For the Marines, a Troubling Decline

Officers today score lower on IQ tests, and it's not clear why.
Updated on

Test scores falling.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Americans have well-founded respect for their military officers -- as the backlash against Donald Trump's outlandish statements about John McCain's military service has underscored. So it is upsetting to learn that the U.S. Marine Corps may be suffering some decline in the quality of its officers.

In general, Americans get smarter over time, measured by the rise from one generation to the next in average performance on intelligence tests. This steady trend is called the Flynn effect, after the academic James Flynn whose research has illuminated it. Unfortunately, new research shows a reverse Flynn effect for the officers of the Marine Corps: The average new officer today performs substantially worse on an IQ test than the average new officer did 35 years ago.

Newly commissioned lieutenants in the Marine Corps take a General Classification Test, an intelligence test that has been shown, in studies dating back to its origins during World War II, to be highly correlated with success in the military. Matthew Cancian and Michael Klein of the Fletcher School at Tufts University obtained scores from this test through a Freedom of Information request, and found a troubling decline since 1980.

In World War II, a test score of 120 was the cutoff to become a Marine officer, and, in 1980, 85 percent of new lieutenants still exceeded this threshold. By 2014, however, only 59 percent did. During those 35 years, the average score fell almost 10 percent. (Over the same period, again, average IQ test scores for the population as a whole have been rising.) Cancian and Klein argue that given "the myriad studies associating performance with intellect," this decline suggests "a seriously deleterious impact on the quality of officers and, by extension, on the quality and efficacy of the military."

The researchers also consider what's been driving the changes in test scores, and they rule out greater diversity in the officer corps as playing any substantial role. Rather, most of the change seems linked to the requirement that officers have college degrees, combined with the increasing share of the population obtaining degrees. Overall, they argue, the quality of college graduates choosing to become Marine officers has declined. Back in 1980, the college requirement was a stricter screen than it is today.

In a sense, the problem may be even more severe than what Cancian and Klein suggest, because there's evidence of a military brain drain. At least in other service branches, attrition is higher among officers with stronger academic backgrounds. Seventy-five percent of Air Force officers in the class of 2000 who had attended top universities left within 10 years, while only 50 percent of other officers did, research by John Swisher of the Air Force has found. In the Marines, in particular, talented officers may be leaving prematurely because of ossified promotion policies, research by Aaron Marx of the Marine Corps has found.

Military pay is another factor correlated with officer quality, Cancian and Klein show. Yet, in 2011, median cash pay for commissioned officers exceeded the 75th percentile of cash compensation for all federal workers with four-year degrees, the Congressional Budget Office has found, and differences in benefits further increase the officers' advantage. So it would be premature to call for higher officer pay to address the test declines.

In any case, many if not most military officers are motivated by factors other than pay. Which is another reason that Trump's gratuitous attacks on a war hero are rightly condemned. It may not yet be clear how to stem the reverse Flynn effect for Marine officers, but silly commentary about people willing to sacrifice for their country can't help.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Peter R. Orszag at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mary Duenwald at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.