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As a senator from Pennsylvania in 2001, Rick Santorum touted federal support for higher education. He boasted of increases in the maximum Pell Grant, earmarked millions of dollars in federal budget bills for Pennsylvania colleges, and cultivated a reputation as a supporter of historically black colleges and universities, including two in his home state.

Now, as a presidential candidate, Santorum seemingly opposes not only federal support for colleges and universities but some of the underpinnings and goals of the American higher education system. He railed against colleges and universities as “indoctrination mills” lost to Satan. Then he derided President Obama’s push for more Americans to pursue higher education: “What a snob.”

One result of his comments: a sudden, unexpected prominence for higher education in the race for the Republican nomination. Until recent weeks, issues facing colleges and universities had been almost entirely absent from the candidates’ platforms and the race so far, with the exception of the DREAM Act -- which was discussed mostly as a proxy for the immigration debate.

Higher education policy is neither a wedge issue nor an especially prominent one for many voters, and although Obama has made college affordability a central plank of his re-election campaign, many predicted that Republicans wouldn’t speak on the issue until they had a nominee.

The results of voting Tuesday, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won six states to Santorum's three, suggest that the former Pennsylvania senator may not be that nominee. Still, his wins this week -- and an upcoming slate of primaries in Southern and Midwestern states, which have generally favored his candidacy -- seem to indicate that he and his signature issues will continue to influence the race for the Republican nomination, and perhaps the general election this fall.

After Santorum’s comments about Obama, political commentators homed in on the accusation of snobbery, and prominent Republicans, including some governors and Newt Gingrich, rushed to say that they too want Americans to go to college. Higher education had joined the debate, even if the question – whether encouraging college attendance is a good thing – wasn’t the one many colleges would choose.

“Issues surrounding higher education have been surprisingly salient” in the 2012 race, said Neil Gross, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who is writing a book on politics and academe.

Santorum’s attacks on university culture aren’t unprecedented, Gross said – Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California in 1964 by promising to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.” But arguing directly against academe, as Santorum did, is relatively rare. “It’s been sort of a persistent undercurrent in the Republican primary election so far,” Gross said.

That undercurrent comes even though the Republican field is more educated than the vast majority of Americans. Each of the four remaining Republican candidates holds at least one advanced degree. They include a Harvard M.B.A and J.D. (Romney), an M.D. (Ron Paul) and the first major contender in decades with a Ph.D. (Newt Gingrich). Santorum has a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, an M.B.A from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from the Dickinson School of Law, now the Penn State law school.

Santorum's campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.  His website doesn't mention higher education issues and barely mentions elementary and secondary education, except to advocate for a limited federal role: protecting civil rights in a "common sense fashion" and enabling "essential research."

Santorum's transformation, from a senator who praised higher education to a candidate who attacks it, might in part be a reflection of changing roles and changing times. Santorum left office before lawmakers began eschewing earmarks under new transparency rules, and many viewed funneling money to local projects -- including those at colleges and universities -- as part of the job description. When he was elected to the Senate in 1994, Pell Grants were not a partisan issue. Santorum’s current attacks on education policy are playing to a perennial distrust of academic elites, experts say, but it’s unclear whether they will maintain their appeal.

For a few weeks, Santorum’s attacks on college-going were consistent and vehement. “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely,” he said in a Feb. 23 interview with talk-show host Glenn Beck. He accused colleges of destroying students’ religious faith, saying “62 percent of kids who go to college with a faith commitment leave without it.” In a Troy, Mich., appearance when he made the now-infamous “snob” comment, he referred to “good, decent men and women” who were “not taught by some liberal college professor.”

He later said his grades suffered at Penn State because of his political beliefs, and that he would be “very careful about the colleges and universities our children go to.” (Santorum’s oldest daughter is a student at the University of Dallas, a Roman Catholic college; she has taken time off to participate in her father's campaign.)

Santorum’s accusations drew an indirect retort from Obama. The president said in remarks to the National Governors’ Association that his call for Americans to get at least a year of postsecondary education could encompass career or technical training or community college – not necessarily a liberal arts education or a bachelor’s degree. Gingrich, Santorum’s chief rival for the Republican anti-Romney vote, called such a plan “perfectly reasonable.”

Santorum didn’t cite a source for his accusation that colleges strip students of their faith, and most surveys have found that while religious commitment declines somewhat in college, the drop is not nearly as dramatic as Santorum suggested. A recent study found that people generally become less religious between the ages of 18 to 24, but that the drops are greater for those who do not attend college than for those who do.

“What Santorum is saying is, ‘We’re pure. We’re born with these innate virtues. We don’t need a liberal education, these extra condiments of learning,’ ” said Elvin Lim, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University and the author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency (Oxford University Press), a book on presidential rhetoric. “You can see both the flattery there, and also a sort of atavistic, Republican nostalgic romantic vision of the individual.”

Anti-intellectualism is a way for politicians to signal to audiences, especially those who did not attend college themselves, that they have something in common with voters, Lim said. And there is a segment of voters in the Republican base who disdain college professors and higher education in general: a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 36 percent of Republicans (and 47 percent of Tea Party Republicans) believe colleges have a negative influence on the country, even though an overwhelming majority said college was a good investment for them personally.

Santorum is a populist candidate, and bashing elites – whether in business, as liberal populists do, or in academe, for conservatives – is essential to populism, said Gross, the sociologist. Conservative antipathy to colleges and college professors has other sources, including the fact that most professors do tend to be liberal. “There are a variety of reasons that motivate their animosity,” he said. “The populist part is not insignificant.”

