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The most interesting thing about my new job as the inaugural chief learning officer of the United States Navy and Marine Corps is the opportunity to build a truly integrated learning organization. As a CLO, my responsibility is to determine how additional education can develop the intellectual capital of our 800,000-plus employees so we can achieve our mission more effectively and efficiently. For most CLOs, the only way to achieve that goal is to turn to outside providers -- colleges, universities and various learning and training platforms -- to deliver education. In contrast, I also lead and align five powerful education institutions: the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, Marine Corps University and the new U.S. Naval Community College. This integration means that I do not have to search the marketplace for appropriate educational interventions to move our team forward. Instead, I can turn directly to my colleagues at our schools to help design and deliver the perfect solution.

In conversations with other CLOs and education providers, it has become clear to me that over the next decade, corporate America will move increasingly toward this integrated model. Employers, particularly tech employers, are fed up with the inability of our traditional education system to provide them with the highly educated and intellectually agile learners that they need to compete and flourish. Increasingly, they are building their own learning management ecosystems to fix this. In time, these curated learning environments may displace some traditional educational institutions. Why hire a college graduate at a higher price point when you can hire someone at an earlier stage and put them through your own customized learning program on the job? Obviously, this option will only be available to major corporations, but I can already see some of companies, particularly in the technology field, heading in this direction.

A slightly different model of quasi-integration will occur at the community college level. A corporation does not need to build its own large-scale integrated learning program if it can simply co-opt existing institutions to do so, with taxpayers bearing the cost. A corporation can assist a community college to build courses around its proprietary software platforms, with corporation-endorsed certifications as part of the package. This is highly attractive for the community college, because it guarantees degree relevancy and adds the luster of high-tech branding to its degree programs. But the corporation also benefits by creating a new employment pipeline and generating mindshare among graduates at virtually no cost. This is why some tech companies are offering curriculum and certification packages to community colleges for free. It is not charity, just smart business.

So, my question is, will greater integration between employer and education provider strengthen higher education by boosting relevance and rigor, or will it damage the already fragile higher education ecosystem by draining resources from true education to short-term training programs?

The views expressed in this essay are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government or the U.S. Department of the Navy.

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