Lin Wang, Glen H. Elder Jr., and Naomi J. Spence, “Status Configurations, Military Service and Higher Education,” Social Forces, 2012

In the era of a voluntary U.S. military, the Armed Forces offer educational and tuition benefits as incentives to recruit young people. The military, then, is often seen as an indirect bridge to higher education, especially for those who are disadvantaged in some way.

Lin Wang and his colleagues (Social Forces, December 2012) investigate the military and educational trajectories of young men with “inconsistencies” in their social status–that is, there’s not a match between their socioeconomic resources, cognitive ability, and academic performance. Using nationally representative longitudinal data, they find that these young men are more likely to enlist in the military. For example, those with high cognitive ability but poor performance in high school may enlist in search of opportunities to fulfill their potential, or those who perform well in school but are from low socioeconomic backgrounds may enlist for needed tuition benefits.

Status inconsistent people may have aspirations in line with their highest status, but their ability to attain their goals is often constrained by their lowest status. For these folks, the military may seem to be a viable strategy to pry open the doors of the ivory tower.

In reality, the data show that those who take the military route are actually less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree, though they are more likely to complete a two-year degree or attend some college. As the military promises “all you can be,” this study suggests the road, for most, leads to an associate’s degree.