As we pull out of Afghanistan, a different battle looms: a threat that affects all Servicemembers, their families, and their future generations. Realizing that the current environment is challenging for all, Department of Defense (DOD) leadership must influence Servicemembers regarding their education and professional credentialing while they serve. This is especially important for those in the crosshairs of the force-shaping cuts faced by each of the Services. At some point, the transition to civilian life is inevitable for everyone in uniform. The success of that transition is tied to preparation on many levels, including financial, educational, and emotional. Our organization is here to help with the process.
We serve at the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), which provides educational programs and products through DOD education centers. Our military staff provides training sessions directly to the troops about these educational opportunities and the effect these programs can have on their futures and those of their families. During training, it became apparent that too many Servicemembers had not considered furthering their educations. On one postsession survey, when asked why he had not pursued education, a participant responded, “Too lazzy, [sic] I guess.”
In The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, leadership expert John Maxwell discusses the Law of Intentionality by stating that personal growth does not just happen: “In order to reach one’s potential, to grow, there has to be intentional effort expended.”1 This applies especially to the pursuit of education. Maxwell posits that if individuals want to improve, they must improve themselves. Pursuit of higher education or professional credentials certainly qualifies as intentional growth. Many only need a trigger—something to kickstart their journey of growth. It is in this area where we need DOD leadership to help influence Servicemembers to intentionally pursue their civilian educations as part of their professional military development.
The case can be made that civilian education is as important as professional military education, working in concert to produce the best possible Servicemember. Both types of education can serve as a means of increasing the capabilities of today’s warfighter, and both can be seen as leadership’s obligation to encourage. Captain Mike Denkler (Ret.), former Naval Air Station Pensacola Base commander, stated, “[I]t is an obligation of any unit’s leadership to take an active role in professional development, on duty and off duty. Knowledge and skills learned in any classroom will be of great benefit to the individual and the unit. A Smart Soldier = Disciplined Soldier = A Good Leader and Motivator, on and off the battlefield.”2
DOD Instruction 1322.25, “Voluntary Education Programs,” states:
Providing access to quality postsecondary education opportunities is a strategic investment that enhances the U.S. Service member’s ability to support mission accomplishment and successfully return to civilian life. A forward-leaning, lifelong learning environment is fundamental to the maintenance of a mentally powerful and adaptive leadership-ready force. . . . This helps strengthen the Nation by producing a well-educated citizenry and ensures the availability of a significant quality-of-life asset that enhances recruitment and retention efforts in an all-volunteer force.3
During the 2012 DOD Worldwide Education Symposium, Dr. Martha J. Kanter, Under Secretary of the Department of Education, stated, “As we adapt to the ever-changing fiscal environment, a new culture must also be developed within the Department of Defense—one that embraces and promotes education.”4 Lifelong learning is a common refrain within the military; it needs to be part of the culture, part of the military ethos. When Soldiers pledge to maintain their arms, their equipment, and themselves, their pledge should also include personal growth and investment in their futures. Such a shift is needed as DOD continues its drawdown toward a projected 490,000 Servicemembers.
Most would agree that education affords transitioned Servicemembers the chance of a better quality of life as they seek civilian employment. A U.S. Census report found that over an adult’s working life, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor’s degree, $2.1 million; and those with a master’s degree, $2.5 million.5 In addition to higher salaries, individuals 25 years and over with at least a bachelor’s degree have a much lower unemployment rate—about 3.8 percent compared to 7.4 percent for the total population.
The professionalism, expertise, and exemplary military training of Servicemembers are no longer enough to be competitive in today’s labor market. Getting an education serves as the golden ticket to get them through the door for interviews. Without it they may face underemployment or unemployment. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, unemployment rates for veterans aged 18–24 hit a high of 29.1 percent in 2011.6 We have seen unemployment benefits exceed half a billion dollars, and this has a significant effect on the DOD budget. These unfunded budget hits combined with the $486 billion budget cut known as sequestration leads to countless reasons why education is important both to DOD leadership and to all Americans. Even as unemployment rates for veterans fall into line with those of Americans of the same age, there is still the need to encourage educational pursuits.
