The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Military Spouse Education is a Military Readiness Issue

  • Published
  • By Maj. Kevin Beaty

The Department of Defense (DoD) is modernizing the force and preparing for great power competition with a proposed FY24 budget of $842 billion.[1] Hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested in research and development, procurement, and military construction. Meanwhile, the DoD is attempting to increase readiness through diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.[2] However, paltry funding and support for one of the most critical underrepresented groups in the DoD—military spouses—has created a glaring readiness gap. Military spouses suffer from higher rates of depression, fractured social networks, and a lack of personal/professional agency due to the military lifestyle. Unaddressed issues facing military spouses reverberate through the individual, the family, the military units, and even the economy writ large. Through analysis of the legal and historical foundations, current program options, and potential myriad benefits, the information presented in this work shows that the DoD should recognize military spouse education as a vital readiness issue and take deliberate actions to prioritize enterprise resources to provide education benefits for every military spouse.[3]

The history of military educational benefits spans nearly eighty years, much of which focused only on the service member. Just days after the landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, also known as the GI Bill.[4] This bill provided educational benefits for all service members and injected skilled, educated Americans back into the workforce after the war. The GI Bill provided an equitable avenue for socio-economic mobility to veterans who were otherwise devoid of such agency based on race or income.[5] In the 1980s, this program evolved into the All-Volunteer Force Educational Assistance Program, known as the Montgomery GI Bill. This program provided updated benefits for the Cold War era and included surviving spouse and dependent benefits.[6] However, the US government would not address military spouse education benefits at scale until after the turn of the century.

During the Global War on Terror, the US government updated educational benefits for veterans and to increase recruitment and retention.[7] Service members gained the ability to transfer earned educational benefits to their family members under the “Post 9/11 GI Bill.”[8] However, current analysis indicates military spouses are less likely to receive and use transferred Post-9/11 educational benefits. While the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages the program, thorough analysis is severely lacking. The VA only publishes annual statistics regarding the quantity of benefit transfers to spouses and dependents without any further analysis. The VA’s Annual Benefits Reports from 2018 to 2022 indicate a reduction of spouses receiving transferred benefits from 24.8% to 20.6%.[9] Benefits transfers to children rose inversely to nearly 80%. Given the lack of VA analysis, one possible reason for the decline in spouse usage of benefits is that parents opt to pass those benefits on to their children.

There was no specific funding for military spouses’ education until the DoD initiated the My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) program for military spouses “to obtain or renew professional licenses.”[10] The DoD executed a limited release of MyCAA in 2007 and expanded the program to all military installations and offered scholarships up to $6,000 in 2009.[11] The response was overwhelming, which would typically lead to further program enhancement. However, according to Congressional Research Service, the DoD closed the program only to restart later with a “scaled-back program” with reduced eligibility and increased additional administrative requirements to maintain “fiscal sustainability.”[12] This paralleled the DoD’s January 2012 announcement of an overall reduction in force.[13]

The MyCAA scholarship currently offers only 1,250 grants annually of up to $4,000 for spouses of members in limited ranks—below E-6, W-2, and O-3.[14] This amounts to $5 million annually. For comparison, one MQ-9 Reaper costs the DoD nearly eight times that—approximately $38 million.[15] The currently available tuition assistance pales to the actual amount needed for a college education. The current average cost of in-state tuition at a public university is $10,662 per year.[16] The key takeaway from the last eighty years of educational benefits for military spouses is that the most substantial amount of financial support for education is provided either by the servicemember’s death benefits or if the servicemember forfeits and transfers the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to the spouse. Otherwise, the US government will only provide funding for less than one semester to approximately 0.2 percent of spouses per year.[17] If funding levels evidence priorities, then military spouses are a very low priority for the DoD.

Military spouses are a unique, underrepresented demographic that warrants more focused research and resources. Studies show that military spouses suffer higher risks of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, shallow social networks, a loss of autonomy.[18] A 2018 Council of Economic Advisors report indicated that military spouses are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and make $12,000 less than non-military spouses.[19] Compounding this issue is that the average age of military members at the time of marriage is 22—seven years earlier than civilian counterparts.[20] The military structure incentivizes marriage through improved access to housing, health insurance, increased pay, and financial support for temporary duty assignments and permanent change of station moves. However, there is not the same support given to providing educational benefits to the new military spouses. A lack of spousal educational attainment and subsequent economic independence may also contribute to an increased number of children, thus fortifying the barriers to personal and professional development.[21] However, the MyCAA successfully demonstrated that spouse benefits increased workforce participation, income, quality of life, and improved active-duty retention rates of the military member spouse by eight percent.[22]

