When I mentioned to my sons that I planned to write an article opposing President Joe Biden’s student-loan forgiveness proposal, one uttered a (loving) expletive; he still owes tens of thousands of dollars. The other cursed himself; he recently finished paying off his last loan and said that he now feels like a fool.

Forgiving college debt may be good politics, but it’s dubious policy. The administration’s argument that the estimated $240 billion cost is already paid for by deficit reduction is both insulting and misleading. Still, I recognize the benefits of enabling recent graduates—and those who never finished getting a degree but still racked up sizable debt—to enter the workforce without the burden of debt.

The biggest problem with Biden’s proposal is that it sends the wrong message. Instead of saying that, when people borrow money, they incur an obligation, it tells them that they can be excused from accountability. This approach does nothing to draw us together as a nation. Indeed, it will drive us further apart and seemingly make fools of those who “play by the rules.”

It’s time to consider loan forgiveness from a different perspective, one that asks what we, as individuals, owe our country. Accordingly, I propose a program of national service in exchange for debt relief. By linking loan forgiveness to service to the nation, we could spark some sense of common national purpose among a cohort of young adults. We might even boost military enlistments—much needed, given the armed forces’ recent recruiting shortfalls.

For more than 20 years, I have called for a mandatory national service program—civilian, with a military option. I believe that such a universal obligation would generate significant benefits to both to the country as a whole and to individuals. But that’s not what I am proposing here.

Instead, I suggest a purely transactional bargain that could have beneficial side effects. Instead of simply wiping out a large portion of a student’s college debt, let’s first require one year of national service.

A program of minimally paid national service tied to loan forgiveness—again, civilian, with a voluntary military option—can forge common experiences, develop important work habits, and expose participants to Americans different from themselves. Such a program would naturally encourage military service, but it would also incorporate other programs that meet real needs—for example, environmental conservation, pre-K assistance in schools, and senior-citizen companionship.

Over the years, when I have asked people whether they would support a program of universal national service, the answer has invariably been, “It depends on the specifics.” Two years ago, I hired a reputable polling firm to gauge receptivity to the idea. It asked respondents if they would support a program structured as follows:

All citizens and permanent residents (green-card holders) will be required to participate in an 18-month National Service program. Service can be started anytime between an individual’s 18th birthday and their 22nd birthday. Service shall include healthcare assistance, infrastructure/environmental repair, early childhood education programs, eldercare assistance, and military service. (Participation in the military option shall be voluntary.) National service participants shall receive free communal room, board, and a minimal subsistence allowance. Participants shall receive $10,000 upon successful completion of their service. People who fail to successfully complete their National Service obligation shall not be eligible for any federal student loan or mortgage guarantee program.

Two years ago, 80 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds supported the proposition. Interestingly, it offered no debt forgiveness and was mandatory.

Last month, I again asked the polling company to conduct the same survey, but this time the results were quite different. Support had fallen to 34 percent among this cohort. Similarly, in 2020, 88 percent of adults supported universal national service; today, it’s down to 38 percent.

Why the change? Pandemic lockdowns, perhaps. The mandatory nature of the program as originally presented. An uncertain economy. The horrific images coming out of Ukraine, so different from the high-tech, antiseptic promises of military recruiting commercials. Perhaps more people have come to believe that they’re owed government compensation—including student loan forgiveness. Or maybe people just no longer care. Whatever the reasons, the trend does not bode well.

The military services face their most serious challenge since the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1973. While an occasional shortfall doesn’t presage a return to the draft, inability to attract qualified personnel is a growing problem.

To sustain basic, minimal readiness, the Army needs about 68,000 new enlisted recruits annually; the Navy needs about 33,000; the Air Force, about 32,000; the Marine Corp, about 32,000; and the Coast Guard, about 3,700. All the services have had trouble hitting their recruiting targets, but the Coast Guard has struggled most.

Those new personnel requirements total about 168,000 young people annually. To put that goal into perspective, it is just under 4 percent of America’s 4.3 million 18-year-olds. Why is it so hard to attract a relatively modest portion of this target population?

One reason is economic. Covid-19 has created a hot labor market for entry-level workers. Another is technological. Military recruiters have trouble getting real facetime with potential recruits.

More disturbingly, a large and growing proportion of young people are simply unqualified to serve: only 23 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds can meet basic standards without some sort of waiver. A high school diploma or GED long has been a minimal qualification for military service, yet 15 percent of this cohort will have neither. So, foreseeing a significant shortfall in recruits, the Army suspended its diploma requirement in June. The outcry was so severe that the Army reversed itself a week later.

It gets worse. Another 31 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds can’t enlist because they are obese. An estimated 10 percent are ineligible because of criminal records, and an additional 15 percent won’t make the cut because of more-than-casual drug usage. In short, fully 71 percent of the age cohort could not serve even if it wanted to.

The military thus must find 168,000 young people interested and able to serve from the remaining 1.2 million 18-year-olds—just 14 percent of the cohort. And the military must do this each year to replace people retiring or finishing their enlistments.

Would a national-service, loan-forgiveness program help rekindle Americans’ sense of the responsibilities of citizenship or help alleviate the military recruiting challenges? While most of this cohort will opt to serve in civilian roles, it would not be unreasonable to expect young men and women to enlist in the military at a greater rate than they currently do.

For more than 75 years, the GI Bill has recognized Americans for their service. It helped some 8 million World War II veterans and another 10 million Korean and Vietnam War veterans attend college. It is a model—and a covenant—that makes sense. We currently have a robust GI Bill that will help about 1 million veterans with aid totaling $12 billion. People can take advantage of generous tuition assistance while they serve to help them advance in their careers when they get out. But the promise of robust educational benefits is clearly not sufficient to sustain an all-volunteer force. We need to explore other incentives. One such incentive could be debt forgiveness for service. It flips the GI Bill model on its head, but it’s worth considering.

Arguments in favor of a national-service debt-forgiveness program go beyond the need to provide a larger pool of volunteers for the military. President Biden’s plan to “forgive” student loans unintentionally recognizes that borrowers made a mistake in either borrowing too much or failing to repay. Mistakes should be forgiven; but forgiveness need not obviate obligation. The president’s current plan is a gift that rewards the wrong values and incentives. It requires nothing in return, not even an acknowledgment of one’s responsibility.

The nation is in peril at home from spiritual malaise, and abroad from active and potential armed adversaries. Linking loan forgiveness to national service sends an important message. It offers at least the promise of rekindling a sense of citizenship among those who serve as civilians, as well as a strengthened all-volunteer military—without the unwelcome specter of conscription.

Photo: SDI Productions/iStock


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