By James Miller
When Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), first proposed legislation to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities and colleges, the mainstream laughed. Nearly two years later, the movement has caught fire with millennials nationwide. Democratic Presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, echoed these sentiments in her platform, saying “Let’s make debt-free college available to everyone. And let’s liberate the millions of Americans who already have student debt.” As a veteran, there are some serious concerns raised with such a proposal, and what adverse effects it would levy on our military.
Critics cite economic concerns these policies would levy on a federal budget which has already surpassed $19.5 trillion dollars in debt. Another concern, however, is that “free” college for the lower and middle classes would subvert, what is arguably the premier driving incentive to enlistment, the GI Bill.
The federal government enacted the Montgomery G.I. Bill in 1944 as a financial wherewithal to pursue education through service in the military, forever coupling education benefits with military service. In doing so, the MGIB became the modern day equivalent to the buying of war bonds —in terms of military support— for three generations of Americans.
All these years later, military service remains one of the only viable avenues to a debt-free education for a vast majority of the working class of America. In its current form, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides even more benefit and incentive than its predecessor.
According to a 2011 Pew Research Survey, 75 percent of enlisted members of the Armed Services said they enlisted to obtain educational benefits. Not surprisingly, the number of service members who feel this way rose from 55 percent pre-2001, to 80 percent today as the cost of education continues to rise.
The increased costs are so drastic that the numbers are almost nauseating. In 1960, education costs per semester averaged $760, while the average American made $10,800 per year. Today, the average national cost per semester is $24,061, and the average American earns $45,000 per year. As a result, an increasing number of Americans are either forgoing education, or falling thousands of dollars in debt to attend. This is where the GI Bill stands as an effective solution, and incentive to military service.
The Free college proposal would, essentially, strip the G.I. Bill of its value while significantly hindering recruiting efforts. While serving in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, casual conversation would inevitably turn to why each Marine had enlisted. The answers varied depending on social classes. Answers ranged from political aspirations and service, to the most common answer – educational benefit. Without the ability to maintain recruiting levels, as a result of the devaluation of the GI Bill, our government would have to look to other means of attracting men and women into armed service, which could lead to some uncomfortable or challenging alternatives such as conscription.
The military’s aptitude to recruit has long been predicated on the benefits the GI Bill holds for lower class Americans, and is not only contributive to military success, but to the very existence of a conscription free force. During the height of the conflicts, difficulties with recruiting and retention lead to the controversial program “stop loss” being instituted, whereby the military unilaterally extended service members’ contracts to meet the needs of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. This unit-based program affected 54,494 service members, lasted five months, and was an example of issues plaguing modern day recruiting. This, despite the incentive of a GI Bill.
Education reform aimed at tackling affordability and accessibility are forgone necessities to American competitiveness on the global stage, however, such reform must come after careful consideration is made to the affects it contributes to the undermining of the premier tool for recruitment – the GI Bill.
Instituting widespread reform, would no longer expressly tie free education to national service, and may very well signal a return to conscription in the United States.