Joining the Military After High School Has More Benefits Than You Think
When students consider their plans after high school, very few explore the military as a viable option, possibly missing out on one of the greatest life decisions they could ever make.
Richard Maldonado-Rodriguez was an average student who originally set out to work his way through his local community college before transferring to a 4-year college. Halfway through his first year though his funding ran out and he was left with a decision: go into debt to fund his education, drop out, or join the Military. He chose the Navy and committed to 8 years. Upon the end of his contract he will use the GI bill, which will cover three full years of tuition and provide a housing stipend to finish his degree in Psychology.
In my conversation with him I learned that not only did the Navy help him with his education, they paid him a salary, provided housing and food stipends, and he now qualifies for lifetime benefits. He did deploy for 2 years, but since his field was mental health care, he served Naval personnel, not on the front lines.
Most students, when asked the inevitable "What do you want to do after high school?" rarely seem to reply with "Join the military." I wish I knew why this was as the more I explore the opportunities available to today's youth the more it makes sense to consider this option as equal to a 4-year college or community college/trade school program.
The Military is a serious contender for today’s student. The new Space Force being one of the coolest additions (in my opinion) as well as the enhancement of Special Operations groups. The military in now more tech savvy, cutting-edge, and engaged in developing new career opportunities than ever before. What does this mean for your student? According to a 2017 Pew Research study, the military is producing more educated adults than those not in the military: "More than eight-in-ten DOD active-duty officers have at least a bachelor’s degree...They are four times as likely as average adults ages 18 to 44 to have completed a postgraduate degree. [and]...The vast majority of enlisted personnel (92%) have completed high school or some college. This compares with 60% of all U.S. adults ages 18 to 44."(emphasis mine).
In an interview I conducted with Captain Robin Lewis, her experience in the Navy suggests that this number us actually higher. According to her “I don’t know any officer, not a one, that does not have a college degree…” (Interview on Oct. 20, 2020)
In short, research and experience show that the military produces higher educated adults than those not in the military.
Most parents assume joining the military automatically means their student is heading to the front lines of any wars our nation may be involved in. While this is certainly a major consideration, there are other ways of serving in the military than on the front lines. While each branch has different options, all need medical staff, cyber security technicians, mechanics, chefs, policing, paperwork processors, etc., in addition to active duty service members who may serve their communities, states, or regions in various support capacities.
According to Captain Lewis “Basically, almost any discipline that you find outside of the military, you find in the military. Think of an Aircraft Carrier as a city. There is a store (shop keep rating), galley (culinary specialist rating), barber shop (which is a sub-specialty under shop keeping), supplies (purchasing agents), a Chapel (chaplains and chaplain assistance), and the list goes on: fire department, training/teaching, police (including dog handlers), veterinarians, air traffic controllers, weather people…” This perspective can help today’s students, and their parents, think beyond “deployment” and see the many opportunities available to them.
Additionally, with the creation of the GI bill, any service member who serves 4 or more years is eligible to have up to 100% of three years of their higher education paid for (Most recruits can complete at least one year of college credit while enlisted, for free), with various other tuition assistance options available to them. Finally, service members are actually paid, with benefits, for their time. According to an article by The Military Wallet, an newly enlisted service member earns ~$20.000 per year while a new second lieutenant starts with about ~$36,000 per year, both with full benefits. This is in addition to housing costs being covered by the military as well. And, if a service member so desires, (and their post allows) they can serve, get paid, and attend school at the same time on the military's dime. As with any organization, military pay and benefits is a complex process. For more specific details according to rank and class, please visit https://militarypay.defense.gov/pay/.
What other option affords all that to an 18-year-old?
In a time when students (and parents) are wondering if the cost of other higher education programs is worth it, this option presents itself as a financial boon and should be seriously considered.
