Every year, approximately 70,000 people enlist in the US armed forces, and about half are recent high school graduates. The military has been a successful career choice for countless people. And it has offered others the skills necessary for fulfilling civilian careers as well as the funding needed to attend college. As we observed Veterans Day earlier this month, it’s worth saying loud and clear that committing to serve our country by joining the armed forces is a viable—even laudable—postsecondary choice.
Preparing students for a career in the military, however, is complicated by the lack of visibility that schools, districts, and state education agencies (SEAs) have into enlistment data. Currently, when students seek higher education or enter the workforce after graduating high school, schools are able to access data on their outcomes to understand things like whether they enrolled or completed a college degree and their earnings. These pieces of data help schools, districts, and SEAs understand whether they are preparing students to be successful in these post-graduation pursuits.
But, schools don’t have the same visibility on students that enter the military. In fact, they have no visibility—not even whether or not their students enlisted. This lack of information leaves schools, districts, and SEAs with no way to look backward to the courses and programs they offered and evaluate whether they prepared students for success in a military career. These facts are especially unsettling given that research shows a significant number of prime-age Americans are not fit for military service due to academic discrepancies.
When an ambitious student chooses the path of serving their nation, state education systems ought to have the resources to understand how well they fare in that chosen path and how they can support other students to do the same. It isn’t about just tracking a student’s journey but understanding it so that more students can be empowered to consider military service as a promising career.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem is straightforward. State leaders want this information. And the military can help.
Earlier this month, state education chiefs from 29 states, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands submitted a letter to the armed forces leadership calling on the Department of Defense (DoD) to work with states to develop a solution that would allow states to access accurate, secure, and standardized data on military service.
To make this vital information available to the schools, districts, and state leaders who need it to support students, the DoD could convene a working group composed of experts from the military’s manpower leaders and state education leaders as well as data, privacy, and legal experts. The group would be charged with—as the recent letter from state education chiefs requests—setting standards and protocols for sharing a discrete set of enlistment and service data as well as a system and agreements for sharing that data.
The state support behind this letter—led by Kansas Commissioner of Education Randall Watson—is a promising signal that indicates military enlistment data is important to states and that state leaders want to work with federal leaders to make access to this information a reality.
Such collaboration could potentially fill current data gaps, ensuring that students are adequately prepared and informed about their prospects in the military. And inclusion of this data within SLDSs can pave the way for the research and evaluation necessary for states to fully support military service as a post-high school endeavor for students.
The pathway to strengthening our armed forces and bolstering national security is intertwined with the quality and availability of military enlistment data. By bridging the existing data gap, our country’s leaders not only validate the efforts of our education institutions but also ensure that young people are provided with every opportunity to succeed in their chosen paths. This collaboration is not just a need; it’s an imperative for our nation’s future.