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How Bernie Sanders' Proposed Reforms Could Save Both Higher Education and the Military...at the Same Time

Updated on July 28, 2015

Higher Education and Military Spending Are Out of Control

We spend way too much on both higher education and our military.  Time to rein it in!
We spend way too much on both higher education and our military. Time to rein it in! | Source

Do We Need Big Government to Return the Military, and Public Higher Education, to Fighting Form?

If two American institutions have become bloated over the last several decades, they are the military and higher education. Numbers have swelled from manageable to staggering, and nobody seems to know exactly what the role or future of either institution is. With the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, what is our military's future? Why is it so big, and why does it cost so much? Are taxpayers getting what they are paying for...and do they even want what they are paying for?

Similarly, the future is hazy for higher education. With the rise of the high tech, mobile, part-time, freelance, app-happy economy, what is happening to the value of a four-year degree? Why does college cost so much? Why are college degrees increasingly less likely to guarantee good jobs and middle class futures? Are taxpayers getting what they are paying for...and do they even want what they are paying for?

The military and higher education are sacred cows, meaning policymakers dare not threaten them. We are supposed to revere our military and give it whatever it needs to keep America safe and sound. We are supposed to champion the idea that formal education is the number one way to success and give it whatever it needs to keep America enlightened and competitive. Unfortunately, it turns out that feeding the sacred cows whatever they desired has led to lots of bloat.

And, ironically, the bloat among the two sacred cows may be interlinked. In Fortune, former U.S. Marine Lieutenant Matthew F. Cancian asserts that the rapid expansion of higher education has actually weakened the U.S. military's officer corps. In today's volunteer military, every commissioned officer is required to have a four-year college degree...but the quality of four-year college degrees is eroding. With colleges today more focused on making money than ensuring academic rigor, degree-earning is more contingent on being able to pay tuition than being able to study hard and think critically.

As a result, Cancian says, more and more newly-commissioned military officers lack the intellect and prowess of their predecessors. They are less likely to be studious, creative, or critical thinkers. Worryingly, he writes that over 40 percent of today's incoming officers would not have met the mental standards of similarly-situated officers during World War II. College bloat and inefficiency has trickled into the military by dulling its ranks of incoming officers.

One has to wonder if the decline of academic rigor at the secondary school level (7th-12th grades) has similarly dampened the abilities of many incoming enlistees.

We need to get our military, and our colleges, back into fighting form. One way to do this is give government more control of public colleges and universities, which have been allowed to develop into overly-expensive fiefdoms. Though nobody champions the notion of "big government," a leviathan is now necessary to rein in college bloat. Tighter government controls can cut costs, eliminate wasteful spending, ensure equitable access, and enforce academic rigor.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants to make public higher education tuition-free. I concur, though I believe that free higher education should be limited to students who display aptitude and work ethic. Imagine, for a moment, how this would transform classrooms full of apathetic, jaded students! If good grades could earn one free college education, wouldn't more students put forth far greater effort? As a high school teacher, I gaze upon wasted potential daily. Knowing that there is a real, tangible, desired reward for academic achievement would work wonders for American public schools.

Not all students would receive the free tuition, but government fiscal limitations on public colleges and universities could certainly reduce the tuition costs of those who had to pay. By reining in higher education spending, everyone benefits. Students work harder to get lower-cost, or cost-free, tuition, the government can ensure that only qualified educators are in college classrooms, and ending the emphasis on growth and expansion means that schools can focus on returning the value to their degrees.

This big government "tough love" is also needed when it comes to the military. Bernie Sanders wants to reduce military spending, which is absolutely necessary to avoid weakening the economy. Despite being a quarter-century past the end of the Cold War, our forces are still preparing for a conventional World War III...and with expensive weapons systems that are fiscal boondoggles. F-22 and F-35, anyone? We need to shrink the military and increase the requirements of enlistment and commissions. Cancian suggests requiring a higher mandatory ASVAB score for aspiring officers.

Today's military needs critical thinking, and the bar should be set high. The U.S. military is the finest in the world, and it must aspire to remain so. When facing enormous foes like China, we must be able to fight smarter, not necessarily harder. In any ground war, the People's Liberation Army will outnumber us at least five to one. Even Russia, with a population half the size of ours, has an enormous military reserve. Brute strength must be accompanied by sharp minds.

Personally, I go a step further than Bernie Sanders and advocate bringing back the draft. This would ensure that the U.S. military can pick from the best and brightest, assigning them single terms of service and spreading the burden among the entire population. In the absence of the draft, our military engaged in stop-loss, a heinous "backdoor draft" that pressed men back into service when their initial tours were over. Having a genuine draft would eliminate the need for such un-American policies. The military could draft impressive young college graduates for officer duty, giving them three to four years of training and pay that would allow them a huge leg up on the civilian job market.

You may not like "big government," but it is undeniable that "half government" has only allowed costs to run amok as they subsidized the growth of huge sacred cows. We've created two monsters, and now we need a leviathan to wrangle them. Conservatives may not like it, but do they have a plan? I would love to hear it...and so would Bernie Sanders.

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    • C McD13 profile image

      C McD13 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      It is appalling that we spend more on military than education and then politicians have the gall to say that we need to up military spending and cut social programs and education funding.

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