SALT LAKE CITY, March 24, 2013—Congress has voted to force the military to offer service members tuition assistance. It is a wise political and national security move.
As part of the continuing resolution passed by both houses late last week, the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps will now have to fund the program through the rest of the fiscal year, though the Congress appropriated no new money to help.
It is a sign that service members and their families are an active and powerful lobby.
But their interests aren’t entirely selfish. Tuition assistance represents some important organizational priorities for the military. For years, the armed services have argued publicly and internally for a more educated force. Since the draft was abolished four decades ago, education requirements have risen steadily for new enlistees.
Now a high school diploma is a requirement for induction, and degrees are strongly encouraged for promotions in the non-commissioned officer corps. Officers must earn a baccalaureate degree before commissioning, in most cases.
Earlier this month, the Army, Air Force, and Marines had separately suspended tuition assistance, a program that offered education financing for active duty personnel. The Navy considered following suit, but never did.
Defense Department officials said they cut the program because of sequestration. The continuing resolution basically tells them to figure out a way to enact sequestration cuts without touching tuition aid.
And for good reason. The American military is an organization that puts high cognitive demands on even its most junior members. Gone are the days when a private simply had to follow a maneuver order from a superior to be successful. Most soldiers have a very technical military occupation specialty of a non-combat arms variety.
Even among combat MOSs, problem solving and quick evaluation skills are minimum requirements; leadership and communication abilities are more necessary than ever. Talking philosophy per se isn’t necessary in war time, but the ability to understand and adapt to complex battlefield situations is.
These requirements necessitate a highly educated force.
Why? Because the American military has always sought to do more with less. Since WWII, we have aimed for a force reliant on technology and doctrine that accounts for possible shortages in manpower. With current budget cuts and future ones likely, it is even more important for the service to attract educated people.
It is certainly easier to ask an active service member to achieve more formal education than it is to go and recruit a new soldier from among a smaller pool of educated people, then train that person in military skills.
It’s also important to convey to service members that the Defense Department recognizes the value of education.
Any officer curriculum vitae begins with formal educational degrees, highlighting the significance of systematized, civilian education even among military thinkers.
The Army, Air Force, and Marines need to make sure its enlisted personnel can access that civilian education, especially given that other constraints on those personnel are so much greater than they are for their civilian peers.
According the Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tuition assistance represents $700 million annually.
It also represents a priority that the services should place on educating its personnel. In an era of congressional stalemate, the latest move to include the program in the continuing resolution shows bipartisan agreement that active duty personnel are worth the investment.
Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic Training; Tunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative.
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