantly pressuring Americans to get degrees. In this, he gets a two-fer: he can both avoid tough issues and pander to the anti-intellectual, anti-elitist sensibilities of Republican primary voters.
As the facts prove, though, the real crisis is about a conservative economic agenda whose anti-government extremism is making the path to a degree and a decent job even tougher than it naturally is during tough times.
Trying to make that path just a tad easier—like it was when Santorum got his three degrees—isn't snobbery. It's the opposite.