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If people are enlisting in significant part because college tuition is not affordable, does that imply tuition costs need to stay high to help keep the ranks filled? (Image: Screenshot/Ad)

Does Free College Threaten Our All-Volunteer Military?

Peter Van Buren

 by We Meant Well

Does free college threaten our all-volunteer military? That is what writer Benjamin Luxenberg, on military blog War on the Rocks says. But the real question goes deeper than Luxenberg’s practical query, striking deep into who we are as a nation.

Unlike nearly every other developed country, which offer free or low cost higher education (Korea’s flagship Seoul National University runs about $12,000 a year, around the same as Oxford), in America you need money to go to college. You need the bucks for tuition and books, and for most students, you need the bucks to not work full-time for a couple of years. Typical of America’s top end schools, Harvard charges $63,000 for tuition, room, board and fees. That’s more than a quarter of a million dollars for a degree. Even a state school wants $40,000 a year.

Right now there are only a handful of paths to higher education in America: have well-to-do parents; be low-income and smart to qualify for financial aid, take on crippling debt, or…

Or join the military.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to $20,000 per year for tuition, along with an adjustable living stipend. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, that stipend is $2,800 per month. There is also a books and supplies stipend. Universities participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program make additional funds available without affecting the GI Bill entitlement. Some 75 percent of those who enlisted said they did so to obtain educational benefits.

And in that vein, Luxenberg raises the question of whether the free (Bernie Sanders) or lower cost (Hillary Clinton) college education is a threat to America’s all-volunteer military. If so many people join up to get that college money, if college was free or cheaper, would they still enlist?

It is a practical question worth asking, but raises more serious issues in its trail. If people are enlisting in significant part because college tuition is not affordable, does that imply tuition costs need to stay high to help keep the ranks filled? That an unequal college costs playing field helps sustain our national defense?

Of course motivation to join the service is often multi-dimensional. But let’s look a little deeper, and ask what does it say about our nation when we guarantee affordable higher education to only a slim segment of our population. About seven percent of all living Americans were in the military at some point. Less than 0.5 percent of the American population currently serves. Why do we leave the other 99.95 percent to whatever they can or can’t scrape together on their own?

The issue of money always comes up, and was used by Hillary Clinton to knock down some of Bernie Sanders’ education proposals. Donald Trump may bring up the same question in the upcoming debates about Clinton’s more modest proposals.

Money matters, but what the country can get for its money is also important. Let’s round off the military higher education benefit, tuition and living stipend, to $53,000 a year. An F-35 fighter plane costs $178 million.

Dropping just one plane from inventory generates enough money for 3,358 years of college money. We could even probably survive as a nation if we didn’t buy four or five of the planes. A lot of people who now find college out of reach could go to school, even more if we reduced the stipend to where the difference could realistically be made up with 20 hours of minimum wage work a week.

The final question many people will be asking at this point is one of entitlement. What did those civilians do that makes it so the United States should give them college money?

Leaving aside the good idea of expanding “service” to include critical non-military possibilities, the answer is nothing. Nothing, but maybe it is more important than that.

Security is defined by much more than a standing military (and that does not even touch the question of how say an eight year occupation of Iraq made America more secure.) The United States, still struggling to transition from a soot and steel industrial base that collapsed in the 1970s to something that can compete in the 21st century, can only do so through education. More smart people equals more people who can take on the smarter jobs that drive prosperity. It is an investment in one of the most critical forms of infrastructure out there.

No one suggests veterans should have their benefits reduced. But for a nation that can clearly afford to pay for a broader base of accessible higher education, it seems very wrong to simply leave that process — or the nation’s future — to a Darwinian system of financial survival of the richest.


© 2021 Peter Van Buren
Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His books include: "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (2012) and "Hooper's War: A Novel of Moral Injury in WWII Japan" (2017).

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