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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The Opposite of Snobbery

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Say what you will about this era's Republican presidential candidates; they at least have chutzpah.

Millionaire blue-blood George W. Bush pretended to be a down-home cowboy. Two-time divorcee and longtime Washington influence peddler Newt Gingrich struts around preaching about traditional family values and insisting he's a D.C. outsider. Now, topping them all is Rick Santorum, who last week declared that only "snobs" support efforts to make a college education more accessible to all Americans.

Santorum, of course, has not one, not two, but a whopping three separate degrees, two of which come from public universities — that is, two that were taxpayer-subsidized, courtesy of the "Big Government" Santorum now claims to loathe.

Hypocritical — and dare I say, snobbish — as it is for someone with such a pedigree to attack President Barack Obama's college affordability initiatives, Santorum did inadvertently stumble into a significant question: Is higher education for everyone? The answer today is "not necessarily," but that's precisely because of the affordability problem Obama aims to solve.

N+1 magazine notes that since the late 1970s, when Santorum was enjoying his taxpayer-subsidized higher education, "the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased over 900 percent." In 2011, that meant the average total cost of a year at a public university was $21,477, up 5.4 percent in just 12 months. Thanks to cuts to programs that make college and vocational education more affordable — cuts Santorum supported in Congress — those tuition increases promise to get even steeper in the coming years, all but ensuring that a future college student will have even more than the $25,250 in education debt that today's average student carries.

With higher education this unaffordable but with most decent-paying jobs in our economy still requiring a degree, the trends have created another bubble scenario.

Those lucky enough to get a job out of school can barely pay back their now-massive loans, and those left jobless in the recession can't pay back their loans at all, leaving us facing the potential of mass defaults and yet another financial meltdown.

Not surprisingly, this frightening situation has initiated a debate over whether college remains a good investment. Most of the data say that on average it still is — that the money typically spent on higher education is made back in comparatively higher wages during a career. However, that data is less clear than it once was, and that typical experience is no longer such a guarantee. Indeed, there are more and more situations where college might not be such a solid financial investment — not because it's wrong for a particular student's interests, but because the economics of tuition prices and the anemic job market make it too risky a gamble.

Those economics are an obvious symptom of a larger crisis involving all sorts of cuts: revenue-draining tax cuts, cuts to education budgets and cuts to public programs that sustain decent jobs. But because any critical discussion of those policies offends the GOP's corporate financiers, Santorum is trying to define the crisis on unrelated, culture-war terms. He would have us believe the emergency is about "snobbery" from Democrats arrogantly pressuring Americans to get degrees. In this, he gets a two-fer: He can both avoid tough issues and pander to the anti-intellectual, anti-elitist sensibilities of Republican primary voters.

As the facts prove, though, the real crisis is about a conservative economic agenda whose anti-government extremism is making the path to a degree and a decent job even tougher than it naturally is during tough times.

Trying to make that path just a tad easier — like it was when Santorum got his three degrees — isn't snobbery. It's the opposite.

David Sirota is best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at DavidSirota.com.

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Comments

2 Comments | Post Comment
Another great piece by David Sirota! I love this guy!!!! (Full disclosure--I have a Bachelor's degree, and Master's degree, and $65,000 in student loan debt.)

First, Santorum really only attended two schools--Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Penn State's law school. Both Penn State and Pitt receive taxpayer funds. I'm sure this was just overlooked by Mr. Sirota. But I digress....

Here's what Sirota so bravely states: "Is higher education for everyone? The answer today is "not necessarily," but that's precisely because of the affordability problem Obama aims to solve." Yes, Mr. Sirota--the only reason people choose NOT to go to college is because they can't afford it. It's not because they lack the mental capacity to do university-level work. It's not because they lack the self-discipline to go to four (or more) years of school. It's not because they choose NOT to sacrifice their time and money to invest in themselves. Nope. The only reason people choose not to go to school is a money issue. He even says so--"not because it's wrong for a particular student's interests, but because the economics of tuition prices and the anemic job market make it too risky a gamble."

Is $25,250 too much to ask for a college education? It depends on how you look at it. $25,000 will buy you a relatively inexpensive car. I think most people, given the option, would rather have a car than a college degree. I mean, if the car lasts for 6 years, it will have been worth about $4200 per year. (By the way--how much more does a person with a degree make than a person without a degree?)

If my math serves me correctly, a 900% increase equals about 6.5% per year increase, or slightly lower than the average 30-year mortgage rate over the same period. Since colleges are such a ripoff, mortgages must be even more so. Hopefully David Sirota will agree with me that we should force people only to pay cash for houses. That should ensure that all the poor people (that I'm sure Sirota is helping) aren't trapped into that awful house--you know, the one that is the greatest investment most people will make.

I have a better idea--if $25,000 is too much to ask for a degree, then by golly-----don't go to school.

I gave you full disclosure at the first of my comment. Now it's time for the second half of the disclosure. Before I went back to school (at age 28), I was making $32,000 per year in a job I hated. Now, after finishing my Master's degree and incurring $65,0000 in debt, I'm making twice what I was making before. If I could go another $65,000 in debt and make twice what I make now, you can bet your @$$ that I'd do it again.



Comment: #1
Posted by: Derek
Fri Mar 2, 2012 1:30 PM
"the real crisis is about a conservative economic agenda whose anti-government extremism is making the path to a degree and a decent job even tougher than it naturally is during tough times."

Nailed it!

BTW, Derek, you seem to be missing the main point of David's article: Republicans are hypocrites, they call others "snobs" for wanting everyone to have the same chance to succeed as they did, and that the path to a degree and a decent job should be made easier for ALL Americans (not just the rich ones). $25000 may not be much for you (and how is it that you are in debt for $65000 if a degree is "only" $25000?) but for a quarter of American's that are living in poverty, that amount of money is unattainable. But I guess for those who want to live in a YOYO society, screwing over the poor is just part of your value system.
Comment: #2
Posted by: A Smith
Thu Mar 8, 2012 9:30 AM
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