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Santorum’s misfire on Obama, colleges and religion

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“President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob! There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

— Former senator Rick Santorum, Feb. 25, 2012

  “You know the statistic that at least I was familiar with from a few years ago, I don't know if it still holds true but I suspect it may even be worse, that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it.”

— Santorum, on ABC’s “This Week,” Feb. 26, 2012

There are two things going on with these remarks by Santorum — an attack on Obama for demanding college education for everyone and then an assertion that the college experience is akin to some sort of liberal boot camp.

 We always thought college was more about being liberated (from parents), but clearly in some conservative circles there has also been an undercurrent of concern about attitudes on college campuses. (Some colleges, such as Hillsdale College in Michigan, in fact market themselves as conservative alternatives.)

  But let’s check out Santorum’s claims about Obama and also examine whether there is data that backs up Santorum’s fears about college’s impact on people’s politics and religion.

 

The Facts

Obama’s statement on college education, made in his first speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, is easy to check. The president, noting the success of the GI Bill after World War II, said the United States should seek to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world: 

“And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”  

 Hmm…that sounds like Obama is talking about more than just a four-year college; he simply says “one year or more” and includes community college, vocational training or an apprenticeship on his list of possibilities.

 Indeed, compare Obama’s 2009 quote with this one:

 “There's technical schools. There's additional training, vocational training. There's skills and apprenticeships. There's all sorts of things that people can do to upgrade their skills, to be very productive and great workers here in America who provide for their families and build their community.”

 That actually wasn’t Obama; it was Santorum, offering his alternative to college on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” We have a hard time discerning much of a difference, and Santorum’s campaign did not respond to a request for an explanation. (Update: Our colleagues at PolitiFact looked at 18 speeches in which Obama discussed education and still found little evidence to back up Santorum’s claim.)

  (Meanwhile, Talking Points Memo unearthed a 2006 campaign pledge from then-Sen. Santorum “ensuring the [sic] every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education,” including providing “loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable.” The old campaign Web site also brags about Santorum’s vote for the No Child Left Behind law, which he has since disavowed.)

 On the ABC program, Santorum also cited a study that “62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it,” though he said it may be out of date. “I suspect it may even be worse,” he offered.

 PBS earlier this month tracked down the study Santorum refers to, but it actually suggests that people who have not enrolled in college are even less religious. “64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits,” said the study, published in the journal Social Forces. “Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.”

 Another study, published last year in the Review of Religious Research, found that for each year of education after 7th grade, seemingly contradictory trends emerge: people become more likely to attend religious services and to believe in a “higher power” but at the same time they are less likely to say the Bible is the “actual word of God” and become more open to believing there is truth in more than one religion.

The researcher, sociologist Philip Schwadel, concluded after analyzing data from a large national survey:

 “The above results suggest that religion plays an important role in the lives of highly educated Americans. While education has a positive effect on switching religious affiliations, particularly to mainline denominations and ‘other’ religious traditions, it is unrelated to religious disaffiliation. Education also has a positive effect on religious participation, emphasizing the importance of religion, and supporting the rights of religious authorities to influence people’s votes.”

 We will not delve deeply into the question of whether colleges are hotbeds of liberalism. But it may be worth noting that one of the standard research texts on this question, “How College Affects Students,” found after a review of the existing research that there is only marginal support for the notion that college increases liberalism among college students as they progress from freshman to senior year. Both the number of liberals and conservatives appear to modestly increase during this period.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 Santorum clearly mischaracterized Obama’s comments on college, which actually mirror Santorum’s own views. Obama did not say he wanted “everybody in America to go to college.”

Santorum also completely misstated the results of research on the impact of college attendance on religious behavior. The relevant studies suggest that going to college actually increases religious attendance (albeit with perhaps a bit more skeptical mind).

 Four Pinocchios




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