A few days out of every year, a small table will appear in every public high school cafeteria across the United States. Draped in a gold fringed tablecloth and holding a display of meticulously straightened pamphlets, it heralds the main attraction—the men and women in uniform sitting behind it.
Military recruiters are just one of many attractions that appear during the school year, right alongside the blood drives and food bank donation boxes. But how has it become so normal to walk past a high school senior doing push ups in the hallway with the hopes of impressing the camo behind the table?
The omnipresence of these recruiters is due to a provision in George W. Bush’s 2002 “No Child Left Behind Act,” designed to strengthen military recruitment. This provision requires high schools to allow military recruiters access to student’s private information, or risk losing federal funding. Technically this does require parental consent, but as many schools have an “Opt Out” policy that requires students to specifically decline potential communication¹, it is easily overlooked—especially by single parent or low-income households.
These families, especially people of color, are exactly who these recruiters are trying to target. Their best bet for enrollment is to go after students who do not plan on attending a four-year college—often due to financial limitations, a desire to enter the workforce, or further effects of institutionalized inequality. Recruiters will entice these students with an idealistic picture of military life, and exaggerated claims of the monetary and educational benefits—or sometimes leave out important caveats to receiving those benefits².
Even besides these questionable tactics, the simple fact that the military is there gives them the advantage. Many of the underserved kids they’re targeting have never been informed that they have other options, let alone how to pursue them.
A 2020 Department of Defense (DoD) poll asked young adults ages 16-21 about their likelihood of becoming involved in the military. When asked for a hypothetical reason for joining, income and funding for future education were the most popular responses at 57 percent and 52 percent respectively, while helping others, bettering the community and bettering themselves were listed by only 31-44 percent of participants. When asked what their top deterrents were, the majority cited fear of physical injury or death and PTSD/psychological damage.
So how much money, exactly, is at stake here?
The starting salary for a newly enlisted member of the military is around $21,000 annually, as of the 2023 Military Pay Table, plus additional stipends and benefits, and increases with rank. The college benefits so many join the military to seek require a complete honorable discharge to qualify. This does not include medical or general discharge, a fact that is not often advertised to new recruits before they join up².
In comparison, an automotive mechanic earning in the bottom 10 percent made around $29,000 a year as of 2021. These individuals likely have not completed any degree or certification programs, which many states do not require to begin working as a mechanic. Those who do, can expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 over a period of as little as six months for online certifications, to $20,000 over two years for an Associate’s Degree. Once they enter the field with a degree, they will make an average of $46,000, with the potential to earn up to $75,000⁵.
While significantly less than a typical four-year college, the cost of these programs is still a concern for many people for whom saving up is not an option. Fortunately, there are many grants and scholarships available for these programs, at both a national and state level, and some employers, such as Ford, will pay a certain amount towards your tuition if you’re seeking a degree or certification that puts you ahead in your field.
This is of course not to say that pursuing a trade will always be a more desirable alternative to joining the military. There’s family legacy, personal values and any number of other motivating factors that might lead someone to seek a career in the armed forces. But, if as the DoD poll suggests, money and the promise of an education are the primary motivating factors for many of America’s young people to join up, then it’s time we start prioritizing educating high schoolers on all of their options, so every student can make the right—fully informed—decision on what to do when they graduate.