In the kerfuffle over presidential candidate Ben Carson's claim that he was admitted to West Point, the news media have pointed out that the "full scholarship" part of his story adds even more confusion because, as the New York Times story today put it, "Technically, West Point does not offer scholarships. It is free."
Actually, no, West Point and the other military academies are not free, technically or otherwise. The enrollment agreement of the United States Military Academy at West Point (see page 43) commits the student, after the first year, to completing the training and then to serving a total of eight years in the Army. Failure to complete the training or service or refusing to "at all times obey the legal orders of my superior officers" results in having to repay the Army's cost of providing the education, which I calculate at between $250,000 and $300,000.
Rather than "free," therefore, it would be more accurate to say that West Point provides cadets with massive student loans, ten times what the average undergraduate incurs, and then forgives those loans over an 11-year period depending on the Army's view of the borrower's behavior as a student and then as a soldier. ROTC loans - er, scholarships - come with similar military service commitments.
As with free phones connected to long-term contracts, "free" is frequently a marketing gimmick, verging on a deception. In the case of the military academies the lure of free does not seem to present major problems because cadets experience a full, intensive first year before they are on the hook for any repayment. One cadet told me that as the commitment deadline approached at the end of the second summer she was counseled to seriously think about whether she wanted to continue. She decided to leave. She gave West Point the old college try and, fortunately, was able to bow out, fully informed, before having a big debt to repay.
Forgivable loans marketed as free money can go awry, however, as in the case of a government program called TEACH Grants. The nation needs more excellent teachers, so in 2007 Congress thought an effective way to lure good students into teaching would be with an ROTC-like commitment. Under the well-intentioned program students receive "grants" that turn into loans if the student fails to teach in a high-poverty school for four years. Big mistake. As the policy group Third Way points out, undergraduate students drop out, change their majors and their career plans, cannot control whether they get hired or where they are placed, and, as the newest teachers in a school, are the first to get laid off. As a result, a whopping 75 percent of the so-called grants may end up as loans, revealing the program as a classic bait and switch. Few West Point students end up saddled with unexpected debt because the selection, the first year trial, and the fact that West Point is part of the Army that will be employing the graduates, all mitigate against the loan penalty ever being applied.
Like the TEACH grants, a deceptive claim of "tuition-free" is also what gave political appeal and national attention to a college financing approach Oregon lawmakers considered last year. The approach would require students to sign away a portion of their future income instead of paying up-front tuition, an idea that re-emerges every few of years since it was first suggested 60 years ago (each time it is portrayed as an exciting new concept). These pay-it-forward or income-share plans are intriguing but ultimately deeply problematic without adequate safeguards. And they are decidedly not free.
Given all the media attention to student debt these days, here's my script for Ben Carson to explain his West Point claims: I was encouraged to apply to West Point but I decided that given the two or three hundred thousand dollars of loans and the long commitment I might as well become a doctor instead.