Gunning for College


Gunning for College

By Beth Shulman,, August 13, 2005

What should you have to sacrifice to get a college education in the United States? Isn’t it hard enough to get good grades and high SAT scores? Should you have to risk your life as well? As back-to-school season gears up, a lot of American high schools evidently don’t think so. A growing number of parents and high schools are taking steps to limit military recruiters’ access to students. 

With casualties in Iraq past the 1,500 mark, military recruiters make many parents uneasy. High schools in California, Wisconsin, Arizona  and elsewhere are placing restrictions on how military recruiters interact with students. “Due to the realities of war, there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers and other influencers to join the military,” admitted the Pentagon’s top recruitment officer, David S. C. Chu, in a classic understatement.

As the Army and Marines continue to fall short of their recruitment targets, military recruiters are ramping up their efforts to reach teenagers. And as the cost of attending college rises, the financial benefits of enlistment in the U.S. military may entice potential recruits.

Certainly, the numbers are clear about the value of college. Without a college education, it is hard to make a good living in America today. Yet the cost of college has priced many young men and women out of the market. It is no accident that military recruiters are out scouring America’s working-class suburbs, offering enlistment bonuses to high school graduates. A promise of college tuition is very enticing to teens whose parents just don’t have much money.

America needs to find ways to guarantee college for everyone—whether they become soldiers or not. College tuition is an expensive up-front investment, and it is getting costlier. Family income and financial aid have not kept pace. And Congress isn’t helping. Instead, it has cut funds for Pell Grants and other aid programs that help people most. The Pell award has dropped from covering 84 percent of the cost of four years of college in 1976 to covering only 39 percent in 2000. This makes a college degree harder for working-class and poor students to obtain and perpetuates an already-growing economic divide

Certainly, many young men and women enlist today out of a patriotic desire to serve their country. But for others, signing up for America’s armed forces may be the only way they see to get the money they need for a college education—and for the future good job it will make possible.

A college diploma offers graduates a distinct lifelong financial advantage. According to the Social Inequality Project of the Russell Sage Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic organization that supports social science research, the average salary for U.S. high school graduates is less than half that for people with bachelors’ degrees.

The gap has been widening. As UCLA economist Tom Kane points out in his essay “College-Going and Inequality” (Social Inequality, Russell Sage Foundation, 2004), the earnings differential between college and high-school graduates more than doubled over the past 20 years. The median income of someone with only a high school degree rose just 16 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the same period, compared with more than 45 percent for those with advanced degrees. Just as a high school diploma was what our parents needed to get a job that would pay enough to support a middle-class life for their families, today’s young men and women need a college degree.

Although the demand for a college education has increased as its potential returns have soared, Kane shows that the increase in U.S. college attendance was disproportionately among wealthier individuals. Over the past two decades, the richest quarter of Americans increased their college enrollment by 12 percent, while those at the bottom rose by only 5 percent, expanding an already large enrollment gap .

Meanwhile, most of the increase in post-secondary education among Americans with lower incomes was at two-year community colleges or technical schools. Enrollment rates at four-year colleges, which lead to much higher paying careers, increased by 20 percent for the rich, while for those near the bottom, the rate of four-year college enrollment actually fell from levels a decade earlier.

With these large payoffs from college, the military enlistment bonuses seem like a lifeline for high school graduates who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college. Yet do we really want a society in which the only way for young men and women to afford the cost of a college education is to agree to risk their lives ?

If we believe in equal opportunity in America, we need to ensure other options. Harvard University and some other Ivy League schools have recently guaranteed tuition for any student they admit, but that won’t help most college hopefuls. We need to ensure that all high school students who qualify for college can go, regardless of their family financial status.

Beth Shulman is the author of The Betrayal of Work:  How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans (The New Press, 2003) and works with the Russell Sage Foundation’sFuture of Work and Social Inequality projects.

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