My Son Joined The Marine Corps Instead of Going to College - Nancy McKenna ––

My Son Joined The Marine Corps Instead of Going to College

My son is a senior in high school, and he has decided to forgo college to enlist in the Marine Corp right after graduation.  He was sworn in to the Delayed Entry program today.  

This isn’t the path I had planned for him.  When Tommy first told me he wanted to join the military I was so proud!  I also started researching  ROTC programs for the various military branches.  

  • This is a child who scored in the 96th percentile on the SAT exam – with NO test prep.
  • This is a child who grew up in a 3,200 square foot home
  • This is a child who has a college fund
  • This is a child who was pre-ordained to go to college

Yet he wants to join the Marine Corp, rather than go off to experience college life.

It's been an interesting experience, reconciling myself to his choice.

Am I A Snob?

This desire of his to enlist seems to be a calling of sorts.  I've decided to support him.   I think the fact that I'm concerned that his future will be less advantaged if he enlists may say more about me than it does about him.

Why do I feel my child need to be the boss (an officer) rather than an enlisted person? 

College life today

Tommy could have chosen an easier path.  A college life with fancy dorms (some colleges now have water parks!  movie theaters!  pet-friendly dorms!) , Spring Break in Cabo, then a move into today’s corporate world where, well if isn’t fun, we’re doing something wrong!  Where companies must keep young workers engaged!    

Well, my son will be spending his time rising at dawn (or earlier) sharing barracks with how many sweaty souls, writhing through the mud, and not knowing where he'll be shipped off to.  He wants this.  He wants to push himself. Most don't.

I drove from my office to the recruiting station one evening last week.  What a contrast!  Our office with the video games, exceptionally lax dress code, lights-out environment to the recruiting office.  The recruiting office was brightly lit, filled with high-energy people with their ramrod straight posture, calling me "ma'am".  The contrast was striking.   I began to think that maybe his decision isn't a bad one.   


I have raised my two kids without a father.  One of my sisters suggested that the fact that Tommy was raised by a single mother may play into this decision.  Perhaps he’s been craving a testosterone-laden environment.  Maybe she's right?

My website

I have been preaching the debt-free degree gospel for some time.  Did I put too much emphasis on this?   I had to ask him if he is enlisting simply to help me avoid cost of college?  I would feel terrible if that were the case.  He assures me that it is not the reason.

Where we live

Seven years ago we moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Northwest New Jersey.  We live about 45 miles northwest of Manhattan in Sussex County.  Sussex County is a beautiful, "semi-rural" area.  Our house has a well that provides our water, a septic tank and we use propane.   Point is, it was a big departure  from how I grew up, and where we lived previously.  It's more of a small-town American environment.  Some might call it Trump Country.  This has definitely played a role in Tommy's decision to enlist.  A few of his classmates are also enlisting.

Will he still go to college?

In speaking with the recruiter, I feel more more comfortable with this decision to enlist.  The recruiter told me that two of his fellow Marines got aeronautical engineering degrees while enlisted.   You can go to college free while enlisted.  Up to 5 courses per semester.  Every base offers college courses.

Another of the recruiters at the local recruiting station finished her undergraduate degree while stationed in Japan.  She is now working on her Master’s Degree and has zero student debt.

Then there is the GI bill.  There are two:  the Montgomery GI bill that you pay into a little each month, and the 9/11 GI bill which is not only at no cost, but is transferable to a spouse or child.  And there is no time limit to its use.

My son asked if I would give him the college fund for use as a down payment on a house in the future.  I said yes. This was my plan anyway. I swear.  

How can we give him this college money without a big spanking from the IRS?

I can:

  • Shift the funds in his 529 to his sister 
  • Start a new savings fund for him earmarked for his future house, and stop putting funds into his 529 
  • Give him the funds in the 529 plan and take the 10% penalty on the earnings.  This would be loads of fun to calculate, as I’ve contributed since he was a baby. 

I will likely do a combination of the first two things.  Of course, this assumes he does graduate from college. He has promised me that he will.

Examining my feelings

One friend counseled that "it's his path.  Support him".   If I keep telling him to go to college instead of enlisting, what purpose would that serve?  His heart won't be in it, or he'll simply stop talking to me about it and sign up when he turns 18 anyway. 

Plus I think of today's young college grads. Of this generation that grew up never hearing criticism - from a parent, teacher or, now, a boss.  I am not certain this has been a good strategy. And my son wants to volunteer for the ultimate in physical rigor and discipline.   And from the movies I've seen, he'll be hearing plenty of "feedback" from the drill sergeants.

I think this says a lot about his character.  

Marine Corp drill instructor

He has a sense of purpose and drive

I see him maturing faster already.  I think of a quote from Winston Churchill.  The beginning part is a bit dated, forgive Winston, so I'll skip it, but the last part is the part I believe to be true: something to the effect of  “...but a boy is as old as he is treated”.  

Parents today "manage" their children so closely that I feel we retard their growth.  Well not my son.  He will be away at boot camp for 13 weeks with no cell phone.  He can call home twice, I believe.  

Even throughout the recruiting process there have been appointments to keep, proper forms to be completed, tests to endure – 100% of which he did on his own.  Mom didn’t have these in her calendar, nor did I prompt him to complete anything.

I believe his maturity will be light years ahead of his peers who will be in today's universities. 

In closing

I am excited that my son has found his path. I am very proud of Tommy and his very adult choice.  

And I thank him for his (future) service.

About the Author Nancy McKenna

I'm a personal finance geek. A real estate investor. An accountant, a single mother. And I'm going to get my kids through college without student debt! Will you?

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