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

September 26, 2016

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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.

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3 thoughts on “First Things First: Rethinking the Defense Costs of Debt-Free College

  1. “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.”

    It seems the author here is in favor of a massive new entitlement for the masses (which both cheapens the value of a ubiquitous college education, and denies the reality that college isn’t for everyone).

    To keep up with an impossible rate of spending (for nation nearly $20T in debt), he proposes that the near-morally-bankrupt VA, in conjunction with a DoD whose budget is hamstrung by a myriad of unending entitlements, jointly concoct a brand new entitlement above and beyond reimbursement for higher education. This, he says, would be “difficult politically” – quite an understatement in its own right – but inadvertently recognizes the reality that Americans are weary of endless entitlement growth, even for our nation’s heroes.

    I don’t think Mr. Luxenberg’s original argument is particularly strong. It’s probably true, that military recruiting would be more difficult if Hillary got her way on free college. Yet, it’s probably a stretch to say that such difficulty would weaken our national security. Opposing free college, which I laud, should be done by frontal assault, and be fought directly on its merits – namely among them, affordability – rather than indirectly, by over-estimating a harm to the DoD.

    Semper Fidelis

    1. Agree that free or at least affordable college should be argued on its own merits. Personally, I think they are substantial and probably justify the costs:

      Education is strongly correlated with all kinds of socially and economically desirable outcomes. The more educated you are the more likely you are to have a job, vote, be healthy, have a stable family; and the less likely you are to commit a crime, abandon your kids, abuse substances, need welfare or unemployment assistance, get sick, be scammed by con artists, or get a fair trial – just for some examples. The better educated you are, the more likely you are to be a net contributor to the economy and to society, rather than to need help.

      More fundamentally, the average level of education in a nation is strongly correlated with national prosperity. And in the long term (not the short term) a nations war-fighting potential boils down to population, technology and wealth/economic power. At the outbreak of WW2 the US Army and USMC were frankly not that impressive in terms of numbers, equipment or experience. But five years later the USA was overwhelmingly the strongest nation on earth because its economic and technological base enabled it to transform itself. Not coincidentally, the strong and advanced US economy was founded on very high average levels of education for the time. A lesser, but similar advantage probably accrued to Imperial Germany at the outbreak of WW1.

      Today, although the top US universities are still among the best in the world, US elementary and high school students sit somewhere in the upper middle among advanced nations. This is not a recipe for future greatness.

      I would argue that in the long term, there is no single area of government investment that pays off more than education – not defence, roads, science, social welfare, justice, you name it. And that payoff indirectly but powerfully affects national power in the next generation.

  2. Rather than moralize on whether college is a good you should have to earn through military service, or whether free tuition will cheapen and degrade the value of degrees in general; I return to two points made which I think all commentors can agree upon.

    The military mindset is inherently valuable to all employers which I have seen somewhat feeble attempts to sell that I feel fell short.

    The practical vocational training is almost unobtainable for many, many vocational fields in the civilian sector.

    The first is inhibited by the “mass-movement, following orders” impression many members of the civilian community have about enlisted service. This is partly a function of watching too many movies, and a shortage of script writers that know the services. Day to day operations in a Navy squadron require amazingly little officer input to man up, plan, maintain and operate aircraft. Masking the robust, self-directed role of the enlisted leads civilians considering service to assume military life is barracks, standing in ranks awaiting detailed orders, and continuous scut work to fill time. Occasional efforts are made to counter-act these mis-impressions, mostly in the video game world.

    To the second, even after my degree the civilian sector snapped me up not because of my Bachelor’s, but because I had intimate working knowledge of communications, navigation, navaids, flight decks, radars (although a bit dated now) and other tech simply not taught except perhaps at Embry-Riddle.

    The majority of workforce at an avionics manufacturer now is software generalists who have no idea initially why that needle turns blue now and white later, what on earth a DME is, why civilians can’t fly only GPS.

    My second day on the job I was sketching XY repeater circuits for a retrofit project on a software engineer’s white board. Not taught in colleges, old tech.

    Due to the Navy rating system of self-study for advancement, I was also trained to step into the civilian avionics world, assess my own education gaps, find the resources I needed and start filling them in.

    These are skills largely unique to the military they completely fail to sell sufficiently.