The importance of education for service members

To degree or not to degree? This is a big question facing enlisted service members today. Even junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers face the question of whether or not to pursue advanced degrees. The easy answer of course, is “yes!’, but that really does not answer the underlying questions of why or where to start.

For much of the time this nation has had an organized military, there were only two requirements: be able bodied and available. If you had an education you could be an officer, but if you were enlisted you really did not need to become educated.

Photo of a smiling soldierFast forward to the present and the attitude toward education has changed. Education for enlisted members, especially career-minded service members, is now encouraged, if not required. The same holds true for junior officers seeking promotion. Anything much above O-3, or Captain, now mostly requires a master’s degree.

So, what happened? Several things: as the military has become more technology based and more complex, it naturally follows that the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have to be able to adjust to the increasing complexity. Combat operations have changed as well, and small units operating independently are more common than large maneuver units acting in synch on the battlefield. The net effect of all this is that tasks that were once assigned only to O-4’s and O-5’s, Major and Lieutenant Colonel, are now being handled by O-2’s and E-7’s, First Lieutenant and Sergeant First Class.

The only way this works is with critical thinking skills. Almost all military training is designed to teach you how to react in a given situation (think battle drills): in other words, a practiced response to a known set of circumstances. That is the necessity and value of training: quick decisive action. That’s a good thing. But what happens when the situation isn’t found in the manuals or wasn’t covered in training? It is then time for critical thinking to take over. That is where the importance of education comes in. The two combined work as follows: train for the known, educate for the unknown.

Critical thinking is not something you take one course on and consider it learned. Like the skills service members’ hone daily, critical thinking must continually be honed and practiced as well. This leads to the big answer to the “Why?’ question. Lifelong learning promotes these skills. The best place to obtain and practice these skills—college.

This all explains why promotions, advancements, and even some assignments now have an education element to them, if not an outright requirement. If you want to get promoted, you are going to need college, sooner rather than later.

However, promotions are not the only reason you should think about getting a degree or an advanced degree. There is also life after the service. Think about this, if you joined the military at 22 years old and served your 20, or even 25 years, you would only be 42-47 years old upon retirement. Most retired service members still need 20+ years of employment, if only to keep busy. According to U.S. News and World Report, a degree or advanced degree means an over $12,000 more per year starting pay difference. Unemployment rates are also lower among degree holders.

OK, you’re sold, but there are so many choices, where do you start? Look for a college, such as Post University, with these characteristics: 1. Regionally Accredited. 2. Military Friendly 3. DOD MOU signatory 4. Offer degrees that will benefit you after you leave the service. You can add other requirements, but these are the big four. Once you decide that this path is right for you, stick to it and finish the degree or advanced degree:  those 20+ years pass before you know it.

Charles Young is the Director of Military Programs at Post University. Young retired from the military in 2007 after 22 years of active federal service. Young holds a B.S. in Management from the University of Maryland University College and an MBA in Corporate Innovation from the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University.  Young is also a mentor in the MBA program at Post.  

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