First Things First: Rethinking the Defense Costs of Debt-Free College


Do efforts to make American college education more affordable undermine our national defense?

Some think so. Benjamin Luxenberg’s recent article at War on the Rocks points out a potential consequence of debt-free college: the decreased marginal benefit of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to prospective military volunteers. His argument is that many in the U.S. armed forces join in part to help pay for their education. Programs to lower college costs for students across the country (as proposed by Hillary Clinton) would therefore reduce demand for G.I. Bill financial aid. Americans for whom a college education is otherwise fiscally unattainable would have debt-free options outside military service. As a result, the military would lose a powerful recruitment tool to attract individuals to their ranks.

However, the author offers a number of questionable assertions. First, let’s say that Congress passes legislation to provide college tuition subsidies to Americans. It is true that this would decrease the marginal recruitment value of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill for individuals joining only to get an undergraduate education. But G.I. Bill benefits can be applied to any number of educational opportunities, including graduate degrees (MAs, MBAs, MPPs, JDs, PhDs, and so on). In other words, the G.I. Bill as it already exists would still incentivize military service among individuals seeking further education. Debt-free college programs would just raise the level of education within reach.

But let’s say that potential recruits aren’t as interested in graduate education. Could the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense craft an alternate set of benefits to entice individuals to enlist short of resorting to a military draft? This might be more difficult politically, but would be simple in economic terms. Congress could take part of the federal budget currently directed toward veteran education programs and redirect it toward other military benefits, such as increased salaries or housing subsidies.

That an estimated 75 percent of military veterans in 2011 had enlisted in part for the educational benefits only shows us that the current incentive system for recruitment worked. Yet it tells us little about how the individual needs of would-be volunteers could be met through other means if college benefits were taken off the table. Americans, veteran and non-veteran, have many aspirations in life. Going to college is only one of them.

Moreover, there are strong reasons why we should strive for a nation in which socio-economically disadvantaged Americans seeking a diploma should have available options besides military service. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the Pentagon estimates that 71 percent of Americans are ineligible for enlistment, largely for medical reasons.

There is another reason to seriously consider policies that provide affordable college options outside military service. Americans electing to serve in the military don’t get to choose the wars they fight, even if they personally pay the costs associated with them. An Army soldier enlisting in September 2001 could not have legally refused to deploy to Iraq in March 2003 — even if he or she believed the war to be unjust or unwise. For this reason among others, joining the military is a serious decision. Basic educational opportunities should not be contingent on embarking on that path. The question for Americans and their elected officials to consider is: Does college education constitute such a basic opportunity?

That is a question beyond the scope of this article. But in debating that question elsewhere, let’s remember that the broader social costs and benefits of affordable college education dwarf the potential impact that such programs might have on the military. Consider other social policies that have second-order effects on military recruitment: Military members receive full health care benefits while serving. Should this change the way we debate the Affordable Care Act? Military members receive a salary. Should this change the way we see minimum wage or income tax policy? Perhaps one of the inadvertent consequences of the widening gap between rich and poor is that military recruitment is easier for the Pentagon. However, this is hardly reason to reject policies that might help narrow the gap, assuming we think creating a more equal society is a worthwhile goal.

Because military recruitment is situated in the broader national economy, many domestic policies have the potential to impact it. But when we exaggerate or overemphasize the possible costs to the military in our analysis, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We can end up thinking, as Luxenberg does, that national defense encapsulates the “traditional primary function” of government. On the contrary, while providing for the common defense is listed among the many animating principles in the U.S. Constitution, it stands beside promoting the general welfare and forming a more perfect union. To forget this disregards an important part of our national heritage and fails those Americans contemplating enlistment who should have the economic freedom to choose to serve.


Tyler Jost is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as an Army intelligence officer for six years.


Image: U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Dennis J. Henry, Jr.