Lim, who said Santorum was trying to fuse anti-establishment sentiment with anti-intellectualism, said he personally despises the tactic. “Assuming, as Santorum does, that some of us don’t want to go to college or don’t need to go to college, is exactly the worst form of condescension,” he said.

Whether it’s a winning strategy, though, is less clear. In days immediately following his anti-college blitz, Santorum was the leading candidate for Michigan voters who never went to college, according to exit polls. But he lost the state overall, and some strategists not affiliated with the campaign blamed his statements on several issues – including his rhetoric against colleges – for the loss.

So far, his campaign appears to have struck a chord among voters who did not go to college: they voted in stronger numbers for Santorum than Romney in both Ohio and Tennessee on Tuesday. In Ohio, a close contest, the difference was significant: 5 percentage points, not enough to win the state for Santorum, but enough to keep the vote close. 

Still, he moderated his rhetoric in the days before the vote. Before Tuesday’s primaries, Santorum said everyone should have the chance to go to college, as long as they were not forced to attend.

“That’s fine,” Santorum said, according to The Los Angeles Times. “All my political career I’ve supported [that].”

Support in the Senate

During Santorum’s years in the House and Senate, he also advocated for the federal government’s role in supporting colleges and universities financially in terms that would now be anathema to his campaign.

“I believe that there needs to be an active federal role in higher education because institutions of higher learning constitute a nationwide educational infrastructure,” Santorum wrote on his Senate website, according to a version archived in 2001. “Clearly, higher education is a national concern to be addressed, in part, on a national basis.”

During his time in office, Santorum was generally supportive of private colleges and universities and federal student aid, Mary Young, vice president for government relations at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

“Either he or his staff always met with the private college presidents when we requested to discuss federal issues,” Young said. “He seemed to have a good understanding of the problems and issues of Pennsylvania independent higher education.”

Young said she did not remember particular issues where Santorum was a strong advocate, but an archived version of his Senate website includes pages of press releases boasting of the benefits he brought to Pennsylvania colleges, private and public. Santorum and his fellow Pennsylvania senator, Arlen Specter, then a Republican, directed tens of millions of dollars toward Pennsylvania colleges. At the time, laws on transparency in earmarking – setting aside federal funds for projects in home districts – had not yet taken effect, and the practice was common.

Many of those benefits came as federal research money, military and otherwise: $3 million for Army research on hypothermia at the University of Pittsburgh, $1.7 million to Penn State for construction of a testing ground for undersea military equipment; $11 million to  Drexel University in Philadelphia to develop communications technology for the Defense Department. Some purchased equipment for scientific research: $1 million for a specific type of mass spectrometer at the University of Pittsburgh; $200,000 for molecular science equipment at the University of Scranton.

Many other, smaller earmarks paid to develop new curriculums, upgrade technology and construct new buildings at Pennsylvania colleges: $100,000 for technology updates to a library at Lafayette College;  $100,000 to Moravian College for a science initiative; $400,000 for a life sciences building at Franklin and Marshall College. Specter and Santorum announced $420,000 in technology infrastructure upgrades at Bucknell; $200,000 for a performing arts center at Shippensburg University, and many similar efforts over several years.

Santorum also took part in an annual forum on historically black colleges and universities, the only member of Congress to do so every year, according to press releases about the event. He hosted the event at least twice, telling the colleges about federal help available to them to build capacity and improve education on their campuses. The founder of the forum, Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, said Santorum’s “commitment to the HBCU community has been invaluable.”

“Through grants and policy initiatives, Rick Santorum is proud to further the priorities of Pennsylvania's colleges and universities,” his Senate website read.

A Friend to For-Profits

In his Senate career, Santorum also pointed out his support for for-profit institutions.

“Regrettably, it is often just such schools which have difficulty keeping their doors open,” he wrote in a column on his Senate website. “Student loan default rates are disproportionately high among the very population of students these schools seek to serve. 

"A high default rate threatens the ability of these schools, which usually operate on a tight budget, to remain open.  Federal regulations have established a default rate threshold over which a school cannot go without the risk of closure.  Because of the need these schools fill, I am committed to developing legislative vehicles which provide the critical support they require.”

He has continued that support into his presidential campaign, accusing Obama of waging a war on for-profit education and promising that a Santorum White House would be friendlier to proprietary education.

“This comes as a shock to some people, that the president would have a war on something,” Santorum said at a Detroit campaign event in February. “He believes that private-sector schools are somehow evil and they're abusive, and his Education Department has done everything they could to make it harder for them to compete for loans and other things and to stay in business.”

For-profit education, as well as community colleges, are necessary to help train people for jobs, Santorum said. He said he would work to make sure that for-profit colleges are “available and around and funded like any other school."

“I will tell you, I will have a very, very different attitude toward private schools and training schools and technical schools,” he said.

While nothing is settled in the topsy-turvy Republican primary race, Santorum appears to have little chance of catching up to Romney in the crucial delegate count, which could determine the nominee at the Republican National Convention this fall.  Still, his success so far indicates that his influence on the race -- one way or another -- will  be enduring.

His choice to inject college attendance into the debate could have an impact, as well. "He’s trying to link one form of animus, anti-establishmentism, with another, anti-intellectualism," said Lim, the political scientist. "The former are institutions, the latter are the individuals who fill the institutions... It works if you’re able to use the anti-intellectualism to pivot to a larger case that the Republican Party is trying to make to the base."

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