Getting Our Arms Around Military Education

Service members account for as much as 5 percent of all college students. Isn’t it time that we knew more about who they are, what they’re studying, and how they’re doing? Clifford Adelman writes.

February 29, 2008

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has been at it for a while on the inadequacy of veterans’ educational benefits, and is now joined by other lawmakers in a tussle with the Bush administration over ways, and budgets, to ensure subsequent higher education for those who have served the country. The administration would rather expand the transfer of education benefits to spouses and children, and the Department of Defense argues that higher veterans’ benefits would dampen re-enlistment and interfere with something called “force management.” John Merrow recently gave us a fine PBS documentary -- with all its biting ironies -- on the dilemmas of veterans facing today’s college expenses, and the higher education trade press has followed suit.

But we’re missing something here -- on both sides -- and Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the annual meeting of the Council for College and Military Educators this month went a long way to open it up: acknowledgment of the scope and nature of the Voluntary Education Programs of the armed forces. The course taking and degree completion by active duty military while they are on active duty, i.e., before they become veterans, is a huge enterprise, and very much part of “force management.”

How big? Whether the 2006 Voluntary Education enrollment number was the 840,000 Inside Higher Ed was told or the 700,000 figure I’ve been carrying around from the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, that’s about 5 percent of total U.S. postsecondary enrollment at all levels—nothing to sneeze at. Nor is the persistence reflected in 28,000 associate degrees, 8,000 bachelor’s degrees, and 9,000 graduate degrees awarded to active duty military in 2006.

But beyond those numbers, standard IPEDS-type information is hard to come by. A significant portion of those 700,000–840,000 enrollments are not counted at all in U.S. Department of Education data because they took place at locations outside the U.S. And virtually none of those who earned degrees are credited with completion under the silly graduation rate formula of the Student Right-to-Know Act because active duty military are part-time students (who are excluded from our Congressional graduation rate formula) who take an average of 7 years to complete associate degrees (our Congressional formula cuts them off at 3 years) and 12 years to complete bachelor’s degrees (our formula cuts them off at 6 years). We can send them to Iraq and Afghanistan to risk IEDs, but God forbid Congress should acknowledge their persistence in learning!

Where were these courses taken? All over the world, from bases in the U.S. to shipboard in the Pacific to overseas military installations from Germany to Okinawa. Who delivered the course work? The Community College of the Air Force, service education and training commands themselves, and a wide variety of higher education institutions, including such visible ones as the University of Phoenix, Central Texas College, Central Michigan University, and the University of Maryland’s University College (which has been in this business since 1949). The providers (there are many more than the four mentioned – the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges consortium includes many hundreds of institutions) are in competition with each other, so our knowledge of who earned credits in what is nearly invisible. The information is proprietary, and what we get we get by anecdote.

But the providers’ Web sites tell us at least what is offered to active duty military, where, and when. UMUC has 53 delivery sites in Europe and another 17 in the Middle East; Central Texas operates from 39 sites in Europe and 10 in the Middle East. The Asian on-site operations of both institutions are almost as extensive, and stateside delivery is virtually ubiquitous. When distance education is added to the delivery mode, the whole world is covered, and, as Inside Higher Ed’s reporting indicated, e-learning has become the preferred form of delivery outside U.S. territory.

As for what is offered: standard higher education fare. In Afghanistan (yes, Afghanistan) this spring, you can find courses ranging from Algorithmic Design to Principles of Management. Stationed in Ramstein, Germany? UMUC will offer you Art of the Western World to 1300, Organizational Communication, and Introductory German. Oh shipboard and want to start your bachelor's degree in accounting? Phoenix offers a 66-credit on-line package with all the default course work you would get on land at Old Siwash. Across the Voluntary Education Programs one notes math from pre-algebra to calculus, and writing courses including technical, business, advanced expository, and creative. Understandably, you won't find engineering, but you will find a portfolio of biology courses, and will mark the prominence of computer science and information technology.

Why is all of this important, and why is it important to know more?

First, the role of the U.S. armed forces in postsecondary education has long been relegated to consideration under “adult and continuing education,” and has not received much (if any) attention from the higher education research and policy community. Yet the contribution of the military to the development of an educated work force and, through that work force, to the knowledge base of the economy, has been considerable and merits full acknowledgment.