However, there are some downsides as well. The military is after the best, (as are 4-year colleges) so they have their own eligibility requirements that need to be met before anyone can join. According to an article about joining the military on USA.gov , there are health and fitness, citizenship, age, testing, and education minimum requirements that need to be met. Upon researching more I learned that there are several common medical issues that will make a student at worst ineligible to join, and at best have to postpone joining for 6 months or more. However, do not let this deter you. If a student does have a medical condition that they may think is limiting, they should consult with a recruiter as there are waivers for health conditions.
The biggest potential downside, of course, is the potential risk of loss of life. Serving our country on the frontlines in any capacity has its risks. Fighting in wars in countries all over the world, standing up for freedom and democracy in areas of unrest, and even attending to sick and injured after a natural catastrophe all put a student in harm's way. However, this is the only option for which a student's death is accounted for.
According to this article from the Military Wallet: "In the unlikely event of a service member’s death, the military or the VA provides a lifetime of benefits for your survivors. The surviving family is given an immediate $100,000 death gratuity benefit, a $400,000 lump sum life insurance benefit (if the member opts into the life insurance), social security and indemnity monthly payments for years, and the transferability of many VA benefits."
In comparison, 4- and 2-year Colleges, Gap Years, Trade schools, and Athletic Departments (for collegiate athletes) do not offer this type of benefit for attendance in their programs. Additionally, most careers secured after graduation only offer the option of benefits while on the job and life insurance is usually paid for individually.
There is a lot to consider about this particular option in order for a student to determine whether or not it is viable for them. Here are a few things that parents can encourage their student to consider before making any decision for, or against, this option:
Have your student research all branches of the military. Each branch of the military offers different experiences, support for future education, and careers. Each also has a different focus for their service to the country and the world. Have them check out the Department of Defense's website, Defense.gov ,for a comprehensive breakdown.
Encourage your student to have a discussion with at least one Veteran or Active Duty Service Member (or more). Who else can give them the true inside experience than someone who's "been there"? Veterans and Active Duty Service Members come in all types, with all kinds of experiences. Try to help them find and interview one in each branch they are interested in, or at least one in each branch if they are unsure.
Have your student explore the requirements for eligibility. It's one thing to research and decide on a branch, and it's another thing to be eligible. Encourage your student to become familiar with requirements like having a high school diploma or GED, physical fitness requirements, medical disqualifiers, and testing. This page of the USA.gov website is a great place to start.
Have your student learn the differences between their options. There are multiple ways to join our nation's military forces. Enlisting, enrolling in an ROTC program, and attending a Service Academy are the most common. For those who decide a different option is the best fit for them right after high school, they can still consider joining a military branch later in life to help pay for higher education and advanced degrees. Adults can enroll in the military post graduation (usually as an officer) as well as those who are working professionals.
Have your student prepare a list of questions to use when meeting with recruiters. Just like preparing for a job interview, it is essential that your student does their homework and comes prepared (see below for more on this). Researching the opportunities of each branch they are interested in and preparing a list of questions helps make sure your student fully understands what they may be signing up for.
Have your student set up an appointment to talk with a recruiter. This will need to be done for each branch they are interested in. If possible, attend with them or at least make sure another adult with their best interests in mind goes with them. Recruiters are essentially salespeople whose goal is to enroll as many recruits as possible. This does not mean they will strong-arm your student, but they will press them to commit. Prepare your student to go in with an open mind and always remember you are free to walk out without signing anything and come back at a later time.
Have your student process all their options before signing. Once a military contract of commitment is signed, it is legally binding. Unlike 4- or 2-year colleges, sports programs, and trade schools, your student can't choose not to go once they have committed. Before making any decision, be sure to have your student process all their options to determine whether this is right for them.
As with all options for students after high school, there is a lot to consider before joining the military. Parents can help their student by keeping an open mind and allowing their student to explore this option. Serving as a sounding board and allowing our students to determine their own personal pathway to success after high school is the greatest gift we can give our children.
Join the Conversation: What are your initial reactions in considering this option with your student?