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Rick Santorum takes heat for ‘snob’ comment against President Obama

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Rick Santorum calls it snobbery to suggest that students ought to go to college. On Monday, several of his fellow Republicans — and President Obama — begged to differ.

Some GOP governors in Washington for the National Governors Association took issue with Santorum’s remark, which he made Saturday as he mounted a last-minute sprint for votes before Tuesday’s primary in Michigan.

“I wish he’d said it differently,” Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said of Santorum. “When you look at what’s going on in other countries, China, India, the premium they put on higher education — we’ve got to do better if we still want to be the global leader we are.”

McDonnell, who has endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, was echoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, another Romney supporter, as well as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who have not endorsed any of the remaining candidates in the presidential race.

Santorum also drew a tacit rebuke from the president, who defended his education policies Monday in an address to the governor’s group. He said his higher education plan includes a vision for those students who do not attend traditional universities.

“I’m not only talking about four-year degrees,” Obama said. “I’m also talking about going to community college to get a degree for a manufacturing job where you have to walk through the door to handle a million-dollar piece of equipment.”

The dust-up comes at a critical juncture for Santorum, who is trying to maintain his momentum in the Republican presidential race in the face of increased scrutiny since his surprising victories this month in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.

Michigan is prime territory for Santorum, a social conservative who has tried to play up his working-class roots. Throughout his campaign, he has painted Obama and Romney as Washington elites who are trying to impose their values on those who spend weekdays working in factories and Sunday mornings in church.

It was an extension of that cultural attack when he criticized Obama on Saturday as a “snob” for wanting “everybody to go to college.” He went on to say that Obama wants students to attend liberal universities so that they can be inculcated in the same values that drive the president.

“Not all folks are gifted in the same way,” Santorum told a crowd of more than a thousand activists at the Americans for Prosperity forum in Troy, Mich. “Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. . . . President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

His message has resonated with some conservative voters, whose support has pushed Santorum into a competitive position against Romney.

“I think the president is an elitist, and he thinks he knows what’s best for everyone,” Eric Maynard, 40, a pastor from Flushing, Mich., said at a Santorum event Monday. “In Michigan, we have a large blue-collar population, and what senator Santorum said is right. Not everybody can go to college.”

But to some critics, this latest attack goes beyond his typical
anti-elite rhetoric and flies in the face of what has long been drilled into American families: that a college education is the most certain path to a brighter future for students as well as the country.

On Monday, Santorum and his advisers tried to stress that he was not questioning the merits of a college education. Adviser Hogan Gidley said Santorum is not criticizing any particular policy of Obama’s, but rather a “mentality” that people with college degrees are superior to those without them, such as those who join the military right after high school.

“Rick Santorum wants his kids to go to college, but if one of them comes to him with another choice, that’s not a dishonorable decision,” Gidley said.

At a campaign stop in Lansing, Santorum said he wanted to improve the prospects of those without such credentials, who experience higher unemployment rates than those with college degrees.

“We need to make sure that we have an economy that provides opportunities for everybody in America,” he said. “We are starting to see manufacturing come back a little bit. That’s a good thing. But we need it to explode.”

Just over 30 percent of the U.S. population 25 and older holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe college is desirable and attainable, and a critical component of the American Dream.

About 96 percent of parents believe that a college degree is important, according to a 2010 Gallup-Phi Delta Kappa poll, and about 92 percent of public school parents believed that college was in their children’s future.

In addition, a National Journal poll last year found that people ranked a college education fourth in importance behind raising a family and ensuring that their children had more opportunities than they had, owning a home, and being able to pursue a rewarding career.

Many experts say that it is not realistic to expect every student to attend a four-year university but that some education beyond high school is critical to earning a good living. They note that most well-paying manufacturing jobs these days require training beyond a high school degree.

“Whether you learn skills as a carpenter or a mechanic or a welder or an artist or a pianist or whatever it is, you’re going to need something other than a baseline [high school] diploma unless you’re okay with the earnings of a high school graduate,” said Frank Levy, an urban economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In his remarks to the governors, Obama drew on his personal story — noting that his grandfather and mother attended college with government financial aid — to make the case that attaining an advanced degree has been part of the American success story for generations. “My mother was able to raise two kids by herself while still going to college,” he said.

As Obama has made his case for his economic agenda, he has pushed higher education as a crucial factor in preparing a more competitive workforce. But amid plans to reduce student loan debt and keep tuition affordable, the White House also has proposed initiatives to train “underemployed” workers and boost spending for community colleges.

The plan has earned Obama praise, including from some of the Republican governors who responded with skepticism Monday when asked about Santorum’s “snob” remark.

“We talked to the president today about some of the trades, even back to the concept we had in high school of shop or the vocational training,” said Bryant, the Mississippi governor. “He said today he would help from the bully pulpit, encouraging more folks who want to go into that type of training.”

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Peyton Craighill in Washington and staff writer Nia-Malika Henderson in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company