The Military Feeds on the Student Debt Crisis With False Promises to Recruits

The military uses the student debt crisis to steer young adults toward enlistment. After serving, many find the guarantee of free college is shakier than promised. Student debt forgiveness can keep recruiters at bay and help veterans move on with their lives.

A US Marine recruiter speaks to a high school student in New Jersey. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Each year, the Department of Defense mails out a “Futures Survey” in an effort to understand the likelihood of military enlistment in people age sixteen to twenty-four. Results of the survey are clear: young people see the military as a way to pay for college. Over half of the respondents as recently as fall 2020 reported that funding education would be a motivating factor in enlistment, and respondents approaching college age (sixteen to eighteen) felt more certain about enlistment than any other age group surveyed.

The average of $30,000 of debt per borrower — with a national total of $1.61 trillion dollars in student debt — is causing prospective students to think hard about avoiding university debt, and the military itself actively utilizes the debt crisis to steer young adults toward enlistment. Advertising all but promises of a full ride in exchange for enlistment, ignoring problems and details that often prevent this promise of actually being fulfilled. The military’s focus on enlisting people facing the student debt crisis is coercive, especially considering misleading marketing about the benefits of Veteran Affairs (VA) education assistance and recruitment strategies that target especially vulnerable student populations.

Education Not Guaranteed

In a 2019 Pentagon report, army recruiting command leader Major General Frank Muth stated, “You can get out [of the army] after four years, 100 percent paid for state college anywhere in the United States.” This free-college guarantee is found frequently in recruiter strategies, yet it glosses over common complications and important disclaimers about the reality of education benefits.

A student veteran’s first hurdle in securing aid is the system’s sheer complexity. Several aid packages exist; aid amounts can vary by branch, education history, and university of choice; and students must coordinate with both the VA and their university during a paperwork-heavy benefits application process. Additionally, it takes time for applications to be processed by the VA. A student is responsible for covering any costs that arise while the application is still under review, even if the application is ultimately approved.

Shockingly, 60 percent of veterans surveyed by Syracuse University in 2017 reported that VA complexity made it difficult to stay in school. For students who do finally secure education benefits, the assistance still may not meet expectations. A Department of Education study on 2015–16 undergraduate students found that military students received, on average, $15,000 in veterans’ education benefits compared to the $19,500 average cost of college at that time. The $4,500 gap left by insufficient VA benefits would have to be covered by another form of scholarship — or patched with student loans.

Student loans among veterans are more common than one may expect. The Department of Education found that 64 percent of veterans who graduated with a bachelor’s in 2016 had taken out student loans at an average amount of $27,100. This is just $400 less than the average amount taken out by nonveterans in the same year. Furthermore, 10 percent more veterans than nonveterans reported difficulty in paying off student debts.

Considering that the army, navy, and air force all made attempts to cut back education benefits in 2019, the future of veteran student benefits is uncertain. In fact, mass student loan forgiveness is the best action President Joe Biden could take for people struggling to move their lives forward because of the weight of student debt — including veterans who were recruited on a guarantee that turned out to be much shakier than promised.

Economic Conscription

During the Vietnam War, concerns arose about a pattern of enlistment among specifically lower-income citizens who often found themselves on the front lines. Although recent recruitment has trended toward more middle-class enlistees, the practice of recruiters targeting economically vulnerable people has not disappeared. This trend is often referred to as economic conscription, or the “poverty draft.”

A 2015 study by the RAND Corporation looked at the relationship between lower-income schools and the high school military program Junior ROTC. JROTC was found to be more present at Tier 1 schools — schools with a higher percentage of low-income students. The report also notes that all four services in the military cite Title 1 eligibility as “desirable” in recruiting strategy, especially the army. A breakdown of 2011–12 army recruitment activity in Connecticut high schools gives further evidence that recruiters target economic vulnerability: recruiters visited a high school with a significant population of low-income students ten times more than a high school with only a few low-income student.

Enticing would-be debtors into the armed forces with the promise of free education has the same core promise of upward mobility as the Vietnam-era poverty draft. Income statistics do not immediately represent familial wealth or economic safety, especially as student debt skyrockets. The military’s intentional utilization of the student debt crisis is its own form of financial draft. And due to the intersections between class and race, these tactics often target non-white students in particular — black students, for example, often take on the highest amounts of debt and tend to have the least generational wealth to fall back on.

As the movement to cancel student debt grows and places greater pressure on Biden to take executive action to cancel student debt, there will likely be opposition from pro-war figures who prey on young people’s financial insecurity for recruitment. The experiences of veterans who were lured into the military by promises of education highlight the outright lie that military service offers opportunity for historically impoverished communities throughout the United States.

Opposition to war and sympathy for exploited veterans are two good reasons to add to the ever-growing list of why the president should cancel student debt.