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Are Military Members "The Lowest of Our Low?"

Separating misconceptions from truth.

Help A Hero/Flickr
Source: Help A Hero/Flickr

How dumb are people in the military?

In a recent news story, Gregory Salcido, who works at a high school in California and served on the city council, referred to military members as "the lowest of our low."

Presumably, he was referring to education, intelligence, and perhaps socioeconomic status.

Is he right? Let's find out.

Are Military Members Uneducated?

One way to find an answer is to look at education. Let's leave aside military officers, who are required to earn a college degree before joining. Presumably, officers are not who you have in mind when wondering about the background and quality of military members. You're probably thinking about the enlisted troops. These are people who typically join right after high school.

Contrary to popular perceptions, America's enlisted troops are not poorly educated. In fact, Pew reports that 98 percent of the enlisted force has at least a high school diploma. This is compared with 86.7 percent of the U.S. civilian population aged 25 or older.

The military typically requires a high school diploma to join, with rare exceptions. They have a rule that they cannot consist of more than 10 percent of individuals who have a GED (high school equivalency exam).

But each branch sets its own limits, which is often less than 10 percent. Research has found that people who leave high school early drop out of the military at a higher rate than those who graduate.

One study found that early attrition rates among high school dropouts and those with a GED is 8 percent higher than for high school graduates.

The military spends a lot of money on each recruit. They want each person to serve the duration of their enlistment contract. It is in the military's best interest to identify characteristics that predict success. One marker is education, which military members do better on than their similarly aged peers.

Military Intelligence

Another way to measure whether military members are dumb is cognitive ability, or IQ.

Some question the idea of using standardized testing to measure intelligence. Others say these tests matter.

The military, universities, and businesses spend vast sums of money researching and designing standardized tests. How do military members stack up against their non-military peers?

All military recruits must take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to qualify for enlistment. The ASVAB is essentially an IQ test (correlation = 0.8). The ASVAB predicts SAT scores (correlation = .82). And it correlates with ACT scores (0.77).

To qualify, recruits must score higher than roughly one-third of all who take the ASVAB. The lowest acceptable percentile score to join is 36 for the Air Force, 35 for the Navy, 32 for the Marine Corps, and 31 for the Army.

By definition, the worst test taker who makes it into the military still scores higher than one-third of his or her peers. The military intentionally slices off the bottom third of test-takers, not allowing them to join.

Moral quandaries aside, this means that the military selects for the upper two-thirds of ASVAB test takers. Another study found that among those who finish high school, about 1 in 4 (23%) people do not attain the minimum ASVAB score to join any branch of the military.

There's also empirical research investigating the influence of intelligence on military success. In one study, researchers found that a person’s score on an intelligence test, along with his 2-mile run time, were the best predictors of success in infantry training.

Or take a study about tank gunners. You might not think a standardized intelligence test would have much effect on the ability to shoot straight.

But the data show it does. Replacing a gunner who scores around the 20th percentile with one who scores around the 55th percentile improves the likelihood of hitting a target by 34 percent.

Are They Poor?

There are other differences between military members and their non-military peers. You might think they’re poorer. Isn’t the modern military full of men and women from low-income backgrounds who only join because their options are limited?

For some, this is undoubtedly true (including for yours truly, see here). But generally, it’s a misconception.

In a report titled “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers” from the Heritage Foundation, they found that enlisted military troops disproportionately come from middle class and upper-middle-class families.

In fact, 50 percent of the enlisted recruits come from families in the top 40 percent of the income distribution, while only 10 percent come from the bottom 20 percent.

Of course, this may be a consequence of lower-income individuals not having the means to get the education and testing credentials necessary to join. Still, it overturns the idea that the military is made up of destitute people who have nowhere else to go.

The Lowest of Our Low

Finally, according to the Pentagon, 71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 would fail to qualify for military service. The reasons are primarily due to educational, behavioral, criminal, or fitness issues.

In sum, enlisted military members are better educated, get higher test scores, and come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than their similarly aged peers in society.

Selection effects have a lot to do with these differences. The military recruits young people who are particularly bright and fit. They tend to perform better.

Despite such prevalent misconceptions, Americans hold the military in very high esteem. According to Pew, Americans view service members as more trustworthy than scientists, elected officials, and the news media.

Follow Rob on Twitter: @robkhenderson

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