Cover: Competing with College

Competing with College

Developing New Recruiting Options for the Military

Published 1999

by Beth J. Asch, M. Rebecca Kilburn, Jacob Alex Klerman

Research Brief

Although the military's need for enlisted personnel has declined by almost one-third since the end of the Cold War, the armed services are currently finding it difficult to meet their recruiting goals. The Department of Defense (DoD) has traditionally responded to such difficulties by increasing advertising, assigning additional personnel to recruiting, and raising recruiting incentives. However, because of ongoing and permanent changes in the civilian labor market, as well as other changes that have occurred in the recruiting environment, these measures may no longer be adequate to help the services meet their recruiting goals. In particular, the strong demand for skilled labor has prompted an increasing number of "high quality" youth[1] to pursue post-secondary education and subsequent civilian employment. Because of this competition from post-secondary institutions and subsequent skilled employment, the DoD may want to explore new options for attracting high quality youth into the armed forces that will directly address this source of competition.

In Attracting College-Bound Youth into the Military, RAND researchers Beth Asch, Rebecca Kilburn, and Jacob Klerman explore the factors underlying this increased interest in college, assess the effectiveness of current programs for combining military service and college, and outline potential approaches for increasing the attractiveness of military service to college-bound youth. The main findings from their study are summarized below.

College Is Becoming More Attractive

Competition in the civilian labor market for skilled workers has generated a dramatic increase in real wages for college graduates. The college premium—defined as the percentage difference between the average real wage of a four-year college graduate and that of a high school graduate—rose from 40 percent in 1979 to 65 percent in 1995. In response to this wage growth, college enrollment rates also rose, from 46 percent of those aged 18 to 19 in 1980 to 60 percent in 1994. Given the continuing technical changes in the workplace (such as the widespread use of computers in many jobs), the demand for skilled workers, and thus the demand for college education, is unlikely to diminish.

Most Enlisted Individuals Obtain College Education After Separating from Service

The military offers a myriad of options for service members to take college courses while in active service. Although the availability of these options would seem to provide adequate opportunity to obtain a post-secondary degree, in actuality these programs do not generate significant increases in educational attainment during members' active service. The Voluntary Education Program, for example, is one of the most popular options—enrollment in 1996 totaled approximately 673,000—and it is the primary route for attending a post-secondary educational institution while serving on active duty. However, relatively few participants use this program to obtain a bachelor's degree, or even any college at all, prior to mid-career. Specifically, less than 1 percent of the participants had obtained a bachelor's degree, and only 8 percent had obtained some college education by the end of their eighth year of service.

Another popular program, the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), also enrolls large numbers of individuals—in 1996, for example, 94 percent of enlistees participated in the program. Although active personnel can use MGIB benefits while in the service, the program was designed to be used primarily after separation from active duty. Consequently, the vast majority of service members (nearly 90 percent) use their benefits after separating from service. Thus, the military does not receive the benefits of a more educated and presumably more productive workforce, unless the individuals participating in the MGIB program subsequently choose to join a reserve component.

The MGIB appears to be quite successful at generating increases in educational attainment relative to the Voluntary Education Program, even though a significant fraction of those who enroll in the MGIB program subsequently fail to use the benefit. For instance, an analysis of 30-year-old veterans in the civilian sector indicated that 90 percent of them had attained some post-secondary education, compared to only 49 percent of 30-year-old active duty military personnel.

Policy Options for Attracting College-Bound Youth

Given the current recruiting environment, the DoD should consider implementing and expanding some nontraditional policy options to enhance recruitment of college-bound youth. For example, recruiters could target individuals on two-year college campuses to a far greater extent than they currently do, or they could target drop-outs from two-year and four-year colleges. Alternatively, the military could expand the options for obtaining some college prior to military service by allowing high school seniors to first attend a two- or four-year college (paid for by the military) and then enlist on active duty for a term of service. In a variation on this alternative, the individual would serve in a reserve component while in college and then enter an active component after completing college. Regardless of how such a program was structured, enlistees entering active duty with post-secondary education would have to be paid significantly more when they entered, given the college premium that they could earn if they had chosen civilian employment instead.

The military could also create an entirely new path for combining college and military service. In this approach, the military would encourage enlisted veterans to attend college and then reenlist. For example, individuals who use the MGIB after a first term of service could return at a higher pay grade for a second enlistment term. Thus, this type of policy could operate as either an enlistment incentive or as both an enlistment and a re-enlistment incentive.

The exact structure of these alternatives requires further study to determine their feasibility, cost, and effectiveness, as well as their impact on the age distribution of military forces and the social distinctions between college-educated officers and college-educated enlistees. Once the most promising alternatives have been identified, they should be carefully evaluated in a national experiment designed to test their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, similar to the one that led to the creation of the Army College Fund and the Navy College Fund.


  • [1] "High quality" youth are those with a high school diploma who score in the top half of the Armed Forces Qualification Test distribution.

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