Investing in education supports the President’s mandate. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, Barack Obama stated:
I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American.7
DANTES supports the voluntary educational function of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and military Services by administering nontraditional educational programs, managing specified contracts for educational and informational materials, conducting special projects and developmental activities, and performing other management and educational support tasks. Moreover, we have numerous resources to assist with the identification, development, and support of educational goals for Servicemembers on our Web site.8
The DOD Offices of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Military Community and Family Policy guide our programs and policies, with input from the Services through their Voluntary Education Service Chiefs. The Navy is the executive agent for DANTES, which is a third echelon command located at Saufley Field, Pensacola, Florida. Our products and services are provided through the Services, education centers worldwide and directly to Servicemembers seeking to obtain college degrees or professional credentials.
Educational awareness training is exported to units in the form of the DANTES Handwriting on the Wall (HOW) training brief, a term made popular by the bestselling change management book “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson.9 HOW was developed soon after the August 2011 U.S. Army Transition Plan. The brief leverages the urgency of the drawdown and the need for Servicemembers to take action using the products and services offered by DANTES.
Attendees of our educational briefs told us that reasons they did not pursue higher education included lack of time, uncertainty about where to start, financial issues, belief they had already met educational goals, family responsibilities, and mission requirements. However, three other issues were identified in open-ended questions that concerned us: belief that higher education is not needed, lack of motivation, and fear. Leader intervention can turn these attitudes around. Encouragement and guidance on the personal development continuum can make all the difference in the world to these troops.
While Servicemembers respond positively to our sessions, many have not considered a life outside the Service. As they realize that a military retirement is no longer a guarantee, attendees acknowledge that they have to prepare. As reported in Army Times, Lieutenant General Howard Bromberg, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, stated that sequestration could lead to involuntary separations for an additional 24,000 enlisted personnel and 7,000 officers.10 The early retirements and involuntary separations are projected to be completed by September 30, 2017.
Acknowledging that DANTES can only reach a fraction of the personnel who need to hear its message, especially those caught up in similar cuts for every Service, we believe those in leadership can make a difference by raising a sense of urgency in their troops to make a plan—to be intentional about their future. To help leaders frame the conversation, we suggest specific topics of conversation.
Key questions such as the following facilitate this frank and important discussion with subordinates:
For many of these questions, the answers can be found in the voluntary education program offerings. Following these questions, the next step should include a visit to the local military education center, to a Service-supported voluntary education Web site, and to the DANTES Web site.
The four key components of a successful transition discussion are found in the acronym HELP:
By promoting the importance of higher education or credentialing, leaders can help prepare Servicemembers for viable military or civilian employment. Visionary leaders promote lifelong learning, which we believe improves DOD productivity through organizational effectiveness, individual innovation, and increased numbers of independent strategic thinkers within an organization. Leadership support of this endeavor could not come at a more critical time. With the decline in the number of counselors and education centers into more centralized service, troops may not have ready access to trained education specialists. Leadership influence may be just the ticket to motivate individuals to seek out these specialists and begin their educational journeys.
