February 19, 2019

The Strategic Corporal: Send Non-Commissioned Officers to College

By Andrea N. Goldstein and John Phillips

Why is there not a path to a bachelor’s degree through full-time civilian education for enlisted service members who do not wish to commission afterward? The American population as a whole is more educated than it has ever been. According to the U.S. Census bureau, in the last two decades alone, the number of Americans attaining a bachelor’s degree has increased from 16 percent to over 30 percent of the population. The conventional wisdom in the military that “commissioned officers need bachelor’s degrees, and enlisted service-members don’t” is obsolete.

While the majority of officers have a bachelor’s degree (over 80 percent – 100 percent if warrant officers are excluded), and only 7 percent of enlisted service members have a degree, education is one of most significant motivations for Americans to join the armed forces. There are numerous opportunities to earn college credits while serving, whether through using tuition assistance or taking CLEP exams for free. A recent RAND survey found that over 40 percent of enlisted soldiers had completed some college. With earning college credits as a metric for advancement, there is a strong motivation for enlisted service members to continue their education beyond their occupational specialty.

Civilian education is evidently valued for the officer corps. Across the branches of the military, there are over a dozen programs supporting civilian higher education to develop the commissioned officer corps. Programs like the Navy’s Fleet Scholars Education Program (FSEP) and the Army’s Graduate School for Active Duty Service Obligation (GRADSO) programs give officers a means of obtaining a fully funded master’s degree at a civilian institution, while simultaneously earning a full-time salary and time toward retirement. Green to Gold, Seaman-to-Admiral-21, and Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP) all result in a commission for enlisted non-commissioned officers.

Historically, a bachelor’s degree was not seen as necessary for enlisted service members because they are considered technical experts and their military occupational specialty schools train them in all they need to know, whether it is learning a language at the Defense Language Institute or how to be an aircraft mechanic. Furthermore, fewer Americans had, or needed, a bachelor’s degree to advance their careers inside or outside the military.

Many enlisted service members leave active duty in order to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher and choose to remain in the reserves, only to find themselves overqualified and strategically underused.

This is no longer the case, and an increasing number of enlisted career fields are highly technical or require extensive critical thinking. Many of these fields struggle to retain personnel, many of whom, seeking higher pay and better quality of life, either choose a commissioning path or leave the military for private industry. For example, unmanned aircraft operators, trained by the military, can find work with private military contractors doing roughly the same job for two or three times the salary. This leads to a cycle of DOD dependency on private contractors – many of whom are often former enlisted veterans – to fulfill critical mission requirements and gives rise to a host of sticky legal and policy questions, such as the distinction of civilians from combatants in combat zones.

Degree-granting programs for enlisted personnel can be divided into two major categories: those that require the individual to become an officer and those that do not. As one may imagine, the former category is far more prolific, accessible, and even prestigious. The enlisted-to-officer programs are highly sought after by young service members and are used to keep top talent in the service who otherwise might choose to leave and devote their talents elsewhere. The category of programs that enable enlisted personnel to earn their degrees have prohibitive requirements, are limited in their advertisement, and are generally few and far between.

This distinction gets to the root of the problem. Critics would say that education for enlisted personnel is an unworthy investment. Education is the purview of officers, hence the vast majority of enlisted personnel selected to participate in an education program must become officers. Brain drain from the enlisted to the officer community leads to structural problems at several levels, including the ongoing sense that education – and the skills and expertise gained from it – belong exclusively in the officer corps. Critics might see enlisted education as a luxury or a privilege, to be pursued only in the enlisted service member’s “free time,” and more or less irrelevant in terms of promotion, which reduces incentives to pursue it. This sentiment is expressed by both officers and senior non-commissioned officers alike.

