Does Free College Threaten Our All-Volunteer Military?

September 8, 2016

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Throughout the current presidential campaign season, there have been repeated calls for free college.  Channeling a long-held position by Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, said that families making under $125,000 per year should be able to send their kids to college tuition-free.  As someone who graduated college tens of thousands of dollars in debt, I am inclined to sympathize with this proposal. Student debt is a critical issue.

Opponents to Clinton’s proposal rightly cite the immense expense that these policies would impose on the federal budget.  To date, however, a serious potential implication of free college for lower and middle income students has been ignored: the impact on military recruiting.

Higher education is rightly hailed as the surest path to the middle class.  Because of its cost — both tuition and lost working hours — a college education has not been possible for everyone across the income spectrum.  In a defining moment of the last century, the federal government enacted the G.I. Bill in 1944, providing returning American soldiers with the financial wherewithal to pursue a degree.  It was, perhaps, the keystone policy for expanding the U.S. economy and creating the modern American middle class.

Mirroring higher education’s path to the middle class, military service remains one of the surest means to a college degree.  In its latest form, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to $20,000 per year for tuition.  To compensate for time without an income, it also provides a living stipend adjusted for the local cost of living. For example, in Cambridge Massachusetts, where I attend graduate school, that stipend is $2,800 per month, which is pro-rated for when classes are in session.

Many of those who join the military do so, at least in part, to obtain access to the G.I. Bill and the financial means to obtain a degree.  According to a 2011 Pew Research Survey, 75 percent of those who enlisted said they did so to obtain educational benefits.  That statistic has risen from the pre-9/11 era when it was just 55 percent — likely because college has become that much more expensive! As of 2014, 48 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans utilized the G.I. Bill, with 59 percent of female veterans doing so (a demographic the military wants to see grow in its ranks). If college became free, the incremental value of the G.I. Bill would be dramatically reduced.  The effect would be similar for the Yellow Ribbon program, which provides money for education to those who have already served, ROTC scholarships, which provide funds to pay for a bachelor’s degree for aspiring officers, tuition assistance programs for those already on active duty, and the various programs to fund graduate education for officers. Without the G.I. Bill as a serious inducement to enlist, the military is likely to experience substantially more difficulty in recruiting new personnel.  This will, with little doubt, require us to pay more to recruit tomorrow’s force and sustain the qualitative edge of our superb military.

The military’s ability to recruit is critical not only to its success but to the very existence of the all-volunteer force.  If the all-volunteer military cannot recruit sufficient numbers of new personnel, it cannot survive.  The number of new recruits the military needs varies with government policy and defense requirements.  During the height of the Iraq War, it had so much difficulty recruiting — and with retaining personnel already serving — that it instituted the “stop loss” program.  Under this policy, the military unilaterally cancelled the end dates on thousands of service members’ contracts, forcing them to stay on active duty.  If there had been no G.I. Bill to attract the flow of new recruits in that period that it did, what would the military have been forced to do to swell its ranks?

Making college more affordable and accessible is necessary.  However, there are no clear solutions to fixing what could be the undermining of the G.I. Bill and exacerbating the costs of sustaining a volunteer force.  Perhaps the government could reallocate the funds it would have spent on tuition payments to pay a larger percentage of veterans’ living costs while in school.  But if college is free, will doubling the living expenses allowance to $4,000 a month persuade sufficient numbers of the right people to sign their lives over for four years?  Or would simply higher pay be sufficient?  If it were, it would have to be substantially higher than current pay levels, likely compounding objections regarding the government budget deficit and defense spending in general.

Some may argue that access to higher education is more important than the military’s ability to recruit.  While that may be true, government’s traditional primary function has been national defense.  It is national defense that ultimately enables all people — whether or not they have ever served in the military — to pursue higher education in peace and security.  Nor does service preclude people from pursuing higher education. It simply delays it, while also equipping veterans with valuable life skills.

Other critics may say that linking free college to military service amounts to coercion and is inherently unequal.  To address the issue of inequity while also remaining effective, the only remaining stopgap option may be the least politically palatable of all: the reinstitution of the draft.

No serious stakeholders want a return of the draft.  Military leaders prefer the reliability and precision of the professional force over conscription.  Similarly, few civilians — parents or young people — want compulsory service.  But as the government universalizes healthcare and, now possibly, higher education, it may tie its own hands, requiring the re-imposition of involuntary military service.

With women now permitted to serve in the combat arms specialties of the military, Congress is considering having them register for the draft at 18 just as men have long been required to do.  If that should happen, our first female commander-in-chief may also be the first to oversee a draft of women into uniform.

