Pursuing civilian education in conjunction with military service can be a daunting task and can deter service members from furthering their education. Fortunately, the Army’s branches offer professional development programs that allow service members to pursue degrees, certifications and training. These programs are exemplary opportunities that afford service members the time and availability to better themselves.
“The [professional development program] is dedicated time set aside during an officer’s career that allows him or her to focus upon completing higher level educational degree requirements without competing operational demands,” according to a 2019 Engineer Captains Career Course introduction letter.
The Army could serve more service members seeking to further their educations by implementing professional development programs (PDPs) as incentives for high performance as part of professional military education (PME) courses such as the Captains Career Course, Advanced Leaders Course and Senior Leaders Course. PME courses are milestones for service members, both enlisted and commissioned, that teach the knowledge and skills necessary for the service member’s next key development position.
Pursuing a Master’s
There are two unique PDPs that reward high performance as part of PME with an opportunity to pursue a master’s degree: the Engineer Captains Career Course and the Maneuver Captains Career Course.
The Engineer Captains Career Course offers junior captains an opportunity following graduation to pursue a master’s degree. Students are allowed to take six months to focus on their selected degree program without the added workload of the day-to-day business of being an officer. The cooperative degree program is run through the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Upon meeting the prerequisites of obtaining a minimum of 80% on the General Engineering Exam and graduating from the Engineer Captains Career Course, those officers are eligible to participate.
A similar program is available to those who attend the Maneuver Captains Career Course. Graduates of this course are given the opportunity to attend Columbus State University in Georgia and pursue a master’s degree in organizational management.
These programs could serve as a template to incorporate similar opportunities for other PME courses.
The military has done well in marketing itself as a means of paying for higher education. Between tuition assistance, the GI Bill and student loan repayment, military service becomes enticing.
No Easy Task
But what happens when a service member wishes to continue military service while earning a higher education degree? Completing a degree program while working full time is no easy task, even more so when introducing operational demands of field training exercises, combat training center rotations and deployments. PDPs have the solution to this problem for officers and enlisted alike.
Allotting service members dedicated time to furthering their education comes as a huge benefit not only to the service members, but also to the military organization as a whole. A PDP could easily be implemented to all branches’ captains career courses.
The more challenging aspect would be how the military affords this opportunity to its enlisted ranks.
“The recommendation is that you have an associate’s degree by the time you’re a staff sergeant or sergeant first class and a bachelor’s degree by the time you’re a first sergeant,” Lt. Col. John Argue, of the Army’s Directorate of Training and Doctrine’s Training Development Division, said in 2014 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
With this recommendation, there needs to be a catalyst that enables service members to obtain these degrees. A program that follows enlisted PME courses, which gives adequate time for service members to obtain these degrees, could be the answer. Similar to the Engineer and Maneuver Captains Career courses’ PDPs, enlisted personnel graduating from the Basic Leaders Course or Advanced Leaders Course could be given the opportunity to obtain their associate’s degree, provided they meet established prerequisites. Likewise, graduates of the Senior Leaders Course could have the opportunity to obtain their bachelor’s degree should they choose to participate.
Military education and service alone provides service members with applicable knowledge that can be translated into college credits. With three years of enlisted service in the U.S. Army Reserve, I received 12 credit hours for Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training. The education and skills already required and taught by the military can serve a larger purpose of assisting service members to obtain that next level of education. However, there are still hurdles that must be overcome to emplace PDPs.
The PDPs that have been established for the Engineer Captains Career Course and Maneuver Captains Career Course have the benefit of having accredited universities close to their geographic locations. This may not be the instance for some installations. For example, the closest accredited four-year college to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is Oklahoma University in Norman, 84 miles away. This makes the commute to classes taxing on service members.
What this past year has shown is the ability to pair online courses with in-person instruction. This would eliminate the need for service members to travel long distances to colleges and universities to complete their desired degrees.
Another issue arises when PDPs look at what translates from military service to institutional knowledge. In other words, what skills are service members learning that could also give them credit toward a degree?
MOSs with a higher degree of technical skill, such as engineer or signal, will have a more applicable skill set that can be translated into college credits. MOSs with more militaristic skill sets, like infantry and armor, are more difficult to find that translation. However, leadership and management are skills every Army leader needs to be proficient in. These can easily be translated to degrees in business management and project management, for example.
The last conflict to address is finding a manner in which to screen qualified candidates for programs like PDPs. As noted above, engineer captains are required to score an 80% on the General Engineering Exam to qualify. Utilizing exams that are already a part of the career courses can serve as a viable entrance requirement, or using civilian examinations could serve as the answer to this issue.
In 2019, it became a requirement for all captains attending their respective career course to take the GRE graduate school entry exam. This test is mandatory when applying through the Army’s Advanced Civil Schooling program. The results from these tests, and undergraduate equivalents such as the ACT and SAT, could serve as the screening criteria for PDPs.
With continued focus on professional development within the military, there are no obstacles that can’t be overcome to assist soldiers in bettering themselves and advancing their education.
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Capt. Jacob Hedrick is a student in the Army’s Engineer Captains Career Course, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Previously, he served with the 1st Infantry Division, including duty as a liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 2011 and was commissioned into active duty via ROTC in 2016.