Leaders can refute the misconception held by many Servicemembers that earning a college degree is a goal too far. We can assure them that by leveraging the various sources of college credit available, getting that 2- or 4-year degree is well within their reach and can be considered part of their “Continuum of Learning”:
Force development is a deliberate process of preparing Airmen through the Continuum of Learning [COL] with the required competencies to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury. The COL is a career-long process of individual development where challenging experiences are combined with education and training through a common architecture to produce Airmen who possess the tactical expertise, the operational competence and the strategic vision to execute and lead the full spectrum of [Air Force] missions. . . . Force development is like a four legged chair: recruiting the right people, training them, educating them and giving them the right professional experiences.11
Myriad educational resources available to Servicemembers strengthen the educational leg of that chair. A college course funded through the Services’ tuition assistance programs or by use of a member’s GI Bill is one way to earn college credit. There are other credit sources that can significantly shorten the timeframe for completing a degree including credit for military training and for passing college level examinations through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST). The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning conducted a study titled “Fueling the Race to Success,” in which they found that those who used prior learning, to include credit for Service schools and academic testing such as the CLEP and DSST examination programs, graduated at higher rates and finished their degrees faster than their contemporaries who did not use prior learning as part of their degree requirements. These results held despite the age, ethnicity, race, or gender of the students and regardless of whether they attended public, for-profit, or nonprofit institutions.12
By intentionally leveraging military training, troops can accelerate the timelines to their degrees. As a result of a contract with the American Council on Education (ACE), thousands of military training courses have been evaluated and carry recommended academic credit. These credits may be accepted toward degree completion by academic institutions. To better facilitate the application of these credits, the Army recently joined forces with the other Services to form the Joint Services Transcript (JST), which is based on the highly successful Navy Sailor-Marine American Council on Education Registry Transcript (SMART). SMART was the most likely platform to build this transcript since it is the only military credit document that carries the ACE seal of approval. As a result, DANTES and ACE can train colleges and universities how to interpret this standardized document for maximum transferability to Servicemembers. Additionally, the single source, single Web site, and format make the JST more accessible and usable by all the various stakeholders. This is crucial because in addition to quickening the pace to earn a degree, DANTES analyzed data from Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) degree plans and found that over 748,000 credits from the JST were applied to degree plans. This equates to over $150 million in tuition assistance cost avoidance and a hefty return of investment of about 1 to 44. For every dollar DANTES spent on the ACE contract, there is a $44 return.
In addition to using credit for military training, Servicemembers can earn more college credit by passing a CLEP or DSST exam. Last year, thousands passed and applied CLEP and DSST credit to their SOC degree plans. Looking at fiscal year (FY) 2012 graduates of the Community College of the Air Force and SOC degree plans for Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard personnel, testing accounted for over 119,000 college credits applied toward graduation requirements. The academic testing program funded by DANTES saved over $26 million in tuition assistance cost avoidance, or about a 1 to 3 return on investment for those contracts.
The key is awareness. The more our troops know about these sources of college credit and how to leverage them, the more likely they are to use them to shorten the time to graduation. Imagine the cost avoidance for tuition assistance and GI Bill expenditures that may be realized if the JST and academic testing programs were used more frequently by both Active-duty and veteran populations. This is a win-win for the Servicemember, the Services, and the taxpayer.
By infusing education into training briefs, making the message commonplace, and reinforcing its necessity and importance, leaders can raise the awareness and generate the sense of urgency that triggers action. As we traveled across the country adapting our educational awareness training in support of mandated unit training, we found a direct correlation between the interest and attention of Servicemembers when training is attended and supported by leadership.
For example, four training sessions were conducted for the Virginia National Guard during FY12 for the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, asking the question, “Education: Right or Responsibility?” In addition to outlining the available resources provided in the voluntary education program, attendees were presented with a compelling argument that they needed to seize the opportunity and pursue their degrees. Specifically, we emphasized their need to pursue their goals with more focus and intentionality. As stated by Dr. King, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”13
Similarly, briefs were conducted at numerous Women’s History Month observances from Pensacola, Florida, for the Gulf Coast Veterans Administration, to the Army Reserve in Alaska. Major General Raymond Palumbo, then commanding general of U.S. Army, Alaska, sponsored the training to promote the importance of education and emphasized that regardless of sex, education empowers those who obtain it. According to Anita Soni from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, female veterans must “choose education to improve our socioeconomic status as well as our physical or physiological health.” Her claim is supported by a Government Accountability Office claim that the number of homeless female veterans has expanded from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,348 in 2010. Many of these women resided with their minor children, affecting another generation.14
Transition preparation is not only a consideration for junior Servicemembers. It affects every member of DOD. Some Servicemembers weaved education throughout their careers and were well prepared when the right opportunity presented itself. For example, Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, who retired at age 53 from the Navy after 27 years of service, continued along the same service vein as the 62nd Chief of Chaplains for the Senate.