Second, as we approach a post-Iraq era in which tens of thousands of military personnel will be returning stateside or assigned to other non-combat overseas locations and face critical choices about their career paths and the most beneficial postsecondary education to advance those paths, in addition to considering the adequacy of veterans’ educational benefits, it is incumbent on us to look more carefully at Voluntary program participation and its potential even beyond current capacities.

Specifically, we would want to know:

(1) How enrollments disaggregate, i.e., it is not clear what proportion of those who take courses and earn degrees through the Voluntary Education Programs are active duty personnel and what proportion are family members. One assumes that, in Afghanistan or Kosovo, they are uniformed; but one cannot make the same assumption for Central Texas’ offerings at the San Diego Naval Base or Central Michigan’s stateside locations near Air Force installations, for example.

(2) The actual distribution of knowledge to active duty servicemembers (including Reserves and National Guard who have been called to duty). That is, we know what is offered on the course schedules, but we do not know the volume of what was taken, and the momentum that study provided toward completion of credentials. It’s not merely that the sheer number of participants is not fully accounted for in national data; it is also that education and training in object-oriented programming, languages, technical writing, etc. are translatable into civilian contexts, and raise the overall level of knowledge and skill in our society and economy. The services have databases of this information -- AARTS for the Army, SMART for the Navy -- that should reflect very positively on DOD’s investment in the Voluntary Education Program. One also needs the cooperation of the participating colleges in this endeavor, assuring them that their data would be aggregated and not shared, i.e. that their proprietary status is protected.

(3) The connection between postsecondary credits earned in active duty status and subsequent postsecondary education of former servicemembers as veterans, a topic that raises issues of quality assurance, credit transfer, and articulation with degree programs. When the services make a human capital investment, it is both for organizationally strategic reasons and for the benefit of the individual soldier, marine, sailor, airperson. If the student has responded to the availability of this support, we all want to be sure that the response is recognized in the formal system of higher education, and for this task, an expansion and deepening of the work of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges is essential. SOC has been doing yeoman’s work, and can both identify blockages where they exist, and suggest ways to overcome them. There is an obvious high volume of redeployment of the active duty military, rendering it the most mobile of our nomadic student populations, with education trajectories under constant threat of discontinuity. Discontinuities are dissonance, and neither the services nor service members need dissonance between intention and reality.

(4) Given the populations in the active duty military, an estimate of the potential contribution of the military’s Voluntary Education program to higher education’s equity agenda. The military identifies individuals by service and rank, not by race/ethnicity and gender, so when one examines what the support for postsecondary education does for individuals by demographic characteristics, estimation models are necessary. Our hypothesis at the Institute for Higher Education Policy is that the military does a great deal for minority educational advancement, and that it is about time that this fact was recognized, applauded and capitalized on by the higher education community. We could be wrong, but doubt it.

Outside of DOD, it is important to (a) assess the extent to which national data on participation in postsecondary education, as reported by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, includes active duty military personnel, and (b) demonstrate how the current formulas for determining completion (“graduation”) rates fail to take account of the persistence and attainments of active duty service members (let alone veterans who began their postsecondary education while on active duty). Simply by highlighting these unjust exclusions, one would hope to change reporting practices.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy has been developing a research project on this territory, has consulted the Serviceman’s Opportunity Colleges association, and has had the opportunity to meet with members of DOD’s Voluntary Education Committee (who were very positive and helpful), so we have a decent sense of the terrain and its borders.

But that is as far as the information trail has allowed to date. Given large questions concerning minority and low-income student program completion in higher education, quality assurance and accountability, and national education data accounting that loom in the background of higher education policy, a research undertaking focused on 5 percent of our postsecondary population is overdue. A well-constructed inquiry would put enough analytical elements in play on this territory to provide fodder for policy initiatives to link two major institutions in our society in more constructive ways than they have been linked to date and for broader purposes of both the equity agenda and the goal of a knowledge society.

We have a challenge in the post-Iraq era to take advantage of the positive change in servicemembers’ sentiment toward further education as reported by the Veterans Administration, reverse the slide in benefits participation, and increase the participation and credential completion rates of African-Americans and Latinos in particular. In the process, we might understand better what access to higher education means when the borders between major institutions such as the military and our colleges and community colleges become more permeable, and just how much the armed services contribute to American “smarts.” One would think Senator Webb and his colleagues would like to see how these connections contribute to their efforts; one would think the Pentagon would like the positive image those connections reveal. One can only hope common sense will rule.


Clifford Adelman is senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.


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