If Clinton is elected, she should take these concerns seriously and revise her current free college proposal accordingly. It is important to mitigate the negative impacts of any major education access programs on military recruiting and find new, affordable ways to ensure the military can continue to meet its manpower requirements under a range of national security scenarios.


Benjamin Luxenberg, a Marine Corps veteran, is enrolled in the joint MBA/MPP program of Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  He is an Associate Scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Bill Wiseman

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11 thoughts on “Does Free College Threaten Our All-Volunteer Military?

  1. In my ignorance, I went into the Navy for the college benefits.
    I did get my degree while active, but the technical training (as an AT/AX) was more responsible for my first job as a civilian than the education in my degree.
    The education of being aircrew, being familiar with aircraft operation, effective flight deck layout, intimate familiarity with navigation and navaids has been pulled out of my toolkit over and over through my career as a civilian engineer BECAUSE it is applied knowledge not taught in straightline engineering. The military has been a pipeline to aviation careers for decades both for the flightcrew as well as the maintenance crews.

    I drive veteran hiring at my organization because I know what they will do, haven’t been disappointed yet.

    I’d quit worrying about the threat posed by free college and beef up the technical training. It was the best in the world. I suspect it has suffered in the years since. Then I’d start selling that hard. My recruiter knew nothing about my “A” school, missed the opportunity to sign me up longer with “C” school options, did not arrange for me to meet anyone from my rate.
    Despite my stated desire to pursue electrical engineering, he had no resources in the civilian community who were engineers with prior Navy experience. Had I known I would be reusing my rate training up the engineering career ladder I’d have been an easier sell.

    To summarize, IMHO the services need to protect what they should be selling (work package instructions vice good solid theory – really?), and they need to get better at selling it.
    That is part of the brand, to use civilian vernacular. It is a brand that should be highly salable, but we never developed that muscle.

  2. True story: my oldest wants a career in law enforcement. After completing state-mandated training, he started interviewing, only to be told everyone wanted candidates with experience. How did one get experience? Several unpalatable options, or pull a tour in the military.

    He’s now a paratrooper.

    Free college won’t kill recruiting. Anyone looking for some concentrated experience and responsibility will be attracted to the military – it’s one of the last places that will take in raw newbies and invest in them.

    1. Maybe that’s why law enforcement agencies across the country are being scrutinized for the perception of “police militarization”? I’m not referring to equipment either, I’m talking mindset.

      1. If you’re implying that the individual discipline and responsibility gained from military training and experience translates to “militarization”, then I disagree. That’s an issue with leadership, organizational discipline, and enforcement of standards. I’m in agreement with another writer that much of law enforcement could use more of all of that, but failure to do so is hardly the fault of individuals’ backgrounds. I don’t know what proportion of law enforcement have prior military service; the ones I’ve encountered personally didn’t give me the impression they had any.

        As far as why people sign up, why restrict our recruiting only to people who think at the time they want to serve an entire career? Make the first enlistment long enough to recover the investment in training, and accept that talent and ambition take people in different directions. In fact, the much ballyhooed “civil-military gap” would benefit from more one and two-term enlistees percolating back into the population, not fewer. I always encouraged my best troops to stay, but didn’t lament it much if they had other ambitions. If they dedicated themselves while doing their tour, that’s all I could ask.

  3. I’d posit that if the main reason someone joined today’s military was because of a defined college benefit, then maybe the U.S. Military needs to reconsider the types of people it is recruiting? Contrary to some of my fellow service members, I joined because I wanted to lead Marines and deploy. I was quite shocked (and obviously a little naive) when I found out that many of my fellow Marines did not share the same aspirations as me. In fact, some openly complained about deployments.

    Around 2006, I was serving as an instructor pilot and was lamenting to one of the best Gunnery Sergeants I ever had the pleasure of serving with, that it was getting hard to retain some of our best and brightest Marines who were jumping ship because the OPTEMPO over the last 5 years had become intense. That very wise GySgt replied, without missing a beat, “Sir, I’d rather have 5 Marines who want to be here than 50 who don’t.” Very wise words indeed.

    “In war, moral factors account for three quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one quarter.”-Napoleon

    1. Just a quick remark. The European states that put the tuition on the tax bill and charge no tuition for college will have other forms of ration the seats in higher learning. When I went to law school in Europe there were 7 700 applicants to 220 seats. So if college becomes free the pressure on the system will increase with several side-effects. The difference between a decent school and a weak school becomes significant – because if it is “free” everyone wants the best school. Therefore, unless the veteran is ready to compete with high scores on GMAT/GRE or other measurable admission criteria, there will be limited access to the best schools. Also – several European countries have no preferred treatment of veterans in the admission process. So it might create “free” college, but the offered “free” college for the majority of the veterans, might be of lower quality compared to what their benefits give them today. That would then make it harder to have a successful transition to civilian life. Just a quick remark.

