female marines stand in line in uniforms facing to the left. they wear white cloth face masks over their noses and mouths
Marine drill instructor Sgt. Ikea Kaufman (L) presents a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) recruit from Lima Company, the first gender-integrated training class in San Diego, their Eagle, Globe, and Anchor pin to officially become a U.S. Marine after completing a 9.7 mile hike on Edson Range to the top of a mountain called The Reaper, during The Crucible, the final part of phase three of recruit training on April 22, 2021, at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was co-published by Prism and Next City as part of our Solutions for Economic Equity partnership, highlighting how low-income and marginalized BIPOC communities are cultivating, building, and seizing economic justice in cities across the U.S.

Earlier this month, 19 House Republicans, led by Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), sent a letter to President Joe Biden to raise concerns over the “unintended consequences” that his student loan relief plan would have on the military’s recruitment efforts: “By forgiving such a wide swath of loans for borrowers,” the letter reads, “you are removing any leverage the Department of Defense maintained as one of the fastest and easiest ways to pay for higher education.”

The plan would forgive up to $10,000 for borrowers of federal student loans who make less than $125,000 per year, and up to $20,000 for recipients of Pell Grants, a financial award for students from families with incomes below $60,000 annually. Under the plan, about 20 million borrowers could have their balances eliminated. 

Indeed, one of the many reasons young recruits join the U.S. Armed Forces is to finance their education, particularly among low-income recruits and recruits of color. A 2015 survey from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University found that 53% of veterans were motivated into military service for educational benefits. The relief plan would undoubtedly impact that side of the sales pitch for military recruitment, but how deeply will it undermine recruiting efforts—and is the crisis of recruitment actually a crisis?

Several counter-recruiters say it’s too soon to know the impact of Biden’s student debt relief plan on their work, in part because they anticipate legal challenges blocking the relief and because the plan’s debt forgiveness doesn’t impact new or future borrowers. But ultimately, they say, the success of recruitment depends on another factor. 

“The single biggest predictor of military recruitment is the economy,” Elizabeth Frank, who has been involved in counter-recruitment in Chicago public schools since 2004, said, pointing to what student debt cancellation advocates argue will ultimately be a boost to the economy

“When the economy is good, recruitment suffers,” said Frank.

The reality of the recruitment issue

Military proponents have been sounding the alarm for years that student debt forgiveness would jeopardize military enlistment, but the new policy comes at a time when every branch of the military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. Ret. Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told NBC News the military hasn’t had this much trouble signing recruits since the end of the draft in 1973. A Defense Department survey revealed that 9% of young Americans eligible to serve in the military intended to do so, the lowest number since 2007. Spoehr believes “2022 is the year we question the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.”

Compare that to 2019, when the military exceeded its recruiting goal, crediting its success to the national student loan crisis. 

But such alarmist claims have been made before, like at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Pentagon threatened to issue stop-loss orders, which extend service members’ current contracts without their consent, in response to the lockdown restrictions hindering its training and recruitment efforts. 

The Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen went as far as calling Biden’s relief plan “an act of stolen valor,” implying that loan forgiveness should only be extended to those in uniform. “Americans who take out loans they can’t afford to repay are not heroes—and should not be treated as if they were.” 

Thiessen and other pro-military opponents of Biden’s plan maintain that access to a debt-free education should only be available through military service.

“It reveals a country whose economy, in significant part, runs on debt,” said Khury Petersen-Smith, Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. That includes sustaining our military, which military proponents have said openly for years: Marine Corps veteran Benjamin Luxenberg in 2016 wrote that while access to higher education is arguably more important than military recruitment, the “government’s traditional primary function has been national defense.”

Given the size of our defense budget (the Biden Administration’s FY 2023 defense budget request was $813 billion), it is clear maintaining military dominance is our country’s greater priority. That includes keeping its ranks stocked. 

Many have pointed to a “poverty draft” as a tactic for the military to boost its numbers in lieu of an actual draft. Military recruiters have long been known to target children younger than 18 from middle class and impoverished areas, where children of color especially are overrepresented in the student body. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 19% of recruits are from household incomes below $41,691; 83% of recruits come from households with incomes of $87,850 or less. 

“Anything that takes away from that jewel that they dangle in front of poor kids is going to hurt,” said Rebecca Payne of the Peace Education Center in Lansing, Michigan. “$10,000 is a drop in the bucket toward college expenses, but it does bring up in the minds of poor young people that, maybe, there’s another way of getting into college.”

Realistically, however, student debt forgiveness isn’t as attractive an offer as a free college education, which the military can still offer. The GI Bill, a benefits package that covers partial or full university tuition and fees, stipends to cover books and supplies, and housing allowances, is still a more attractive offer than student loan forgiveness (even if student veterans may still take out student loans to cover living costs).

