Santorum’s ‘snob’ gaffe offers a sliver of truth about college

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 3, 2012

He couldn’t have said it worse, but there was an important nugget of truth in Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s recent gaffe in calling President Obama “a snob” for wanting everybody to go to college.

No, I don’t agree that the president is a snob. I just think Santorum did the public a service, albeit well-hidden, by calling attention to the reality that not everybody needs to spend four years in college. (Obama has been saying that all along.)

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

In fact, the success of our region’s economy in the next 10 years depends in large part on finding hundreds of thousands of new workers who never obtained a bachelor’s degree — but who still acquired critical technical skills typically taught in community colleges or industry training programs.

Unfortunately, our high schools are falling short in preparing this vital cohort of students. It’s even a problem in the acclaimed Fairfax County schools, as I and others learned last weekend at a joint retreat of the county’s Board of Supervisors and Board of Education.

Astonishingly, according to a speaker at the Feb. 25 session, half of Fairfax high school graduates who go to Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, require remedial courses in math and English. Those students must take “developmental” courses, for which they don’t receive credit, before they can do college-level work.

“The typical student requiring remediation is going to be in mathematics. Historically, it’s taken about a year to remediate that,” NOVA President Robert G. Templin Jr. said in an interview after the retreat.

The shortcoming is confined not just to Fairfax or Northern Virginia. Across the Potomac, Montgomery College reports similar numbers. Experts say community colleges suffer this deficiency nationwide.

It’s important to keep the scale of the problem in context. About a fifth of students coming out of Fairfax County schools go to NOVA. Half of that group needs remediation, thus representing a tenth of Fairfax graduates overall.

That’s still too many, Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said.

“You do the analysis and you see it’s only 8 to 12 percent of your kids, but to me that’s still unacceptable,” Dale said.

Fairfax and NOVA are working on programs that Dale hopes in three years will cut in half the percentage of high school graduates who need remediation. One change being planned would add refresher courses for high school juniors and seniors who have forgotten Algebra since they took it in earlier years.

The goal is meaningful. People who will never get a four-year degree, but who need extra training beyond high school, will form the skilled working class of the future. They’ll be filling jobs around the Beltway in up-and-coming industries such as cybersecurity, biotechnology and health information systems.

Unfortunately, they receive short shrift because school systems, politicians and parents are so focused on preparing children for four-year colleges. In the United States, historically, there’s much less emphasis on vocational and technical education.

Dale said at the retreat that a stigma has prevented students from signing up for welding and plumbing courses when Fairfax schools offered them.

“There’s a bit of a culture in Fairfax of, ‘Don’t go into that,’ ” Dale said.

That’s self-defeating. Many students who struggle in an academic environment in high school are left behind because of the lack of practical courses.

“A lot of kids learn better in an applied context. They learn better if they’re actually doing something,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“But in the U.S., if you’re a politician running for office, and you say you want to have an alternative track that’s more applied, most parents will say, ‘Over my dead body. My kid’s going to college,’ ” he said.

If I twist myself in a knot to be generous, I can think that Santorum was trying to make a similar point in his swipe at Obama. “Not all folks are gifted in the same way,” Santorum said. “Some people have incredible gifts with their hands.”

But he blew it, partly because he described college as just someplace where “liberal” professors try to “indoctrinate” students. He didn’t mention community college or vocational school.

It doesn’t take a snob, just a realist, to see that high school graduates today need to continue their education, even if it’s only for a year or two. Both school systems and families should ensure they’re ready to do so.

For previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to postlocal.com.

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