Image: Portrait of young man in graduation gown with father on campus © Thomas Barwick, Digital Vision, Getty Images

When I first read what Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said about going to college, I thought it was a joke.

You know, a headline in The Onion -- a parody of a politician pandering to the most ignorant, self-destructive part of his audience.

But Santorum really did call President Barack Obama a "snob" for wanting more people to go to college. Here's the whole quote:

"President Obama has said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum told an audience in Troy, Mich., last weekend. "There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to test, who aren't taught by some liberal college professor (who) tries to indoctrinate them. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."

Santorum's comments clearly registered with members of his audience, who applauded, and with people who don't have college degrees. CNN reported that 41% of those who never went to college voted for Santorum in Tuesday's Michigan primary, compared with 35% of the same group who voted for Mitt Romney.

I used to cover politics as a journalist, so I understand how desperately politicians want to show they understand their audience. They can really tie themselves into pretzels showing how down-home they are.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

But Santorum -- who has two advanced degrees, including a law degree, and whose eldest daughter attends the University of Dallas -- should have told his audience the truth: that increasingly, not getting an education beyond high school will doom them to lower wages, a greater chance of unemployment and ever-diminishing opportunities.

That's not political posturing. Those are the facts. The median wage for people without college degrees has been falling for decades as well-paying manufacturing and union jobs disappear or get shipped overseas.

Some people may "have incredible gifts with their hands," as Santorum put it, but those gifts will more and more often go to waste if their talents aren't combined with technical training not available in most high schools.

Meanwhile, the typical college graduate will earn twice as much over a lifetime as the typical high school graduate. Plus, it's easier for college graduates to find and keep jobs. Even at its peak during the recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates was 5% -- half that of nongraduates.

Yet many people believe, incorrectly, that the value of a college education has declined. Six out of 10 Americans last year told Pew Research Center pollsters that a college education isn't a good value for the money, as I wrote in "Should your kid skip college?" In fact, a college degree is actually worth more than it used to be. In the 1970s, those with four-year degrees earned an average of 25% more than high school graduates. Today, they earn about 60% more.

I try to steer clear of politics these days whenever possible. I write about personal finance and how to make the most of your money. So I'll repeat what economists and anyone who understands the labor market would tell you: If you want a shot at getting into or staying in the middle class, you need an education beyond high school.

I grew up in rural Washington state, where my blue-collar relatives, friends and neighbors have suffered one economic hit after another. I've seen way too many people get stuck in dead-end jobs, or drag from one layoff to another, because they hesitated about going on with their education.

A few thought, as Santorum pretends he does, that college is for only the elite or would turn them into snobs. Others thought they'd do OK without additional education because their parents did, little realizing how much the world has changed.

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Not everybody can, or should, attend a four-year college. But if you want a decent economic life for yourself, you should get at least some training beyond high school. Anyone who tries to discourage you from getting that doesn't have your best interests at heart.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.