How Much Would the GI Bill Boost Recruitment?

One of the strongest arguments in favor of Jim Webb’s new GI Bill, which passed in the Senate last week, is that while higher education benefits might decrease re-enlistment, they would increase recruitment. This was the case made by the New York Times editorial page over the weekend:

[Opponents of the bill] have seized on a prediction by the Congressional Budget Office that new, better benefits would decrease re-enlistments by 16 percent, which sounds ominous if you are trying—as Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain are—to defend a never-ending war at a time when extended tours of duty have sapped morale and strained recruiting to the breaking point.

Their reasoning is flawed since the C.B.O. has also predicted that the bill would offset the re-enlistment decline by increasing new recruits—by 16 percent.

This is true. The CBO analysis ( PDF ) does predict that the proposed educational benefits “would result in a 16 percent increase in recruits” while estimating a ” 16 percent decline in the reenlistment rate, from about 42 percent to about 36 percent” (emphasis mine).

The problem is, the “16 percents” aren’t necessarily equal. You need to know the underlying numbers of recruits and re-enlistments to know whether, as the Times claims, the two figures “offset” each other.

The CBO estimate concluded that the 16 percent increase in recruitment would add an additional 30,000 recruits annually, while a 16 percent decline in re-enlistment would result in 7,000 fewer re-enlistments annually. In other words, new recruits would greatly outnumber soldiers who decline to re-enlist. These numbers make the New York Times case—and Barack Obama’s—even stronger than they thought.

A couple of caveats. For one thing, the CBO estimate examines an early version of the bill called S.22, which isn’t the same thing as the bill the Senate passed last week. The Senate adopted the GI Bill as an amendment to Supplemental Appropriations Act, H.R. 2642. The CBO is still working on an estimate for that. Also, the CBO emphasized that its estimate doesn’t assume there will be a change in the size and composition of the force. Rather, it assumes that the Department of Defense would maintain the current force structure by decreasing enlistment bonuses and increasing re-enlistment bonuses.

Still, both Obama and McCain have invoked the CBO estimate in their arguments for and against the GI Bill. They might want to update their numbers.

Plus: See our original analysis of McCain’s objections to the GI Bill.

Update 1:10 p.m.: A smart reader points out that you have to take into account the vast difference between new recruits and non-commissioned officers: “A senior NCO, or even an NCO with 2-3 years of experience, is lightyears ahead in terms of competence than a newly minted private.” There’s obviously no way to know which is “better” – 7,000re-enlisted officers or 30,000 new recruits – but the disparity in experience is worth taking into account.