While in uniform, Dr. Black attended Oakwood College, Andrews University, North Carolina Central University, Eastern Baptist Seminary, Salve Regina University, Norfolk State, Savannah State, Princeton, Harvard, and the United States International University. In addition to earning masters of art degrees in divinity, counseling, and management, he earned a doctorate degree in ministry and a doctor of philosophy degree in psychology. Dr. Black believes in lifelong learning, advising all military personnel to prepare for their next life after service.15
Another example is Navy Master Chief David Acuff, DANTES Senior Enlisted Advisor, who made great use of the Navy’s voluntary education program by earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree while serving in the Navy’s medical community. He began his master’s program in 2008, graduating 4 years later with a master’s in healthcare administration. His motivation for pursuing graduate study was his family. As a single parent with four children who was nearing the end of a 30-year career, he knew he would need to start preparing for civilian life, so he enrolled in the Healthcare Administration program at Trident University. He stated:
At the time, I had been a widower for a year and realized that I needed to prepare for the future. The Trident University program was completely online. I was able to do my homework at night after my (then) 2-year-old twins went to sleep since I couldn’t sleep anyway. I realized that I probably couldn’t support my family on a bachelor’s degree and I wanted to be sure that I could take care of them.
His tuition was completely paid for through tuition assistance. Acuff plans to retire in 2015 and is preparing to pursue another certification before then: “I want as many credentials as possible to make me more marketable in the healthcare industry. I hope to obtain employment immediately upon retirement.”16
For those who want to work in the trades or fields that do not require a 4-year degree such as welding, plumbing, computer security, network administration, truck driving, auto mechanics, or others, there are ample opportunities. These fields require educational experiences as well as professional credentialing. Those interested in these fields have programs available to help them, too: the Navy Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL), Army COOL, and Air Force COOL each have skills gaps analysis sections, credentialing information, and other career enhancing information.
Tuition assistance is a benefit that every Servicemember should maximize. Current policy allows up to $250 per semester hour, not to exceed $4,500 annually. At the 2012 DOD Worldwide Education Symposium, Holly Petraeus, assistant director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, addressed the topic of predatory lenders who target Servicemembers.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the issue with Petraeus at a Pentagon brief on October 18, 2012, and both noted the increase in unscrupulous financial practices of some educational institutions and its potential long-term impact. Petraeus posits that the number of Servicemembers who have fallen behind on student loan payments may be greater than the servicing of home mortgages for the military. The programs available to Servicemembers, such as tuition assistance and post-9/11 GI Bill, are sufficient for them to obtain educations without incurring debt.
A recently implemented DOD memorandum of understanding (MOU) is designed to help protect troops by requiring institutions of higher learning to adhere to specific principles of best practice regarding military students. The MOU program articulates the commitment and agreement educational institutions provide to DOD by accepting funds via each Service’s tuition assistance program in exchange for education services.
The DANTES Web site boasts a wide variety of products to help Servicemembers pursue their educational goals. Some of these products can be career-extending for those who take the initiative to leverage them, hence the importance of leadership’s influence to encourage taking personal initiative to get started.
One such program is the Online Academic Skills Course (OASC), which has proved effective in the education and potential retention of Servicemembers. The program offers remedial verbal skills and math for members of the U.S. military and their families. OASC has helped many Servicemembers to increase their ASVAB scores. Better scores can lengthen careers, allowing changes of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) to areas the Services need. Some have leveraged this program to prepare themselves for college, which can prove cost-effective by reducing the number of courses taken. In a study of 657 matched records of Army Soldiers who participated in a structured pilot, 81 percent improved their Armed Forces Qualification Test score enough to be eligible to change their MOS.17 By taking the time to invest in personal development, troops can influence their careers and their futures while meeting critical manning needs.
Troops to Teachers (TTT) helps eligible Servicemembers find employment as teachers in our schools. As of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY13, it is fully realigned with DOD. The program has been in place for nearly 20 years and has put more than 13,500 boots into classrooms across the country. Many of these individuals serve in at-risk schools and teach high-need subjects where Servicemembers find their leadership, training, and mentorship skills have been especially successful.
