Strapped for cash? Want someone to pay for your way through college? These pitches made by military recruiters seem to be working, since each of the military service academies has seen a sharp rise in applications this year -- ranging from a 9% increase at West Point to a 40% jump at the U.S. Naval Academy.
While I’d like to think that the sudden interest reflects a renewed pride in patriotism and interest in national defense, it’s more likely that the draw of free tuition is an increasingly powerful lure. Students at the academies receive an all-expenses-paid undergraduate education in return for the promise of serving in the military after graduation. And reducing college education expenses is high on everyone's mind these days, boosting enrollment in community colleges and spikes in applications for financial aid at four-year schools.
The military's financial support is particularly attractive at a time when the costs of higher education are skyrocketing, with no end in sight. The average college endowment -- the main pool for funding financial aid at private institutions -- dropped 25-30% in the last year. Although tuition fees have grown more slowly this year, the savings are still a pittance. Public colleges are no longer the affordable fallback plan either, as noted in the June issue of Money. As options for high education seem bleak, the newest crop of students seem willing to take risk of serving in the military in the return for the promise of some financial stability.
Even if a student's family can navigate through the expenses of an elite private or public college, after all, the prospect of economic payoff from a degree feels more at risk. Consider that the unemployment rate for new graduates, at 11%, is higher than the national average. After adding the burden of student debts to that mix, pursuing an undergraduate degree through the traditional path doesn't feel like an ideal investment.
In addition to avoiding accrued debt, graduates of military academies may have another advantage in entering the workforce after service. An undergraduate education at a military academy is comparable to an education at an elite civilian university; the leadership skills, discipline and technical skills honed in the military’s core curriculum make these veterans unique candidates. General Electric, for one, offers veteran officers a special management training program with the explanation, “Your service made you a leader and a disciplined, strategic thinker with a level of loyalty that is unmatched.”
Obviously the volatility of the labor market still make job placement uncertain for veterans. Another downside may be that the years of required active duty fall during the prime career-building period when civilian peers are creating their early job history. Returning veterans may find themselves behind in making connections that are crucial to long-term success -- although they may have their own network of military colleagues to draw upon.
The financial stability provided by the government is a necessary payment for the unparalleled risks faced by members of the armed forces. Serving is no joke, but neither is managing student debt for decades after graduation.