Moreover, access to higher education is only one of the myriad reasons young people join the military. According to a 2021 youth poll conducted by the Defense Department, pay was the top motivator for enlistment. For many, employment is more attractive than higher education—especially for those who grew up in areas with a ubiquitous military presence, like in the Pacific, the Defense Department’s priority theater.

The U.S. territory of Guam, known as the military’s “tip of the spear,” has a culture that encourages higher enlistment rates than many states. And in Hawai’i, which has the largest military presence of any state, the military is also one of its largest industries. For service members from those places, the military not only offers them a chance to leave their island, but it also offers them the chance to stay, particularly in Hawai’i, which has the highest cost of living of any state. 

“For many Pacific Islanders, the interest is immediate employment and benefits for family,” said Pete Doktor, a board member of Hawaii Peace & Justice and co-founder of the state’s chapter of Veterans for Peace. “Military enlistment is primarily a matter of local employment, given the lopsided economic industries.”

Educational benefits and travel follow closely behind pay among the top reasons to join the military, but the argument that watering down the education incentive is hurting recruitment efforts fails to address the main reasons young people don’t want to join the military: according to the same poll, the possibilities of physical injury, death, or developing psychological issues are the top deterrents. 

Those appear to be more urgent concerns for the military to address, considering that the highest rates of all disorders in the U.S. military—including alcohol abuse, anxiety syndromes, depression, and PTSD—have been found among the military’s youngest cohort, those between 17 and 24 years old, and one study of Vietnam War veterans found that soldiers who enlisted before the age of 25 were seven times more likely to develop PTSD.

“There are various selling points to joining the military, but there has to be a market for this marketing,” said Petersen-Smith. “There have to be people who are open to an enormous commitment, where you are experiencing and carrying out violence, risking your life, and surrendering your rights for a time.”

Is poor recruitment a national security crisis?

The overall size of the U.S. military has been trending downward for several decades now, according to the Pew Research Center, but that doesn’t necessarily constitute a national security crisis. “We have enough soldiers,” said Keslie Noree Carrión, a disabled Army veteran and first-generation college graduate. “It’s a personnel management problem. How are they allocating these people as good resources and putting them in positions where they can be the most effective?” 

Rick Jahnkow, a board member of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), said that some of the factors that led to the recruitment shortfall were “highly unusual and temporary,” such as recruiters’ inability to meet face-to-face with prospective recruits in high schools due to the pandemic—which is gradually being restored—or the historically low unemployment rate, which has since returned to pre-pandemic levels. He predicts that both will improve the recruiting environment by late next fiscal year. 

When asked why top brass would frame it as a national security threat, Carrión simply replied: money. “We have to be relevant,” they said.

“We have all of these soldiers, and our military budget is so big, but the truth is that money is not being used in ways to actually keep Americans safe,” said Carrión. “It’s just being used to prop up these institutions that have been around forever and that give people power.” 

Biden’s student loan relief plan is not the death knell to the military that its critics claim it to be—arguably, the military has bigger fish to fry.

“Questions should also be asked about how they are defining ‘national security,’ especially in light of the many non-defensive wars of choice the U.S. has fought in the past,” said Jahnkow. “Isn’t the negative impact of having a less educated population also a threat to national security? Or is that considered OK as long as it helps supply more cannon fodder for U.S. wars of choice?”

What student loan relief means for low-income and low-wealth borrowers

As the single largest discharge of education debt on record, it will significantly benefit low-income and low-wealth borrowers—who are more often than not people of color. 

White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates, largely because Black students more often finance their education through debt. The relief, while a fraction of the target $50,000 that advocates pushed for, is still “life-changing,” said Sabrina Calazans, director of outreach for the Student Debt Crisis Center.

According to Calazans, the initial $10,000 in cancellation is enough to wipe out about half of Latinx student debt. Two-thirds of her own debt will be canceled under the new policy. 

For Pell Grant recipients, who are mostly students of color and make up more than 60% of the borrower population, the relief will be particularly impactful, said Calazans, especially since communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the student debt crisis, which is likened to modern-day sharecropping

But the relief will still be distributed disproportionately among recipients, as some states will tax it as income, including Indiana, where Rep. Jim Banks believes student loan forgiveness “undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools.” 

Ultimately, the larger issue that remains unaddressed is how to remedy the increasing cost of higher education in this country. The White House reports that the total cost of both four-year public and four-year private college has nearly tripled since 1980. The new policy’s debt forgiveness does not affect new or future borrowers—including prospective recruits—whose population will continue to grow with the rise in tuition costs. It’s a start, and, hopefully, one of many initiatives from the federal government to thoughtfully address a crisis of its own making.

As for military recruitment, said Calazans, “We know that [military recruitment] has increased as student debt has because many borrowers feel it is their only option to pay for college. We hope student debt cancellation makes borrowers feel they have the freedom to follow whichever career paths they want, and that those who choose to serve their country do so out of dedication and not due to their crushing debt.”

Frances Nguyen

Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women's Media Center, and a member...