What Santorum Gets Right -- and Wrong -- About Skills and College

It's not entirely clear what Rick Santorum was thinking in going after President Obama this past week for wanting more young people to go to college. Perhaps he thought that bashing college is a great way to bond with the blue collar voters Santorum needs to win Michigan. Or perhaps he thinks that bashing colleges as liberal "indoctrination mills" -- as he did on Glenn Beck's show -- is a great way to bond with the conservative base.

Or perhaps Santorum was just speaking his mind when he said on ABC's This Week: "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob."

Why was that being a snob, George Stephanopoulos asked?

SANTORUM: I think because there are lot of people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college, because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don't include college.

And to sort of lay out there that somehow this is -- this is -- should be everybody's goal, I think, devalues the tremendous work that people who, frankly, don't go to college and don't want to go to college because they have a lot of other talents and skills that, frankly, college, you know, four-year colleges may not be able to assist them.

And there are other -- 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. . . .

Santorum actually makes some good points here -- points Obama would agree with.

You see, as it happens, President Obama has never actually said that he wants every young person to go to Oberlin. What Obama has said -- as George Stephanopoulos pointed out to Santorum -- was that he wants "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."

Obama also noted in the same speech: "Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma.  And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education."

College is a place to help people get new skills, but neither Obama or anyone else in the administration has ever insisted that all young people should go to four-year colleges. Quite the opposite. The administration is focusing laser-like on greatly expanding nuts-and-bolts vocational training through community colleges.

Obama's most recent budget puts a big emphasis on vocational training, calling for a $8 billion Community College and Career Fund, the purpose of which would be to:

help forge new partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train two million workers for good-paying jobs in high-growth and high-demand industries. It provides funding for community colleges and states to partner with businesses to train workers in a range of high-growth and in-demand areas, such as health care, transportation, and advanced manufacturing.

Presumably many of the young people benefitting from this program will be exactly the sorts of people Santorum describes: those who aren't interested in a four-year degree and want to get into the world of work as fast as they can. Indeed, part of the Obama plan aims to help young people build skills through college while they are working.

What Obama understands, that Santorum does not, is that "college" -- of the community kind -- has become the de facto vocational training sector for America now that employers no longer do much on-the-job training. So if Santorum really wants aspiring trades people and craftsman to be able to pursue their dreams, he'll stop bashing a President who is doing more to support this aspiration than anyone in Santorum's own party.

If you step away from polarized political debates, you'll find that a consensus is fast developing on the need for more intentional steps to foster skills development. Ideas are coming from all directions. The Wisconsin progressive group COWS has been working on this stuff for years, while Charles Murray is now touting the need for more skills certification, to train workers for specific industries. There's a strong op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal by Thomas Hemphill and Mark Perry about the need to create "a national Manufacturing Skills Certification System." The authors note this is already happening: "Seventeen states have national philanthropic funding for deploying the Manufacturing Skills Certification System, and 18 states have grass-roots efforts and strategic partnerships advocating deployment."

And here's the thing: Nearly everyone in this debate, right or left, recognizes that community colleges have a huge role to play here. Murray says that in his ideal world, college campuses would be more crowded than ever -- only more students would just be stopping by to get a narrow set of skills.

If you want more skilled workers, Senator Santorum, college is the solution -- not the problem.

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