- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Michael M. Crow and John Paul Parker
Best Defense guest columnists
Following the longest conflict in our nation’s history, the United States is about to downsize its Army. The “inside-the-beltway” policy debates now underway are focused squarely on how many soldiers we need, and can afford. This is the wrong focus. History demonstrates that the nation’s defense planners cannot accurately foresee where we will need to send our soldiers, nor what we will ask them to do. What we do know is that wherever we send soldiers will be a complex and dangerous environment where we will expect them to be flexible, innovative, and adaptive in order to deal with unforeseen contingencies and emergent threats.
Consequently, the number of soldiers we employ is becoming less singularly meaningful than the qualities of the soldiers who serve. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno has described the characteristics of the Army of the future: “Army leaders accept that there are no predetermined solutions to problems. Army leaders adapt their thinking, formations, and employment techniques to the situation they face. This requires an adaptable and innovative mind, a willingness to accept prudent risk in unfamiliar and changing conditions, and an ability to adjust based on continuous assessment… we must be flexible in the face of adversity, and agile in our responsiveness.” The Marines popularized the notion of a “strategic corporal,” which represents the need for lower-ranking soldiers to exercise independent judgment and make leadership decisions that can have strategic impacts in complex and rapidly changing battlefield conditions.
Budget constraints and other factors will ensure that the Army of tomorrow will have fewer soldiers, but we will increasingly need them to operate more independently, and be agile and innovative. That can’t be done with technology or organizational changes alone. Moreover, uncertainty about the future suggests that what soldiers of tomorrow will need is more broad-based knowledge and education, and not more drills and rote training. It’s time to require every soldier entering the force to have a college degree.
Education as a game changer
The G.I. Bill helped transform the nation’s army into participants in the educated workforce that built modern America. But the same education that helped soldiers succeed in civilian life is now needed during their service to the nation. A revolution in academia is just getting underway which offers the potential to give a cost-effective, multidisciplinary education to our soldiers, and to a large degree the cost is already being paid for by existing military benefit programs: a huge advantage in the cash strapped times ahead.
The revolution in education will allow the military (and others) to use adaptive learning techniques and other new methods to accelerate, deepen, and enhance learning. These new advanced approaches to learning will allow community colleges, colleges, and universities to serve the nation by preparing new master learners for national service. By combining traditional classroom instruction with online technologies that deliver interactive content, monitor individual progress, and accommodate multiple learning styles, we can deliver an education that is customized to the student and which speeds learning while lowering costs. In pilot tests conducted at Arizona State University, students in advanced math courses that utilized these techniques saw success rates jump from 65% to 90%. Additionally, students demonstrated mastery of the material at a much faster rate than by traditional methods. By emphasizing a multidisciplinary approach, a tailored associate’s degree can help soldiers develop vital skills in critical thinking, communication, and collaboration while offering exposure to foreign cultures, political and economic trends, and technology and systems thinking. Solving complex problems requires less doctrine and more experimentation and adaptation. A degree that provides knowledge and techniques from various disciplines will become a solid foundation for dealing with unpredictable situations of the type we increasingly see our soldiers confronting.
Nice idea, but how do we pay for it?
The military services already offer generous educational benefits for its members, including tuition assistance and the G.I. Bill, which will pay for college after service in the military. If we accept that the benefits of a college education are increasingly vital to soldiers, then we must shift the focus and financial resources of existing programs from being merely a recruitment tool that rewards service, to being a requirement that empowers our soldiers and capitalizes on our investment while the soldier is in the Army. Initial efforts would focus on providing soldiers an associate’s degree prior to their entering the active duty force, and perhaps reserving a portion of their educational benefits for the completion of a bachelor’s degree later in their career.
While the nation debates the future of the Army, students are confronting increasing educational debt and numerous experts are calling for some form of national service. Giving incoming soldiers a college education not only bolsters their ability to succeed on the battlefields of tomorrow, it offers a way for young Americans to get an education and serve their nation without incurring a potentially crippling financial burden.
America’s higher educational system has always been one of our nation’s “secret weapons.” It’s time to put that weapon directly in the hands of our soldiers.
Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University. John Paul Parker is a fellow in the office of the Chief of Staff of the Army. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army.