Back to the Future, Starring Rick Santorum

Obama's America: The GOP candidate misses the mark with his antiquated ideas about college.

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There’s a simple truth to Santorum’s argument: Not everyone can be a doctor, teacher or architect. Nevertheless, Santorum’s comments are striking, especially in Michigan, where nearly one-third of working-age adults (pdf) lack the fundamental skills to get a middle-income job. By one estimate, 44 percent of the state’s adults are functionally illiterate. Astonishingly, barely two dozen states require students to complete high school, or stay until their 18th birthday.

We’re producing a smaller share of college graduates than many other developed countries. In just a few years, nearly one-quarter of all jobs (pdf) in this country will require at least a bachelor’s degree. That may not get you an interview in certain sectors in highly competitive markets like New York, Washington and San Francisco.

Scanning that sobering data, it’s hard not to ask: How does this happen in America? That’s partly why President Obama bluntly told a gathering of governors at the White House on Monday to invest in education. The country’s competitiveness depends on it. So there’s no polite way to say this: Santorum’s comments on education are negligent.

Several years ago, I knew a charismatic kid who loved football and played trumpet, wasn’t especially bookish and got by with decent grades. He showed tremendous promise. So I added his name to the mailing lists of several colleges, hoping to counter the ambivalence he’d gotten from a handful of teachers, as well as the peer pressure to get a job — maybe the illegal kind.

One night after dinner, his dad told me: “College isn’t for everyone.” I immediately thought: “You’re dooming this kid to a life on society’s margins.”

Thankfully, the guy’s story hasn’t turned out grim. He has reached his mid-20s and owns a small shop. But I’m convinced that college-level training in business would have given him the insights to build a formal plan to accelerate his venture’s growth — and be the anchor his neighborhood desperately needs.

As the country heads to next week’s Super Tuesday contests and the general election, we should probe more deeply to understand what Santorum really believes. America needs a president who will lead us forward, with fresh ideas. The country — and the world — can’t afford a president who embraces mediocrity, sets the bar too low or dampens our aspirations.

Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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