Many military specialties are “lateral move only,” meaning that members of that specialty must have already served successfully in another field. In the Marine Corps, enlisted counterintelligence (0211), special forces (0372), and civil affairs (0531/0532) Marines are exclusively lateral moves, as are comparable fields or subfields in other branches of service. These fields require critical thinkers to engage intellectually with complex environments. If the only programs available to them to earn a degree requires them to commission, they will be removed from their specialty as officers. This creates an impossible choice: either pursue your education and be removed from your occupational field, or abstain from education and be limited in your occupational field. Either way, the military fails to maximize its human potential and enlisted service members are deprived of the opportunity to go to school and continue in their specialty. Furthermore, many enlisted service members leave active duty in order to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher and choose to remain in the reserves, only to find themselves overqualified and strategically underused.

In order to close this gap, the service branches should create bachelor degree completion programs that enable high-performing, high-potential non-commissioned officers to complete their bachelor’s degree at top civilian institutions of higher education – such as institutions that belong to Service to School's VetLink Program, a consortium including flagship public universities, highly-regarded liberal arts colleges, and Ivy League universities. Similar to graduate education programs that allow officers to earn advanced degrees, participants would spend up to two calendar years (two academic years and a summer) at these schools and return to the regular force (incurring a 2-to-1 service obligation) after completion.

In order to participate, enlisted service members should be at least in their second enlistment, ranked E-5 to E-7, and have earned an eligible associate’s degree. During the summer between academic years, the service member could complete an internship or take additional classes. Upon graduation, they would return to the fleet. Because this program would be paid for by DoD and conserve GI Bill benefits, participants would incur an additional service obligation of twice the time spent in school, be prohibited from commissioning for a period of two years, and earn additional points toward advancement.

As part of the intent of the program is to retain enlisted talent, a special pay should be developed for graduates of this program. While some may not consider this fair, there are plenty of examples of service members receiving special pays for advanced qualifications or special assignments. The Cyber Excepted Service program serves an example of a special pay program created to retain exceptional talent who might be lost otherwise to commissioning or the private sector. If a pay bump is not a viable option, the program could also provide a pipeline to non-traditional special assignments, such as enlisted military attachés assigned to embassies. In addition, the program could be categorized as a special duty assignment that fast-tracks servicemembers to promotion, in the same way that serving as a recruiter or drill instructor does.

Ultimately, the programs and assignments that the U.S. military provides to enlisted servicemembers reflect how the organization thinks about them.

Currently, there are only two known programs for enlisted service members to take a dedicated leave of absence from their specialty to pursue civilian higher education and remain enlisted. The National Intelligence University allows intelligence specialists to spend one year at NIU to earn a Bachelor of Science in Intelligence, assuming they already have completed three years of undergraduate study independently. The program is available for both active and reserve personnel and gives them an opportunity to enhance their professional skills while completing a degree. One of the greatest aspects of the program is that all services and civilian intelligence agencies can send their personnel to the program. This strength is also a severe limitation, however, as the intelligence community learns in isolation. While this enables students to dive deeper into complexities of intelligence as a discipline, it also limits students’ exposure to other ideas that would be found on a standard civilian campus, not least of all the intellectual challenge of learning in an environment with those from outside the national security sector.

Additionally, the only dedicated program for enlisted Marines to earn their bachelor’s degree and remain enlisted is the Staff NCO Degree Completion Program (SNCO-DCP). An SNCO can apply to earn a degree that relates to their specialty and next assignment. Previous college credits are seen as valuable in the application, but not required. But while this program structure is worthy of emulation and expansion, in practice it is very limited. The SNCO-DCP is highly restrictive in the fields of study available and selection for the program is contingent on the Marine filling a particular billet deemed to require that education. In FY2018, for instance, only five fields of study were available: psychology, accounting, education, paralegal, and music. Within these fields, only 21 billets were available. At most, therefore, only 21 Marines would be sent to earn their degrees.

The fact that so few programs exist for enlisted personnel to pursue their education is telling. That the only way for enlisted personnel to earn college credits is on one’s own time; officers, by contrast, have a wealth of programs available to earn advanced degrees while earning their salary and time-in-service. Some officers manage to earn multiple advanced degrees, even up to a PhD, on the military’s dime, as they should. But intellect and critical thinking are valuable at every rank.

