For Military and Higher Ed, a Shared Dilemma

With their challenges well aligned, higher ed and the military should work together to reduce the opportunity costs of volunteering for military service, Mike Haynie writes.

Mike HaynieThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the military draft and the birth of America’s all-volunteer force, and the golden anniversary comes at a time when the future of the volunteer military has never been more uncertain. In fiscal year 2022, the Army missed its recruitment target by a record 25 percent, or 15,000 soldiers. Even applications to the elite service academies – long insulated from social and economic pressures – declined in 2022, with those declines ranging from 10 to almost 30 percent.

Many believe that 20+ years of war, a global pandemic, political division, and low unemployment have set the conditions for the worst fears of the architects of the all-volunteer force to be realized. First among those fears is that social and economic factors would combine to impose an “opportunity cost” on young Americans considering military service, otherwise overwhelming motivations grounded in patriotism and citizenship. Now, more than ever, that opportunity cost is palpable.

Today, entry-level salaries in the civilian sector are at historically high levels and unfilled U.S. jobs exceed 10 million. Meanwhile, Congress has set the annual salary for a new military enlistee at less than $26,000. In August, the Army had no choice but to issue guidance instructing soldiers and families to consider food stamps as a strategy to combat inflation. All this comes when the pool of eligible volunteers is small and shrinking. According to the Department of Defense, upwards of 70 percent of American youth are ineligible to serve even if inclined to do so, most commonly for reasons of obesity, drug or alcohol abuse, or other disqualifying medical conditions.

In many ways, the same challenges facing the military are also disrupting higher education. Undergraduate enrollment has consistently declined in recent years. It’s easy to cite the pandemic as the culprit, but higher education’s enrollment crisis has been festering for more than a decade. As the cost of education increases, and as certifications and credentials emerge as a degree alternative, the opportunity cost associated with the traditional college experience has increased for many students and families.

Read the full article by Dr. Haynie

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