From Student Debtor to Soldier

How the student loan debt crisis forces low-income students of color into the military.

Dec 14, 2020 / Anna Attie / In These Times - When James Gard­ner got injured play­ing bas­ket­ball as a DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty fresh­man, he lost his finan­cial aid pack­age and was dropped from his class­es. To stay in school, he took out a $10,000 loan.

Soon, Gard­ner (a pseu­do­nym request­ed in fear of reprisal) and his fam­i­ly real­ized they couldn’t afford the uni­ver­si­ty. Instead, he trans­ferred to a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty out­side Chica­go and enrolled in the Reserve Offi­cer Train­ing Corps (ROTC) of the Air Force. The mil­i­tary paid for his entire col­lege edu­ca­tion — on the con­di­tion he serve at least four years after graduation.

Gard­ner is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) and says the mil­i­tary is geared toward ​“resource extrac­tion and resource allo­ca­tion.” When DSA col­leagues learn about his mil­i­tary back­ground, he says there is a ​“lit­tle bit of a gasp.”

“Would I be in the same predica­ment,” he won­ders, ​“if col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty were tuition-free? Would I have gone through ROTC? I don’t know.”

Gardner’s sit­u­a­tion isn’t unique. Amer­i­cans owe more than $1.67 tril­lion (Source: adjusted for 11/2022 now $1.768 trillion) in stu­dent debt, and the cost of col­lege has increased by more than 25% in the past 10 years. Accord­ing to a 2017 poll by the Depart­ment of Defense, pay­ing for edu­ca­tion is the top rea­son young peo­ple con­sid­er enlist­ing. In 2019, the Army cred­it­ed the stu­dent debt cri­sis with help­ing it sur­pass its recruit­ment goals.

'I’m guessing about 60% of people wouldn’t join the military if they already had their education paid for,' says Matt Drennan, who just began his first year at the Virginia Military Institute.

“One of the nation­al crises right now is stu­dent loans,” Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruit­ing Com­mand, said in 2019. While wars in the Mid­dle East were ​“not real­ly part of the dis­cus­sion” dur­ing his vis­its to recruit­ing sta­tions, he said edu­ca­tion­al ben­e­fits were a strong sell­ing point.

The pull of the mil­i­tary has even with­stood Covid-19. Though the pan­dem­ic has hin­dered mil­i­tary enroll­ment because of the lack of in-per­son sites, Army recruiters are con­fi­dent they will meet their recruit­ment and reten­tion goals, and are mak­ing stu­dent loan pay­ments cen­tral to their efforts. Mil­i­tary ben­e­fits include ROTC schol­ar­ships, loan repay­ment pro­grams and the GI Bill.

“I’m guess­ing about 60% of peo­ple wouldn’t join the mil­i­tary if they already had their edu­ca­tion paid for,” says Matt Dren­nan, who just began his first year at the Vir­ginia Mil­i­tary Insti­tute. While col­lege mon­ey wasn’t Drennan’s only moti­va­tor, he says join­ing the mil­i­tary will help him ​“not be a bur­den” on his par­ents. His father still has his own stu­dent debt to pay.

The stu­dent debt cri­sis dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects peo­ple of col­or, with Black women owing more than any oth­er demo­graph­ic. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Black women are heav­i­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed in the mil­i­tary. In 2018, Black women account­ed for almost 30% of all active-duty women, despite com­pris­ing only 13.7% of U.S. women.

Gard­ner acknowl­edges that many Black fam­i­lies, like his own, have a mil­i­tary lega­cy. But over­all, he says, the answer to why Black peo­ple are over­rep­re­sent­ed in the mil­i­tary is ​“the same rea­son why any­one else goes: It’s the economics.”

Chil­dren are often pushed toward the mil­i­tary long before they con­sid­er col­lege appli­ca­tions or grad­u­ate high school. In fact, 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act requires pub­lic schools to give mil­i­tary recruiters unfet­tered access to stu­dents. Recruiters then dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get schools in poor and work­ing-class neighborhoods.

Nika Lofton, now a junior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, grad­u­at­ed in 2018 from Cen­tral High School in Macon, Ga. She remem­bers mil­i­tary recruiters as ear­ly as mid­dle school. ​“Any time I ever heard any­one talk about [why they were join­ing the mil­i­tary], it was … free col­lege,” Lofton says, not ​“being real­ly pas­sion­ate about going to the military.”

At Lofton’s school, mil­i­tary involve­ment fell along col­or lines with few (if any) white stu­dents join­ing the Army’s Junior ROTC pro­gram for teens. Cen­tral High School is almost 90% Black and 99% of stu­dents are from poor families.

Junior ROTC pro­grams are espe­cial­ly com­mon in poor, major­i­ty-minor­i­ty school dis­tricts. And they have been expand­ing for decades. The Army Junior ROTC web­site boasts that around 40% of all the pro­grams are in ​“inner city schools, serv­ing a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of 50% minorities.”

“These stu­dents are seen as dis­pos­able and easy to recruit,” says Asha Edwards, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois sopho­more who co-found­ed a chap­ter of the anti-war orga­ni­za­tion Dis­senters. She says anti-mil­i­tary orga­niz­ers must intro­duce alter­na­tives to the mil­i­tary and dis­suade youth involve­ment with ROTC pro­grams, which ​“prey on poor Black students.”

“If we divest from the Pen­ta­gon and the war indus­try,” Edwards says, ​“we could afford free college.”



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