On Friday, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data from 2011 showing that 30 percent — the highest rate in history — of Americans 25 and over hold at least a bachelor's degree.
The very next day, presidential candidate Rick Santorum caused a flurry of controversy by calling President Barack Obama "a snob" for his avowed commitment to making higher education accessible to every American child.
And Monday, the White House responded defending and the president's position.
The numbers, Santorum's comments and the president's reaction all play into the roiling debate over the role of higher education in the United States — a discussion which, in an election year, is ripe for politicization.
The 'snob' argument
"President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said Saturday, appearing at an Americans for Prosperity rally in Troy, Mich.
According to the Associated Press, Santorum said the president was urging college education as a method of liberal indoctrination.
He defended his remarks the following day on the program "This Week," telling George Stephanopoulos, "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 four-year colleges may not be able to assist them."
His comments may be the most inflammatory yet, but Santorum is not the only presidential hopeful to take the snobbery route when criticizing the president.
The Washington Post reported former House Speaker and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich argued last August that educated "elites" were responsible for the decline of the manufacturing industry in the United States.
"If you can’t manufacture anything, you don’t have any jobs for people who are regular, everyday folks. We’re not all going to end up being tenured professors at Harvard,” he said, according to the Concord Monitor.
And former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has referenced Obama's connection to academia over the course of his presidential bid. “Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy,” the Post reported Romney as saying during his Nevada caucus victory speech.
The Post and the National Journal are interpreting these comments as an attempt to draw the support of white, working-class voters in states that have been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing.
"Hunh. You'd almost think Santorum was trying to win the blue-collar vote in a bunch of Rust Belt primaries, or tap into conservatives' resentment of 'some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate' their kids, as he put it recently," commented Jill Lawrence in the Journal.
What the numbers say
While Santorum may be looking to tap into the feelings of a particular region, the census data shows a nationwide trend in favor of bachelor's degrees.
According to a press release for the U.S. Census, 3 in 10 Americans age 25 or older hold at minimum a bachelor's degree. The ratio has jumped considerably in less than fifteen years — in 1998, the figure was below 25 percent.
On the other hand, precisely what field a bachelor's degree is earned in matters more than ever, and can affect significantly future income. Reported theWashington Post, "Census data shows that an associate’s degree in engineering or computers is worth as much or more, on average, than a bachelor’s in education or the liberal arts."
And, significantly, "even a vocational certificate, a credential that generally requires months — not years — of school, can yield more future earnings than a bachelor’s degree in a low-paying field."
The Obama administration sought to present awareness of the breadth of educational options Monday. Without mentioning Santorum by name, the president reacted to the 'snob' comments during a speech to the National Governors Association, reported the Post.
When I speak about higher education we’re not just talking about a four-year degree,” Obama said.
“We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment. And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”
According to Politico, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president's comments were not intended as a specific rebuttal to Santorum, but more of a "general point."
But Carney did reiterate the administration's commitment to all levels of education: technical and vocational school as well as community college and bachelor's degrees.
"I don't think any parent in America who has a child would think it snobbery to hope for that child the best possible education for that child, and that includes college," Carney said.
Politico analyzed the Obama/Carney response as a refusal to take on Santorum directly and create a full-blown fight.
Others were more direct. Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson questioned Santorum's weekend comments:
"Ridiculous? Offensive? Hypocritical? Manifestly, all of the above."
Even some university administrators were not above the fray. Inside Higher Ed reported Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post speaking out against Santorum's rhetoric, despite his commitment to staying out of political debate.
"So with all due respect to my responsibilities as a fundraiser and as a guardian of open discourse on my campus," wrote Rosenberg, "I am prepared to make the case that stating publicly that I am appalled by the views of Rick Santorum is not only my right but my responsibility."
What the numbers say
The census data seems to show that Americans' interest in and commitment to higher education is growing, but that growth is not evenly distributed. And while the White House has made equality of access to higher education an important rallying point, achievement gaps have actually widened in the last 10 years.
According to the New York Times, "Among Hispanics, the share of adults holding bachelor’s degrees grew from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 14.1 percent last year, and among blacks it climbed from 15.7 percent to 19.9 percent. But the distinction rose even faster among non-Hispanic whites, from 28.7 percent to 34 percent."