In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, Jerome Kohlberg argues that we do, because today’s college benefits are worth much less than they were back in the years following World War II.
First, I think he overstates the economic benefits of the GI Bill: “The unprecedented educational opportunity transformed American society, as a whole generation of blue collar workers became engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. The economy boomed as we entered the workforce with new skills and training that increased productivity and stimulated innovation.”
The problem is that, prior to federal subsidization of higher ed, the country never had any shortage of engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Except for doctors, most of them learned their callings without college or university study. One thing the GI Bill certainly did was to encourage the substitution of formal college study for apprenticeship and on-the-job training, but it didn’t really transform society. Moreover, there had been economic booms in the past without the benefit of any federal subsidy for college study. The Roaring Twenties happened in a country where completing high school was still something of a rarity.
Second, if it is necessary to offer some post-service inducement to get enough people to enlist in the military, why not make it something everyone will use? I don’t know what the percentages are, but certainly far from 100 percent of those who serve and then leave the military choose to go to college. A guy who leaves the service might become an air traffic controller — one of the best-paying jobs for which no college degree is demanded. He gets nothing out of the GI Bill.
It would be more fair, and probably less costly, just to offer everyone some cash instead of the current educational benefits.