Military spouse education warrants increased support and attention from the DoD, not only for the proven success of programs like MyCAA, but also for the secondary and crossover benefits. Military spouse education can lead to an increased sense of control and autonomy. These factors mitigate cross-sectional burnout of the other spouse.[23]Additionally, educational attainment is a proven indicator in social research that increased education is correlated with increased personal health.[24] However, new science shows a crossover effect that an individual’s health may benefit by as much as 14% from one’s spouse being educated.[25] This effect is even more pronounced for women than men.[26] Similarly, recent medical research shows that spouse educational attainment can even improve the other spouse’s healthy eating habits.[27] Given the recent report that nearly 70% of active duty members are overweight, military spouse education should be an option on the table for military funding.[28] Long-term benefits could reduce VA expenditures for preventable medical issues related to obesity, thus warranting more attention than the US government gives to spouse education.

The effects of spouse education are not limited to the physical health of military spouses. Recent studies present evidence of higher educational attainment correlating to higher offspring birth weight, which reduces adverse health conditions of the child.[29] Higher education is also associated with lower mental health issues.[30] The mental health of the parent at home is even more critical for the children during deployments. Studies have shown that military children's mental health issues like depression are predicted by the non-deployed parent's mental health status.[31] Similarly, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increase long-term physical and mental health. Notably, the military population has consistently higher ACE scores than the general population.[32] The Pew Research Center has shown that most military members come from military families.[33]Preventative and compensatory experiences (PACEs) are factors that are associated with better long-term health. Parental education level is correlated with PACEs, thus reducing childhood trauma.[34] Additionally, the educational level and mental health of the military spouse can provide increased stability at home, which has been shown to reduce the severity of a service member’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and lead to increased openness to seeking treatment.[35] These issues all highlight the glaring need for more concern to be given to military spouse education not only as a benefit for the spouse but the entire military community.

The expected counterargument against funding military spouse education based on cost deserves to be disputed. According to the 2018 Council of Economic Advisers report, when factored for mil-to-mil spouses and other variables, there are approximately 524,000 military spouses.[36] Of the over half million military spouses, only forty percent have a college degree, with the remaining having only some secondary educational experience. If each one of those spouses was awarded a full $10,662 per year for four years, the total amount would be approximately $13.4 billion. On the surface, this is a significant amount. However, the DoD conducted a report that showed potential savings of $125 billion over five years by reducing overspending and waste.[37] A fraction of this wasted money could be invested into military spouse education to create benefits for the families, the military, and the country as a whole. The money is there, but authentic leadership and accountability are required to cut the waste and invest now in military spouses as a priority for moral, ethical, and military readiness.

The following are a few possible actions that the US Government should take to understand better and eliminate the ramifications of underfunding military spouse education. Of note, these actions may exist at small scale, the DoD is not implementing any at an enterprise scale.

  • Create DoD case studies to assess military spouse education effects on readiness for all service branches
  • Conduct barrier analysis on obstacles to spouse educational attainment (i.e., PCS cycle autonomy and duty locations)
  • Sponsor research focused on crossover benefits of military spouse education
  • Partner with public universities for discounted or free education programs for military spouses
  • Expand MyCAA benefit access to every military spouse regardless of rank
  • Provide Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits directly to military spouses
  • Offer tuition assistance to military spouses similar to the MilTA program for service members
  • Provide priority childcare access for military spouses who are using educational benefits
  • Enact federal legislation providing Federal Student Aid options specifically for military spouses

The status quo for military spouse education is not good enough and must be understood as a readiness issue that degrades the United States’ capabilities in the modern era.[38] The DoD must capitalize on the crossover effects on physical, psychological, and social health rooted in military spouse education. The DoD budget states that spouse education is a focus. However, there is still no dedicated budgetary line item for educating the over half a million current military spouses.[39] Given the demands of strategic competition with peer adversaries, the United States is currently overlooking a center of gravity of power, health, and readiness that all stems from military spouse education. The time has come to accelerate this change or lose.

This essay was originally produced as coursework in the ACSC elective seminar Inclusive Leadership.

*I wish to thank Mr. Michael Young from the Eaker Center, and Ms. Micah Telmo for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. All errors found herein are my own.

Major Kevin J. “Plato” Beaty is a prior-enlisted intelligence officer assigned to the Pentagon Joint Staff. He is a recent distinguished graduate from the Air Command and Staff College. 

[1]. Department of Defense. "FY 2024 Budget Request Overview Book." Accessed October 14, 2023.

