Did The President Really Say Everyone Should Go To College? No, He Didn’t

As we’ve noted here at OTB in several posts over the last week, Rick Santorum has been in the news lately for saying that the President is a snob for saying that everyone should go to college.

Politifact took a look at the matter, reviewing nearly 20 Presidential speeches and remarks over the past three years, and determined that there’s absolutely no factual basis for what Rick Santorum is saying:

In seven sets of remarks, Obama focused not on having every young American attend college, but rather making college a possibility for every American who wants to attend, particularly making it more affordable. Here are two that were typical (the full list is available here).

A letter by Barack Obama to his daughters, published in Parade magazine, Jan. 2009. “In the end, girls, that’s why I ran for President: because of what I want for you and for every child in this nation. I want all our children to go to schools worthy of their potential—schools that challenge them, inspire them, and instill in them a sense of wonder about the world around them. I want them to have the chance to go to college—even if their parents aren’t rich.”

Remarks at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, Fla., Feb. 23, 2012. “When kids graduate, I want them to be able to afford to go to college. If they’ve been working hard, if they’ve gotten the grades to go to college, I don’t want them to cut their dreams short because they don’t think they can afford it.”

In another four speeches, Obama focused on community colleges as an alternative to the traditional, four-year college experience. Here is one example:

Remarks at a Democratic issues conference, Jan. 27, 2012. “They don’t all have to go to four-year colleges and universities — although we need more engineers and we need more scientists, and we’ve got to make sure that college is affordable and accessible. But we also need skilled workers who are going to community colleges, or middle-aged workers who are allowed to retrain, have a commitment to work, have that work ethic, but want to make sure that technology is not passing them by — and so focusing on our community colleges, and making sure that they’re matched up with businesses that are hiring right now, and making sure that they help to design the programs that are going to put them — put people in place to get those jobs right away.”

In another four speeches, Obama was quite explicit about encouraging Americans to pursue either a college education or vocational training, apprenticeships or lifelong retraining. What he said in his first address to a joint session of Congress was typical:

Address to a Joint Session of Congress, Feb. 24, 2009. “Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”

Judging by these 15 speeches, it’s possible to conclude that Obama favors giving all Americans the chance to get a university education if they wish, and opening up other opportunities for education beyond high school for those who do not, from community colleges to vocational training to apprenticeships.”

Finally, in three speeches Obama said something a little closer to what Santorum claimed he said.

For instance, in remarks at a Democratic National committee fundraiser in Austin, Texas, on May 10, 2011, he said: “Our reforms are not done. I want every child in Texas and every child in America ready to graduate, ready to go to college, and actually able to afford going to college. That’s how we’re going to out-compete and out-educate the rest of the world. That’s how America will succeed in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dinner in Minneapolis, Minn., on Oct. 23, 2010, Obama said, “We’ve got to make sure that every young person in America is prepared for college and then can afford to go to college.” And at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dinner in Rockville, Md., on Oct. 18, 2010, Obama said, “How do we make sure that every young person can go to college once they get through that high school?”

Even the most generous reading for Santorum of these speeches makes it pretty clear that the President was not saying what Santorum claims he was saying. Opening the doors for people who want to go to college and making college eduction more affordable are not the same thing as saying that everyone  should go to college. One can have real disagreements about the proper ways to achieve these goals, of course, but Santorum wasn’t criticizing Obama based on a policy disagreements. As with so much else in his campaign, Santorum’s argument was entirely cultural, and is based in his irrational idea that going to college is some kind of liberal indoctrination program. It’s a staple of the paranoia that infects contemporary social conservatism, and its completely false. Of course, when you’re basing your entire argument on lies it’s not surprising that your conclusions would be a lie too.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Education, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    When you consider this, and the made up stuff about Kennedy and seperation of church and state, and how the Bush Contraction was caused by high gas prices…it really points out just how incredibly weak Romney is…by all rights he should be crushing this clown. If you’ve been running for President for 7 years and you can barely get by Santorum [assuming he gets by Santorum] in your “home state”…how are you ever going to beat Obama?

