There’s been a sea change in attitude of the US military when it comes to the education of its ranks. Not so long ago post secondary education was considered the exclusive realm of the officer corps. Today, not only is the military leadership encouraging its enlisted men and women to seek out higher education, they’re actively spending billions of dollars as a matter of deliberate policy in order to achieve that goal. Unfortunately for everyone involved, including the taxpayer, this policy has been pursued in fits and starts with half measures and aimless, profligate spending.
As it stands now the military spends almost $8 billion a year more than service members have put in for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. That’s billions of dollars engorging a hopelessly broken, corrupt and often anti-military academic system in order to attempt to educate troops who have already left the service, to very mixed results. To put that number in perspective, that’s about 50% more than the 42,000 student, globally ranked Top 20 University of Washington spends in the same time frame , including it’s $1 billion research budget. Or, it’s the collective endowment of the entire University of California’s eleven campuses serving a quarter of a million undergraduate and postgraduate students. This is, largely, a consequence of The GI Bill being a law structured to garner political support by feeding the beast and institutional military support by attracting recruits during the hard years of 2005-2008. What it should be is designed to educate service members for the purpose of empowering the force, improving retention and setting up them for success when they transition out of the armed forces.
Not to mention, do you really want your tax funded GI Bill paying the tenured salary of the likes of Bill Ayers, Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky?
All that’s not to say that the military is only spending money on vets. In 2011 the military spent $542 million on tuition assistance for active duty troops and some of their dependents. TA grew so quickly and to such heights that Congress moved to slash it by 25%. With this deluge of largely unaccountable money, online and distance learning schools have popped up on bases around the world. On nearly every base you can find a learning center with several different, often for-profit, schools offering all manner of courses. The for-profit American Public University System, which runs the popular American Military University, alone has over 100,000 students. Unfortunately there’s little to no coordination between the military and the school’s faculty when it comes to the individual service member’s needs or academic progress. Consequently, these money gobbling schools are often difficult for young troops to complete and most have graduation rates well below 50%. As for the actual course work? It’s not pretty.
This sad state of affairs is even more astounding when one considers that the US military has successfully been in the business of higher education for over 200 years and is, today, the largest educational apparatus in the country. The Department of Defense and it’s various bureaucratic affiliates are directly responsible for, or directly pay for, the post secondary education of more people than any other entity in the country. The Department of Education can’t even come close to providing the educational impact for adults the DoD does and it most likely never will. This doesn’t even touch the almost 9,000 staff in 200 DoD schools who are responsible for the K-12 education of almost 90,000 military dependents.
Fortunately, within that depressing realization is also the answer to, not only fixing the military’s broken education promises but, reforming the entire way higher education works in the United States.
The military already runs what is, with the possible exception of the Mormon’s Missionary Training Center, the most efficient and high performance language school in the world at the Defense Language Institute. The military’s five service academies are more exclusive, rigorous and have higher rates of graduation, granting more valuable degrees, than almost any university system outside the Ivy League and a handful of prestigious private engineering schools such as Harvey Mudd. Every single one of the military’s approximately one million members has undergone multiple formal schooling environments. This includes, at minimum, a basic training course and a technical or professional school. Some service members, such as missile techs, nukes, some comm techs, Air Traffic Controllers, explosive ordinance disposal techs, Special Forces Medical Sergeants and countless others, attend intensive courses that are months or years long and provide top notch educations that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if pursued outside the military. Every year thousands of officers either attend the military’s dozen post-graduate schools or pursue military educations at public and private universities while in uniform. In an increasingly technically oriented and internationally deployed military, serving a nation demanding college educations from the next generation of workers, we must be providing Associate and Bachelor degrees of Science and marketable technical certifications as a standard part of enlistment and retention.
The military should work with Congress to front load the education of troops with the money it currently pours aimlessly into the bloated and insatiable university system as troops fumble through profit driven online courses or, just as bad, once they’ve left the service. This means enlistments will have to grow from the 4-5 year norm to a new 6-8 year norm. Enlistees are already tacking on an extra year for a technical job field or a school with a few extra months. It won’t be a stretch to get one or two more with guaranteed attendance of a training pipeline that will produce, at least, an Associates of Science degree and at least one technical certification. For the cost of a single year of the post 9/11 GI Bill Congress can create an endowment with the Treasury for four or five centralized and regionally accredited military campuses holding a Foundation School and a Professional School. Academic aptitude tests will replace the ASVAB and recruits should be assigned to the appropriate place in the Foundation School after graduation from their service’s Basic Training. All recruits need to become proficient in mathematics, reading, writing, scientific principles and military focused humanities to the 200 level. The Professional school would group people by their job field. All admin, logistics, disbursing, etc troops should go to an Administration School where they’ll take more accounting, report writing, logistics, software and business administration courses. New minimal standards should be applied at the Professional School level to troops depending on jobs; trigonometry for Artillery, biology for Medics and Corpsman, a mandatory foreign language for all Intelligence, a physics battery for Nukes. As a bonus moving at military speed instead of disgusting civilian speed will reduce course time. With modular professional development courses available at all points in the enlistees career it should become the norm for service members to end their enlistments will a Bachelor of Science. New educational standards for promotion will drive attendance in a lower turn-over up or out military. By shifting GI Bill money and condensing existing training funds and education incentives this is an attainable program.
The benefits to society at large would be monumental. We’d be shifting hundreds of thousands of military college students out of the politically charged classrooms of unaccountable colleges and universities with their inevitable cost inflation and putting them into back into formal, apolitical training and education programs. The military would start to produce an even larger share of the college educated labor force and so an even more sizable portion of American civil society, reconnecting it with national duty and an understanding of the military. More American workers would enter the labor market with marketable, cost effective degrees. With longer, more professionally oriented enlistments of more educated enlistees, recruitment and veterans costs would go down. Socio-economic mobility for high school grads seeking opportunities in the military would rise. We’d save money and, most importantly, we’d be better equipping our fighting force.
The money is there, the people are there, the facilities are there, the institutional knowledge is there. All we need is real leadership and a real plan.