[3]. Laura L. Miller et al., An Early Evaluation of the My Career Advancement Account Scholarship for Military Spouses (RAND Corporation, November 29, 2018),

[4]. “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944),” National Archives, September 22, 2021.

[5]. Reginald Wilson, “The G.I. Bill and the Transformation of America,” National Forum 75, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 20.

[6]. “38 U.S. Code Chapter 30 - ALL-VOLUNTEER FORCE EDUCATIONAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAM,” LII / Legal Information Institute, accessed 14 October 2023,

[7]. “The Post-9/11 GI Bill | Richmond Fed,” accessed October 14, 2023.

[9]. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration,Annual Benefits Report,” accessed 14 October 2023.

[11]. Kristy N Kamarck, Barbara L Schwemle, and Sofia Plagakis, “Military Spouse Employment,” Congressional Research Service, August 27, 2020, 13.

[15]. Department of Defense. "FY 2024 Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System." 1-6, accessed 14 October 2023.

[16]. “See the Average College Tuition in 2023-2024,” US News & World Report, accessed October 14, 2023.

[17]. The author’s calculations are based on Council of Economic Advisors Report titles “Military Spouses in the Labor Market” (2018) and the 1,250 annual grants from the MyCAA Program.

[18]. Emily L. Mailey et al., “‘Everything Else Comes First’: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of Barriers to Health Behaviors among Military Spouses,” BMC Public Health 18, no. 1 (December 2018): 8; and Mailey et al., 10.

[19]. Council of Economic Advisors, “Military Spouses in the Labor Market” (Washington, D.C., May 2018).

[20]. Jennifer Lundquist and Zhun Xu, “Reinstitutionalizing Families: Life Course Policy and Marriage in the Military,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76, no. 5 (October 2014): 1069; and “How Does Marriage Vary by State?,” USAFacts, accessed October 15, 2023.

[21]. Sara Green, Paula S. Nurius, and Patricia Lester, “Spouse Psychological Well-Being: A Keystone to Military Family Health,” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 23, no. 6 (August 2013): 753–68.

[23]. Mina Westman, Dalia Etzion, and Esti Danon, “Job Insecurity and Crossover of Burnout in Married Couples,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 22, no. 5 (August 2001): 477.

[24]. Admassu N. Lamu, Gang Chen, and Jan Abel Olsen, “Amplified Disparities: The Association between Spousal Education and Own Health,” Social Science & Medicine 323 (April 2023): 5.

[26]. Andrew Halpern-Manners, Elaine M. Hernandez, and Tabitha G. Wilbur, “Crossover Effects of Education on Health within Married Couples,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 63, no. 2 (June 2022): 301–18.

[27]. Qing Wang et al., “The Spouse’s Level of Education and Individuals’ Dietary Behaviors in China,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 22, no. 4 (August 2015): 461–70.

[28]. Megan Meyers,  “Nearly 70% of Active Service Members Are Overweight, Report Finds,” Military Times, Oct 13, 2023.  

[29]. Yu Liu et al., “Educational Attainment and Offspring Birth Weight: A Bidirectional Mendelian Randomization Study,” Frontiers in Genetics 13 (September 1, 2022): 922382.

[31]. Helen Verdeli et al., “The Case for Treating Depression in Military Spouses,” Journal of Family Psychology : JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 25, no. 4 (August 2011): 5.

[32]. Angela Lamson, Natalie Richardson, and Erin Cobb, “The Health and Readiness of Service Members: ACEs to PACEs,” Military Medicine 185, no. Supplement_1 (January 7, 2020): 349.

[33]. “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project (blog), November 23, 2011.

[34]. Amanda Sheffield Morris et al., “Adverse and Protective Childhood Experiences and Parenting Attitudes: The Role of Cumulative Protection in Understanding Resilience,” Adversity and Resilience Science 2, no. 3 (September 2021): 181–92.

[35]. Laura A. Meis et al., “Relationship Adjustment, PTSD Symptoms, and Treatment Utilization among Coupled National Guard Soldiers Deployed to Iraq.,” Journal of Family Psychology 24, no. 5 (2010): 560–67.; and Zahava Solomon, Mario Mikulincer, and Ehud Avitzur, “Coping, Locus of Control, Social Support, and Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Prospective Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55, no. 2 (1988): 279–85.

[36]. Council of Economic Advisors, Labor Market.”

[38]. Lundquist and Xu, “Reinstitutionalizing Families,” 1078.

[39]. DoD, "FY 2024 Budget Request Overview Book."; and Council of Economic Advisors, Labor Market.”

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