  2. Rob in CT says:

    The cool thing about the internet is that fact-checking is a lot easier than it used to be.

    The sad part is that very few people use it for that purpose. This is good work, Doug (others have pointed it out as well, of course), but lots of folks will never see it or anything like it (and, if they did, research suggests it wouldn’t have much impact). I find that terribly frustrating.

    Just recently in my local paper (not the Courant, but a smaller one), some Republican town selectman wrote a critique of Obamacare that prominently featured a, well, lie. He probably doesn’t even know it’s a lie, but it is. The claim was that Obamacare includes a blanket 3.8% real estate transaction tax. He ranted about the homeowner who sells their modest $250k house (which, here in CT, can credibly be called modest) and owing 3.8% of that in tax to fund Obamacare. Problem is, that’s totally false. It took me 2 minutes with google to find the Snopes.com explanation.


    How many people will bother to do that vs. how many will read the blurb in the paper and go off all angry about that horrible Obamamonster? How many will see the rebuttal I expect to be published in the next edition? How many will care even if they do read it?

    Frustrating as all hell. And yes, Doug, I know: both sides do it, yadda yadda.

  3. Franklin says:

    I want … every child in America ready to graduate, ready to go to college, and actually able to afford going to college.

    Without context, this is similar to what Santorum claimed, the main difference being “want” versus “should”. I guess I don’t have a major gripe with Santorum’s interpretation, it’s typical political spin. The WAY bigger problem is that he thinks college is bad.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    “…The WAY bigger problem is that he thinks college is bad….”

    But here’s the thing:
    Santorum has an undergraduate degree, an MBA, and a J.D. himself.
    Over 50% of the Tea Stain is college educated.
    In 2009 a high school graduate earned $25K on average. A college graduate $40K.
    All of which only reinforces the fact that the greatest desire of well-off old white suburbanite Republican’s is to pull the ladder of success up behind them.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Yeah, there seem to be a LOT of folks with degrees running around saying, sagely (of course), “not everyone is cut out for college.”

    Now this is, to some extent, true (hence tech schools and what have you). I’ve said something along those lines myself.

    But I’m also picking up a lot of “*I* belonged in college. Some of *those people* don’t…”

  6. Hey Norm says:

    @ Rob,
    And yet these are the same people who are first to scream CULTURE WAR!!!
    If lying about something Obama hasn’t done or said…in order to portray him as comtemptuous of working folk…is not cultural warfare…what is?

  7. anjin-san says:

    the greatest desire of well-off old white suburbanite Republican’s is to pull the ladder of success up behind them.

    True, and very troubling. I remember my sosh professor warning many years ago that there would be an effort to “shrink the opportunity pool” at the college level by attacking funding for remedial classes, community colleges, and state colleges. He also predicted massive tuition increases. Basically he was saying that higher education would be available only to the upper middle class and wealthy, and that affordable higher education, a vital component of the American dream, was going away.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    I think what we are seeing here is similar in many ways to what we’ve been discussing regarding the working & middle classes being squeezed for ~30 years. Some of it was hidden by bubbles, but when the last one burst, suddenly the scope of the rot was laid bare.

    Stagnant wages + rising costs (healthcare being a big part), covered up temporarily with debt (mortgage/home equity). Then POP!

    Well… stagnant wages (of the parents of students, and students themselves) + rising costs (tuition, room & board), covered up temporarily with unextinguishable debt (student loans). It can’t last.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hey Norm:

    in order to portray him as comtemptuous of working folk…

    He surely is: Link

    Wake me up when Romney delivers a speech half as well.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Oh, not that it matters any but, no tele-prompter.

  11. de stijl says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Did you send a letter to the editor rebutting the Selectman’s lie?

  12. An Interested Party says:

    You know Santorum is full of $hit when even Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell are defending the President…

  13. RON PAUL says:

    @Rob in CT: