My fellow Americans, college is not a priority

Presidential hopefuls' attitudes to sector range from indifference to hostility. Jon Marcus reports

March 15, 2012

Credit: Alamy
No Left turn: Republican Rick Santorum decries 'liberal' influence on campus

Higher education has become the latest battlefield in the polarising campaign among Republicans vying to challenge Barack Obama after one candidate branded the president "a snob" for suggesting that more Americans should go to university.

"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 that [tries] to indoctrinate them," declared US senator Rick Santorum.

Mr Santorum has previously said that universities' "radical secular ideology" strips students of their religious faith. "The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the Left holding and maintaining power in America," he said.

But while such pronouncements have won tentative applause from ardently conservative supporters, observers doubt they will resonate with many voters.

Polls by the San Jose-based Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) show that 60 per cent of Americans consider a university degree essential to succeeding in the job market, up from 30 per cent just 10 years before.

Pundits have also gleefully observed that Mr Santorum has an undergraduate degree and a law degree from Pennsylvania State University and a master's in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Indeed, he is part of a field that may be among the most educated ever to run for president.

If his fellow candidates feel disdain for higher education, they have shown it by largely ignoring the issue, although they have some plans.

The most radical, Texas Congressional representative Ron Paul (an alumnus of Gettysburg College and Duke University), wants to do away with national income tax, which he has said would help struggling students by eliminating taxes on tips.

But Mr Paul would also end the federal programme that extends loans to students totalling approximately $100 billion (£63 billion) a year, saying that it only encourages universities to raise their prices.

He would also eliminate the federal Department of Education.

Newt Gingrich (who attended Emory University and has two advanced degrees, including a doctorate from Tulane University) would not do away with the department entirely, but would weaken it significantly.

The former speaker of the House of Representatives wants to let smart students skip their final year of secondary school and go straight to university, where they would get at least one year's worth of free tuition, or have the opportunity to work in exchange for the full cost of their education.

Meanwhile, the current frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (an alumnus of Brigham Young University who has two advanced degrees from Harvard University) would address the shortage of Americans with maths, science and engineering skills by granting permanent residence to foreign-born graduates with advanced degrees in those fields from US institutions.

Meanwhile, Mr Santorum's suggestion that expecting everyone to go to college is elitist seems to be making little headway.

"Politically, in all my years I never heard anybody run for office say: 'I'm going to make this...a better place by having fewer people go to college,' " said Pat Callan, the president of the US Hepi.

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