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Would Making Public Colleges and Universities Free Threaten the All-Volunteer Military?

Friday, September 30, 2016 10:10
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(Before It's News)

Cost of college, 1985 through 2012, compared to other consumer costs (source; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

I'd like to put a simple idea in front of you, a connection between the predatory student debt scam and the military.

Bernie Sanders has argued the public colleges and universities should be free today, for the same reason that public high schools were free in the past. In the past, basic education — initially grade school, then grade school and high school — was considered both a public right and a public good. An educated nation was both a strong nation and a productive one, and in fact, one of the cornerstones of our preeminence in the world through the 1960s was our education system … and its availability.

Note that through this entire period, private schools — grade schools and high schools — also existed and thrived. The sons and daughters of the wealthy or the religiously motivated always had those options available. There was no “crowding out.”

Today, in this complex world, “basic education” means college as well. Sanders' idea is therefore simply an extension of what we've always done, made “basic education” free to the public at public expense, along with other privately financed options.

Note that free public college and university education would immediately alleviate the crushing burden of student debt, at least for new students. So it's a triple win — we'd get a stronger nation, a more productive one, and a less debt-burdened one, all with one stroke.

Free Education and the Military

So where would those students come from? Many would come from the post-high school work force (think Starbucks, Target and McDonald's), but a great many would also come from populations that turn to the military for employment. Which suggests the question — Is America's military and our military engagements a barrier to free public post-high school education?

I think the answer may be yes, given the number of men and women who join the military to get military-financed education benefits. As you'll read, that's 75% of enlistees.

Consider this, from Peter Van Buren, a former State Department Foreign Service Officer, writing at Common Dreams (my emphasis):

Does Free College Threaten Our All-Volunteer Military?

Does free college threaten our all-volunteer military? That is what writer Benjamin Luxenberg, on military blog War on the Rocks says. But the real question goes deeper than Luxenberg’s practical query, striking deep into who we are as a nation….

Right now there are only a handful of paths to higher education in America: have well-to-do parents; be low-income and smart to qualify for financial aid, take on crippling debt, or…

Or join the military.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to $20,000 per year for tuition, along with an adjustable living stipend. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, that stipend is $2,800 per month. There is also a books and supplies stipend. Universities participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program make additional funds available without affecting the GI Bill entitlement. Some 75 percent of those who enlisted said they did so to obtain educational benefits.

There's that 75% number. Van Buren continues:

Luxenberg raises the question of whether the free (Bernie Sanders) or lower cost (Hillary Clinton) college education is a threat to America’s all-volunteer military. If so many people join up to get that college money, if college was free or cheaper, would they still enlist?

It is a practical question worth asking, but raises more serious issues in its trail. If people are enlisting in significant part because college tuition is not affordable, does that imply tuition costs need to stay high to help keep the ranks filled? That an unequal college costs playing field helps sustain our national defense?

America faces twin problems with respect to higher education — the crushing burden of student debt, and the fiercely escalating price of college, tuition and fees, that this debt enables. I think you could safely say that without the availability of student loans — which are structured to greatly benefit lenders at the expense of student debtors — tuition increases would not be economically feasible.

Put more simply, bankers and other lenders feed on student debt, grow fat on it in fact. Student debt, in turn, feeds the price charged by the colleges and universities who receive most of that money. Which then drives the need for more debt. Everyone wins — banks, universities — except the students, who are the victims in this scam. Even those who receive “good” educations are sucked dry. All college students today, graduates or dropouts, leave with a mountain of debt they will carry with them for decades. They leave with the equivalent of a mortages — but without the house, and often without a decent job to finance for it.

Killing the student loan program by killing the need for loans would immediately change the lives of young people, a whole generation of them. The bankers won't be happy, but their moaning would prove instantly why these loan programs are so prevalent in the first place. To feed the greed, and no other reason.

And once again, private colleges and universities would still exist and would still be free to charge anything they like. Of course, they'd now have to compete with the free ones, something that would likely bring down even those tuition costs. Sounds like a win-win, yes?

But Where Will the Money Come From? Cancel the F-35.

But how would we “pay for it” (assuming money works differently from the way it does in the real world, that money is a zero-sum game, like gold)? Here's another simple idea, again from the article:

Money matters, but what the country can get for its money is also important. Let’s round off the military higher education benefit, tuition and living stipend, to $53,000 a year. An F-35 fighter plane costs $178 million.

Dropping just one plane from inventory generates enough money for 3,358 years of college money. We could even probably survive as a nation if we didn’t buy four or five of the planes. A lot of people who now find college out of reach could go to school

Let's make that even easier. Cancel the F-35 completely. After all, it's dangerous to operate and barely flies. Reuters:

U.S. sees lifetime cost of F-35 fighter at $1.45 trillion

The U.S. government now projects that the total cost to develop, buy and operate the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be $1.45 trillion over the next 50-plus years, according to a Pentagon document obtained by Reuters.

The Pentagon's latest, staggering estimate of the lifetime cost of the F-35 — its most expensive weapons program — is up from about $1 trillion a year ago, and includes inflation….

The Pentagon still plans to buy 2,443 of the new radar-evading, supersonic warplanes, plus 14 development aircraft, in the coming decades, although Air Force Secretary Michael Donley last week warned that further technical problems or cost increases could eat away at those numbers.

You could finance a lot of free public college and university education with $1.5 trillion. Not buying 2500 planes at $180 million per plane would itself save a half-trillion dollars.

As to how we'd fight all of our wars without out-of-options young people forced by circumstances to enlist … well, maybe we'd have to justify those wars better. After all, enlistments in WWII weren't hard to come by.


“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis


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