Throughout the current presidential campaign season, there have been repeated calls for free college. Channeling a long-held position by Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, said that families making under $125,000 per year should be able to send their kids to college tuition-free. As someone who graduated college tens of thousands of dollars in debt, I am inclined to sympathize with this proposal. Student debt is a critical issue.
Opponents to Clinton’s proposal rightly cite the immense expense that these policies would impose on the federal budget. To date, however, a serious potential implication of free college for lower and middle income students has been ignored: the impact on military recruiting.
Higher education is rightly hailed as the surest path to the middle class. Because of its cost — both tuition and lost working hours — a college education has not been possible for everyone across the income spectrum. In a defining moment of the last century, the federal government enacted the G.I. Bill in 1944, providing returning American soldiers with the financial wherewithal to pursue a degree. It was, perhaps, the keystone policy for expanding the U.S. economy and creating the modern American middle class.
Mirroring higher education’s path to the middle class, military service remains one of the surest means to a college degree. In its latest form, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to $20,000 per year for tuition. To compensate for time without an income, it also provides a living stipend adjusted for the local cost of living. For example, in Cambridge Massachusetts, where I attend graduate school, that stipend is $2,800 per month, which is pro-rated for when classes are in session.