The military must overhaul its education

| April 10, 2012

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.

Category: Military issues, Pointless blather, Schools, Society

Comments (12)

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  1. faboutlaws says:

    One would think that with so much economic clout the military could drive a bargain on tuition costs. I could see a successful plan that would negotiate a 20-30% reduction in costs in this highly competitive drive for enrollment.

  2. DaveO says:

    Why go to college so you can hustle fries when you can use the GI Bill to get a welder’s certificate and apprentice status and start making money?

    CompTIA A+/Security+/Network+ don’t require a degree to start work.

    Get an associate’s degree, go online, make use of vo-tech. A liberal arts degree is shit, and engineering is shit in this economy.

  3. When I first joined the Army in the 70’s, it was at the end of the Viet Nam war. The Army was trying hard to get enough troops to fill the slots in Germany, so they cut corners. We had some who could not read or write and had dropped out of high school. Some of these troops had a lot of common sense, so they could get by.
    But, the ones who lacked common sense and an education were a total waste of space. Just before an inspection, they’d send some dumbass over to me to help him read a manual incase the General asked him a question. Out of 25 soldiers who went to take the written driving test, only 3 of us passed because of reading skills required.
    I got so frusrated with ignorant people, I did my time and got out.
    The Army was a lot different in 2004-05 when I went to Iraq. A lot of very smart soldiers. In the Nat Guard, we tended to have a lot of enlisted and NCOs with college.
    I think the GI bill for education is a good thing, but it’s being run so bad millions are being wasted. out of 20 folks I knew going to college last year, 10 of them were not getting VA money after waiting months. the same thing happened to me in 77, it took months to get VA money for college because the VA seemed to be run by lazy dumbass people.

  4. Tony says:

    The Army had allegedly learned its lesson following Vietnam, changing its respective requirements. However, the one thing that did not change was the fact that new recruits are often brought in because of incentives, education being the obvious one.

    I do not know if there’s going to be any way to fix the situation, when we consider how new recruits are motivated, though I completely agree with the assessment here on the politicization of colleges.

  5. WOTN says:

    Intriquing concept there NSOM.

  6. Mark says:

    Thank you for posting this. I agree with your premise, however the institutional inertia in the military will make it very hard to incorporate. If there could be 1 or 2 people who could cut through the bs to get this done. I think it could be done rather well with a major return on the investment.

  7. Sandman says:

    Considering the state of the VA, do you really think that a DoD sponsored University would be up to standard? I know they have DLI and the Medical School.

    I could see it being a mixed Civil-Military Environment like the Naval Post Grad School is.

    Only true downside is where to locate it? Ft. Riley?

  8. NHSparky says:

    One of the biggest issues I had was trying to get reasonable credit for my nuke training because of the classified nature of the training, despite most of the physics, math, and science being straight out of college level texts. Only the plant specifics were really classified per se. What we need is to get serious with the more intense/longer schools and really push for better accreditation from nationally recognized and respected schools.

  9. Radar says:

    I used TA at a community college, TA and GI Bill at a for-profit, and then depleted the GI Bill earning an MBA at a public university. I’m now up to my eyebrows with fiscal stuff in higher ed and very familiar with the GI Bill process.

    Schools are accountable in many ways, including graduation rates, loan default rates and a myriad of reporting requirements to the feds; and in the case of public schools, to state agencies. There are caps on aggregate tuition that can be received from Title IV, and quite a few consumer protection bills are forthcoming. Congress is ‘on’ the VA for accountability, i.e. what are we receiving for our tax dollar?

    The Post 9/11 GI Bill is young and is still going through improvements. It works at the schools that have implemented a dual certification process, and education benefits are received in days after certifying. The issues I see are schools with ‘old school’ certifying officials who won’t adapt to the new requirements.

    In short, the system works. Public colleges and universities are mostly affordable and the GI Bill covers the cost of tuition, and provides BAH and a book stipend. Many employers are already prejudiced toward hiring veterans. I suspect that a BS from the University of the Army would not offer the same value as one from UMASS, UCONN, Arizona State University, etc.

    The real issue, in my opinion, is getting the word out to separating Servicemembers. Teach them how the GI Bill works, the pitfalls of dropping a class in penalty and other academic actions that can cause a debt with VA. Have them look for public schools with robust Military Service Offices, and explain the benefits of the respective Veteran Student Societies. Many need to know that there are offices at schools who will help them if they reach out.

    It isn’t perfect, but it’s a darn lot better than the GI Bill I used. There is so much more I could write on this, new proposals on Veteran debt, the DOD TA MOU, the pitfalls of net tuition, and making sure one has established in-state residency for tuition. The pitfalls are numerous, but the benefits can get a person the education or training they need to be successful. I don’t think it should be drastically changed, just tweaked a little to make it better.

  10. Joshua says:

    This is a beautifully written piece John.

  11. CPOMustang says:

    When the Post 911 GI Bill went Live in 2009 I made sure I got in on the ground floor. I was (and still am) convinced the program is too expensive to be sustainable in its present form, even after the changes of 2011. This bears out my concerns.

  12. fm2176 says:

    There some great ideas here. I am in my senior year of college for my undergrad degree, which was earned mostly online. My school has a great program for military students and caps tuition at $750 a class to meet TA caps. Books are included and the AARTS transcript is interpreted to max out the number of semester hours granted. I went into the degree program in need of program-specific courses and some basic requirements (algebra, English, science, etc).

    In my last unit one of the louder NCOs liked to proclaim how the Sergeant Majors Course will eventually be a Masters producing program. I’ll believe it when I see it, but given the availability of advanced studies for officers, I do feel as though a degree-producing program is in order for enlisted and NCOs. The Army does have a newer program similar to my school’s, in which certain schools agree to give credit more liberally based on a Soldier’s experience and training, but it is only open right now for junior Soldiers in certain MOS’.

    I think the NCOES should be changed slightly to culminate in a degree. With the addition of SSD (which is supposed to eventually count towards college credits) there are now nine official levels of NCOES, not counting basic and advanced entry training. A Soldier who retires as an E-7 in twenty years will have completed SSD-1, WLC, ALC-CC, ALC-TT, SSD-3, and SLC at the least (sorry for all the acronyms, those this will affect should know them). A Soldier who makes E-9 will add SSD-4, SMC, and SSD-5. This doesn’t count the 1SG Course or the other unique training taken by leaders in today’s Army. Throw in some basic courses–taken either individually or as additions to established Army training–and there should be no reason why an undergraduate degree shouldn’t be granted to that E-7, or a Master’s to that E-9.

    I’m curious to see where things go. As an E-6 with 10 years in, I am nowhere near the bottom of the pile when it comes to the pending “up or out” changes. I should be on path to earn my Bachelor’s as an E-6, and hope to earn my Master’s a few years after that. In tne years I’ll make the decision as to whether or not to get out or stay a few more years.