Study: Intelligence scores rising for Marines, dropping for Marine officers

Greg Nash

The intelligence level of Marine Corps officers has shown a steady and significant decline over the past 35 years, a new Brookings Institution study says.

The decline "has not been due to affirmative action policies but rather a broadening of the number of college graduates eligible to enter the officer pool," according to Brookings' nonresident senior fellow Michael W. Klein and former Marine Matthew F. Cancian, a Master's student at Tufts University. 

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The change is due to the "democratization of college," the authors said in their study, titled “Military Officer Quality in the All-Volunteer Force." 

They note that a college degree is required to become an officer, and there is now a "much wider and diverse pool of college graduates for the military to choose from than there was in 1980."  

"Although some might argue that the decline has been due to affirmative action and a more diverse applicant pool, the research does not find it had a negative impact on the quality of the officer corps," they said.

In fact, they said, the intelligence scores for African-American officers have been rising, which they say might be due to the service recruiting minorities who are more qualified than the typical college student. 

On the flip side, they found that intelligence scores among enlisted Marines have been rising over the past several decades. 

"Yet despite the intense scrutiny of the enlisted force quality and composition, there has been little study of the quality of the officer corps,” Klein and Cancian write. 

“This study rebuts the often tacit assumption that minority officers are less qualified than their counterparts," they wrote. 

In the study, Klein and Cancian said they looked at results of the General Classification Test, which Marine officers have been required to take since World War II. 

The GCT tests "general intelligence" and has shown to have a strong link to military performance, they said. The authors looked at scores for all incoming Marine Officers from 1980 to 2014. 

They found that over 40 percent of new officers in 2014 would not have qualified by World War II standards. They also found that 5 percent of test-takers scored above a high cut-off in 1980, but only 0.7 percent did in 2014. 

The study's authors said the impact of the "drop in quality" of Marine officers on the effectiveness of the military is beyond the scope of their paper.  

But, they added, "given the myriad studies associating performance with intellect, however, it is hard to imagine anything other than a seriously deleterious impact on the quality of officers and, by extension, on the quality and efficacy of the military."