Why you should care
Because sometimes a ladder also makes a good shield.
“Be all that you can be” is one of the most recognized and effective sales pitches in American history. But the U.S. Army recruitment slogan (replaced by the less memorable “Army of One” in 2001) is more than a clever pitch: It captures a powerful institutional ethos — one that is often absent from another prominent U.S. institution, civilian higher education.
Malcolm Gladwell labeled the contrast between the military and higher education’s treatment of recruits as the difference between “models” and “marines.” Colleges, like modeling agencies, reward those already perceived to have merit when they apply, but the armed forces develop Marines by investing in their recruits after they enter the barracks.
Although many colleges adopt the rhetoric of marine-developing institutions, they are in reality functioning as modeling agencies, admitting students because of who they already are. Harvard’s Lani Guinier and Columbia Law professor Susan Sturm wrote in a Forbes op-ed, “Selective colleges and universities … act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate.”
How might colleges move toward becoming “producers” rather than “consumers” of merit?
How might colleges move toward becoming “producers” rather than “consumers” of merit, toward producing Marines rather than models? The simplest solution would be to have colleges judged more on the quality of the products they produce instead of the materials they take in. Absent a major overhaul of the current college rankings system though, such a sweeping change is unlikely.
But another way to broaden what counts as “merit” in the college admissions process and learn to produce merit among college recruits is to strengthen ties with an institution that sets the example: the military.
On first glance, and perhaps second glance too, the armed forces and the academy do not seem like natural allies. One encourages open discourse and competing perspectives while the other emphasizes conformity and hierarchical authority. Plus tensions between colleges and the armed forces have been escalating recently — the U.S. Supreme Court was even called in to settle disputes over military recruiters on college campuses. Many in education, moreover, are particularly irked that federal spending on defense has come to dwarf education-related expenditures, fueling the not uncommon perception that schools lose out in a militarized society.
We already recognize that service and education can, and should, go hand in hand. But could we be thinking about this relationship the wrong way?
From the GI Bill to ROTC scholarships to the proposals contained in the Dream Act, we already recognize that service and education can, and should, go hand in hand. But could we be thinking about this relationship the wrong way? Should we instead promote the development of a military-educational complex — one that joins these two key pillars of individual advancement in a more cohesive structure that would both incentivize public service and give new meaning to “meritocracy”?
It would start by encouraging colleges to treat Marines like models: converting military or public service into a pathway to higher education that is just as legit as high SAT scores or a sparkling application essay — a way of “earning merit” towards college, in other words.
Most U.S. colleges already have admissions systems that favor athletes, legacies, minorities and other groups. Why not add a more explicit “veterans preference” or, better yet, a broader preference for public service/citizenship that would put a big thumb on the admissions scale for any applicant electing to pursue certain courses of public service prior to college? One of the largest beneficiaries of such a preference would likely be the tens of thousands of middle- to lower-income Americans who are recruited by the armed forces and have resigned themselves to believing that college is beyond them.
Joining two pillars of individual advancement would incentivize public service and give new meaning to ’meritocracy.’
And if young people from wealthier backgrounds want to increase their chancing of getting into the college of their choice by enlisting, then by all means let them. It could result in a brave, new world in which more of the rich go to war, more of the poor go to college, the right endorses admissions preferences and the left proposes new defense spending. And, who knows, U.S. News & World Report might even consider putting a value on a college’s public service contingent. Maybe.
But the more legitimate paths we build toward higher education, particularly those tied to public service, the more we weaken narrow, traditional notions of merit. And, most importantly, carving a clearer path between the barracks and the dormitory would give new meaning to “Be all that you can be” for the next generation of Americans.