  4. The GI Bill and other educational opportunities are excellent military benefits but they are just part of the picture. We are a nation at war but we do not require compulsory enlistment for national service which has in many ways turned the military into a family business.
    Roughly 80% of currently serving troops come from a family with a relative who served and more than 25% have a parent who served. As I plan to retire next year I am simply passing the baton (or in this case an M4) to my boys who are both ROTC Cadets.
    There are many reasons people raise their hand to serve. Whether it is for college, following the family legacy, or simply a call to serve; I encourage everyone to serve our great nation.
    P.S. stand up when the National Anthem is being played…even if you are at home watching the game on TV.

  5. The possibility that young people might not go into the army simply to secure a future college education, and that a draft might be the consequence, is, in my view, a good thing. Without a draft citizens don’t pay nearly as much attention to what the government is up to. This gives Presidents greater latitude in regard to invading other countries than if the average citizen was more likely to have something at stake. Governments and the military prefer the volunteer army, in part for this reason, but the citizenry should not.

  6. Free college for everyone won’t happen, so there is no need to worry about it.

    The reason: it would be an ENORMOUS unfunded expenditure program. Universities already describe “out of state” tuition as the true cost of tuition, so if the Federal government offered to cover all public college tuition, it would suddenly be on the hook for $30K+/student for every public college student in the nation.
    This kind of expenditure could only be justified through Congress, and even if the Republicans lose the House, they would still be able to filibuster any such bill in the Senate.
    If Hillary and the Dems tried to ram it through, it would lead to a legislative wipe-out in 2018 similar to the Obamacare thumping of 2010. The knowledge of that certainty would probably keep enough Dems from approving it to make it a dead issue.

  7. Very interesting piece, thanks. Nevertheless, let’s be honest here: I’m no specialist but IMO there are other more important reasons that threatens the military’s ability to recruit:

    – lack of education
    – obesity
    – criminal record, or tattoos on their hands or faces
    – private firms’ more attractive packages


    ” These days, even if every young American wanted to join up, less than 30% would be eligible to. Of the starting 21m, around 9.5m would fail a rudimentary academic qualification, either because they had dropped out of high school or, typically, because most young Americans cannot do tricky sums without a calculator. Of the remainder, 7m would be disqualified because they are too fat, or have a criminal record, or tattoos on their hands or faces. […]
    That leaves 4.5m young Americans eligible to serve, of whom only around 390,000 are minded to, provided they do not get snapped up by a college or private firm instead—as tends to happen to the best of them.

    […] The pool of potential recruits is too small to meet America’s, albeit shrunken, military needs; especially, as now, when the unemployment rate dips below 6%. “

  8. Am I the only one thinking the whole idea behind this article is troubling/immoral ?
    So enlisting in the US is viewed as a way to make college education more accessible to lower middle class ? So if you’re born a Trump or a Clinton, you won’t really have to worry about that but if you’re born in a poor familly you’ll be trading your safety against higher education ? In a perfect world, the professional army should only be a matter of willingness to fight for your country, desire and interest in the military jobs/positions, way of life etc… In France, we have free tuition (not exactly free but close, its like 600 dollars for a year in college). It doesnt mean we don’t have private schools of higher standards people can attend to/subscribe to. Its like our healthcare : we have a public option together with a private one for those who can afford it/are interested. Still, enlisting in french army does have some benefits, from retirement benefits to a solid, respected professional training. Of course you could allways make the case that the US army and population are so much bigger in numbers that you couldnt apply the same model. But I’m not sure about that. Israel for ex, has a similar system with almost free tuition in public universities. Still, it kept a mandatory conscription (for how long ?).
    Anyway, this whole idea sounds very american to me. The idea that free tuition, like free healthcare would produce horrible results, crashes, negative externalities… While every serious studies shows the opposite (at least in terms of govt healthcare and life expectancy). Moreover, its quite baffling that while being hawkish and pretty agressive in their discourse and policies, very few high ranking govt officials seems to have sons and daughter enlisted in the wars they voted for. That’s why I think some sort of conscription should still be in place in countries that are the most engaged overseas like the US… UK, while being a monarchy, still shows a good example by enlisting ppl like Prince Harry in the UK military and having him fight on the ground. It sould be the same for people pushing for more military actions in the states.