Mr. Santorum’s “snob” remark about higher education is getting push back from surprising quarters. That’s because millions of Americans look to higher education as a way to pull their families forward both economically, and in increased job satisfaction. While fewer than one third of Americans hold a B.A. or higher, 75% of Americans polled believe that a college education is “very important” in today’s economy. And 92 percent of public school parents believe that their children will go to college. (Both stats from Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, September 2010) That’s because they know intuitively the what many of us in my region show students through a program called Achievement Counts (AC), created by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (yup, a group of business executives). That is, that with every year of schooling you get beyond high school, your job opportunities and income level increase. Despite his rhetoric, Mr. Santorum knows this, given the millions he’s made as a Washington, D.C. consultant with his B.A., J.D. and M.B.A. When I’ve led these brief AC classes at my local high schools, I always poll the kids about what they want to be when they graduate. Many of them plan to play in the NBA or NFL. “What if you get injured?” I ask, knowing it’s hopeless to make the case that a tiny fraction of American athletes could ever even qualify. That’s when a light-bulb goes off for a few of the kids. If you like the science of the body and athletics, I say, consider getting trained in Physical Therapy, one of the fastest-growing careers in the country. (This requires a minimum Associates Dgree to be an Assistant, and a full B.A. and post-graduate work to become a PT.) Maybe it’s worth getting an accounting degree (B.A. and CPA license required), so you could help those NFL guys manage their millions. Maybe you might even want to go into business for yourself—so you could buy your own team one day!
Mr. Santorum’s father was an Italian immigrant. My dad’s grandparents immigrated from Italy a generation earlier. And while my grandmother completed junior high and my grandfather elementary school, it was a point of great pride that they were able to send their son to college. He worked the entire time he attended Fordham University (run by the Jesuits, hardly the bastion of radicalism Santorum paints for campus life), driving a laundry truck to deliver linens to the fancy yachts at the docks on the river. He told me once that while it was tough to get up so early to make his deliveries and still stay awake for classes, the job reminded him of the tedium he could avoid by getting that college degree. He went on to get a graduate degree from Columbia in Economics and worked as an economist his entire life.
The road through high school is hard for many kids. College is not for everyone. But getting a foothold in 21st century life requires more training than a high school degree can offer. Mr. Santorum knows it. And those of us who care about and work in the education field need to keep reminding Americans that higher education is a brand worth celebrating.