More than 95 percent of veterans participating in the TTT program completed their initial 3-year teaching assignments, positively influencing America’s children. Military teachers are filling the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics gap experienced in many schools. More than 27 percent of TTT participants teach mathematics, compared to 7 percent of teachers nationwide. Forty-six percent teach the sciences (biology, geology, physics, and chemistry) compared to all U.S. teachers, and 44 percent teach special education, compared to 19 percent of all teachers.18
In the 2008 DOD Influencer Poll, the authors found that nonparental influencers, including schoolteachers, have an effect on students regarding the choice to pursue the military career option following high school. Educators who are former Servicemembers are potential force multipliers for recruiters seeking to engage the best candidates for military service.19
This is important on several levels:
In a study of TTT participants in Texas, the educators raised student achievement levels, improved classroom management and student discipline, and were successful role models.20 In a Florida study that examined reading and mathematics achievement, students taught by TTT participants had significantly higher achievement levels over students taught by others with equal teaching experience.21 Furthermore, those TTT participants who moved into administrator roles were rated by their supervisors as proficient or distinguished in all six elements of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards.22
As part of the new Transition Goals Plans Success program, known simply as Transition GPS, attendees are asked if they would like more information on the TTT program as another way to identify qualified participants. Why is this particular program so important to DOD? In the white paper “Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve,”23 the authors paint a bleak picture regarding the pool of candidates in which the Services have to find quality recruits. Of the prime population of those aged 18–24, roughly 75 percent are unable to join the military. While the reasons vary (lack of education, obesity, physical problems, or criminal history), the issue is how DOD can stay competitive in recruiting the necessary end strength from the remaining 25 percent. Teachers are part of that wider span of “influencers,” and because TTT participants are excellent role models who leverage their life experiences in the classroom, they serve as a positive influence.
The Kuder Military Career and Transition System offers Servicemembers the opportunity to participate in self-assessments that can help guide them through their career planning process, career decisionmaking, and job search—in short, it helps them develop transition strategies. This program is available to Servicemembers in all stages of their careers free of charge.24 Once an account is activated, it is available for the rest of the Servicemember’s life.
The program walks participants through a seven-step career decisionmaking process based on their interests and their MOSs, should they desire to pursue those areas once they leave the military. The Kuder Journey highlights educational fields to help identify careers that would be of potential interest to Servicemembers, areas of growth for the future, and careers that have yet to be identified.
One substantial selling point for education is that there is a direct correlation to the number of available jobs based on the level of education attained; more education brings more occupational options. Participants will clearly see that most jobs require either a 2- or 4-year degree, and it is hoped that will serve as an incentive to continue their educations. The program identifies accredited schools that provide degree programs in the participants’ areas of interest along with information regarding graduation rates for each school, which can be critical when determining whether an institution is the best choice.
Kuder Journey was designed to help participants tailor their job decisionmaking around who they are, not necessarily what they have done. It serves as a “one-stop shop,” providing options to create résumés, apply for financial aid, search for jobs, and upload videos.
By merging an Individual Transition Plan with an assessment such as Kuder Journey, Servicemembers will have taken great strides toward specifically identifying their personal interests and goals. That information is ideal for developing the life plan recommended by Maxwell.
Ultimately, education is a choice. John Ebersole’s and William Patrick’s Courageous Learning provides vignettes of adult learners who despite all odds achieved their educational and professional goals.25 In one, a Soldier related how after patrol, and once his fellow Soldiers went to bed, he stayed up studying, writing papers, and chipping away at the coursework he needed to get his degree before retirement. His story is a common illustration of the resilience necessary to obtain one’s goals. As leaders, we must relay similar stories of intentionality and focus to help other Servicemembers become committed to developing personal growth plans.
Leaders set the tone, expectations, and standards for Servicemembers. One means of remaining committed to this leadership obligation is to ensure that the troops do more for themselves. Leaders have a responsibility to send them back to civilian life as better citizens, and they can help Servicemembers understand that there is a greater likelihood of finding more fulfilling employment when they combine their military experience with higher education. Leaders should help the troops make the intentional choice to pursue education so they can quickly adapt to change as well as seek continual growth through lifelong learning. By helping the troops we are helping ourselves because we will quickly see that this effort is well worth the time and energy. The future of the Armed Forces depends on it. JFQ