Beware free college’s effect on GI Bill

October 29, 2016

When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont 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.” She also has proposed tuition-free community college.

Serious concerns are raised with such proposals. They would levy adverse effects on our military.

Critics cite economic concerns — that these policies would burden the federal budget, which has already surpassed $19.5 trillion in debt. But another concern is how “free” college for the lower and middle classes would subvert what is arguably the chief incentive for enlistment, the GI Bill.

The federal government enacted the Montgomery GI Bill in 1944 to provide the financial wherewithal to pursue education through service in the military. As a result, the GI Bill became the modern-day equivalent of buying war bonds for three generations of Americans, in terms of military support.

Years later, military service remains one of the only viable avenues to a debt-free education for a vast majority of working-class 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 joined to obtain educational benefits. Not surprisingly, the number of service members who feel this way rose from 55 percent pre-2001 as the cost of education continues to rise.

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. An increasing number of Americans are either forgoing education or falling thousands of dollars in debt to attend.

The free college proposal would, essentially, strip the GI Bill’s value and significantly hinder recruiting efforts.

I’m a Marine Corps veteran. While serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, casual conversation inevitably turned to why each Marine had enlisted. The answers varied. They 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 the armed services. This could lead to uncomfortable or challenging alternatives.

The military’s ability to recruit has long been predicated on the benefits the GI Bill offers lower-class Americans. It not only contributes to military success but to the very existence of a conscription-free force.

During the height of more recent conflicts, difficulties with recruiting and retention led to the controversial stop-loss program. The military unilaterally extended service members’ contracts to meet the needs of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. This program affected 54,494 service members, lasted five months, and was an example of the issues plaguing modern-day recruiting. This, despite the incentive of a GI Bill.

Education reform aimed at tackling affordability and accessibility are necessities to U.S. competitiveness on the global stage. However, such reform must come after careful consideration of the effects — whether it contributes to the undermining of the military’s premier recruiting tool, the GI Bill.

Instituting widespread reform would no longer expressly tie free education to national service and may very well signal a return to military conscription in the United States.

James B. Miller Jr. is the opinions editor for The Mesquite at Texas A&M-San Antonio, where a version of this commentary first appeared. He is a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, with seven operational combat tours.