Can Rick Santorum’s slam of higher education be easily dismissed? Or does it warrant serious debate?

Blogging in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Wood writes: “None (or at least very few) appear to see Santorum’s various criticisms of the university as adding up to a view that needs to be reckoned with as intellectually serious.”

But, adds Wood, “that’s a mistake.”

Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars, which Wikipedia refers to as a nonprofit organization that “opposes multiculturalism and affirmative action, and seeks to counter what it considers a ‘liberal bias’ in academia.”

The last sentence of Wood’s blog states: “I should add that, though I am offering a defense of Santorum’s statements on higher education, I am not endorsing him or anyone else in the presidential race.”

Santorum -- a candidate for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination -– earned plenty of media play over the weekend after calling President Barack Obama a “snob” for wanting all students to seek educational opportunities after high school. Santorum made the remark during a Feb. 25 speech at a meeting of Americans for Prosperity in Michigan. He notes plenty of hard-working people make an honest living without ever being “taught by some liberal college professor that is trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why (Obama) wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” (If you want more context, or to hear more of what Santorum said, here is a video of that talk.)

Earlier this year, during a speech at a church in Naples, Fla., Santorum previously noted (according to CBS News): “It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?”

To learn more about Santorum’s attacks on higher education, check out this piece by Scott Jaschik of Insidehighered.com.

It should be noted that Santorum isn’t a high school dropout who avoided “indoctrination.” In fact, he is more educated than most -- he has a BA from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

Wood realizes many on college campuses across the country are simply rolling their eyes at Santorum’s assault on higher ed.

But he writes that these “statements are not just howls of anti-intellectualism or attempts to play to tea party resentments. They are part of a cogent view that accurately registers aspects of the dominant campus culture that academics themselves are disinclined to acknowledge, let alone discuss.”

Wood adds: “Americans are indeed way oversold on the value and importance of higher education. As a result, millions of students who possess no real aptitude for disciplined intellectual inquiry or abstract thought; who are bored with books, art, and music; and to whom science is an impenetrable mystery, troop off to college to acquire nothing much more than excess spare time and a lot of student-loan debt. But if Americans are oversold on higher education, they are also getting suspicious. A form of cultural defection is taking shape. It is evident in the disproportionate number of males who opt out of traditional college programs to go directly into the workforce, and it is evident in the rapidly growing online sector of higher education, where students can bypass most of the ideologically bedizened parts of the curriculum to focus on skills-oriented transactional courses.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a UW-Madison associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology, takes issue with this idea that some kids just aren’t college material.

“Peter Wood's assertions about the desires and abilities of today's students are not grounded in empirical evidence,” she writes to the Cap Times in an email. “Nor are Rick Santorum's. The fact is that the vast majority of high school students, as measured on national surveys, aspire to attend college.”

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Goldrick-Rab continues: “Certainly, some attend without sufficient academic preparation -- but it simply isn't true that they get nothing from it. The economic returns to even a year of college credits are meaningful, as are the social networks and experiences that come with attending college. Wood and Santorum want to claim otherwise by focusing our attention on the short-term labor market outcomes and today's wages -- yet labor economists will tell you that this isn't an appropriate way to measure returns to education, which accrue over a lifetime. Yes, some students are accumulating debt, and yes, some have excess spare time while in college, but his contention that high debt and leisure time are prevalent primarily among lower-ability students is factually inaccurate. In fact, these disproportionately low-income students have less debt and less leisure time than the average student -- they get most of the grant aid, and they work long hours on top of that to make ends meet. But he doesn't want to admit that, since if anything, his is actually an argument for excluding more white children from relatively privileged homes from college -- something that his organization would never support.”

If you are at all surprised by Santorum expressing doubts about colleges and universities, opinion polls indicate you shouldn’t be. Conservative Republicans, in particular, don’t think colleges and universities have a particularly positive effect on this country.

According to a February survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 46 percent of conservative Republicans said colleges and universities have a positive impact, while 39 percent said they have a negative effect. And among those who agree with the tea party, just 38 percent viewed their impact positively.

As a comparison, 67 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents said colleges and universities have a positive effect.

And yet …

A Pew poll from March 2011 indicates that 85 percent of conservative Republicans said that college had been a good investment for them personally -- a mark that was slightly higher than Democrats (81 percent) who felt the same. Interestingly, Pew notes that the poll conducted in March 2011 showed virtually all parents expected their own kids to go to college: 99 percent of Republicans said this, as did 96 percent of Democrats and 93 percent of independents.

While the Wood blog, itself, is an interesting read I also highly recommend checking out the reader comments at the bottom of his piece.