While it is widely understood that commissioned officers are strategic thinkers, non-commissioned officers must also think critically. The cornerstone of NCO leadership is initiative: in the absence of orders, take initiative.” Doctrinally, this idea was best described by Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, Commandant of the Marine Corps, as the “Strategic Corporal.” A strategic corporal, armed with the commander’s intent, can read the terrain in light of the commander’s objective and make rapid decisions about how to proceed that, in most cases, would be the same decision as the commander. In order to become a strategic corporal, enlisted service members must have the opportunity to learn how to think independently, creatively, and critically.

Recently, the idea of enlisted personnel as strategic thinkers has been further developed. In his article calling for the military to unleash the potential of its junior enlisted, Jon Gillis writes that his infantry squad became far more effective – and cohesive – when they were trained and treated as “thinking shooters.” The diversity of experience and expertise within his team led them to think critically about their strategic challenges, identify creative solutions, and innovate. Their proposal to add unmanned aircraft to the Marine Corps infantry squad caught the eye of the Commandant of the Marine Corps and has now been implemented in Marine Corps doctrine. The impetus for this Corps-wide change was a sergeant and his team of creative junior enlisted. Clearly, the merits of an idea are not predicated on the rank of the person from which that idea originates. Unsurprisingly, Gillis came to the Marine Corps infantry with a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University.

Beyond creativity and innovation, the need for strategic, intellectual enlisted personnel can also be found in the National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS specifically notes that professional military education “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” It goes on to emphasize the need for “intellectual leadership and military professionalism” and that PME is a “strategic asset to build trust and interoperability” across the joint force and with partner forces. Interoperability must be achieved by enlisted personnel, as well as officers.

Moreover, while the emphasis of the U.S. National Security Strategy has shifted to great power competition with China and Russia, the need to engage on the low end of the conflict spectrum – in stability operations, gray zone warfare, counter-terrorism, and various civil-military operations – is ongoing. In complex environments like these, information quality matters. As such, the enlisted personnel at the lowest levels must be able to send high quality information up the chain of command to facilitate the best possible decisionmaking. Educated NCOs, armed with the analytical and critical thinking skills, can provide more detailed, nuanced, and valuable information to their commanders, thereby hastening the operational decisionmaking process.

Furthermore, one of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military is that it is highly effective at decentralization of command and small-unit initiative. Many other state militaries still maintain rigid hierarchies of decisionmaking authority, largely due to a cultural disdain for enlisted ranks.The People’s Liberation Army of China, for instance, is only very recently professionalizing its NCO corps and transforming its culture to see its NCOs as more capable than “simply soldiers." Within NATO, the development of members’ and partner nations’ non-commissioned officer corps is viewed as a highly strategic, high priority initiative. In December 2018, NATO leadership addressed this opportunity with the chief of defense of Montenegro, the newest nation to join the alliance. NATO representatives have also conducted extensive training exercises to develop Ukraine’s non-commissioned officer corps, an initiative that NATO views as mission-essential to interoperability with the alliance and overall professionalization of that nation’s military.

Ultimately, the programs and assignments that the U.S. military provides to enlisted servicemembers reflect how the organization thinks about them. The most prestigious assignments in the Marine Corps, those that produce future sergeants major, have always been the “B Billet,” of recruiter, drill instructor, or Marine embassy security guard – with some similarity in other branches of service. But if these assignments reflect what is valued most in NCOs, this is not much of a compliment. These jobs are necessary and extremely important, but they do not require any education and do not produce new ways of thinking. These assignments build phenomenal experience and proficiency in various skills, but they do not prepare NCOs to think strategically or analyze critically – something they absolutely will have to do as they return to operational assignments and rise to command or force leadership positions.

Taking two years to attend a civilian undergraduate institution would not only give active duty program participants time for deep reflection on their service, but it would also be an opportunity to bridge the (very real) civilian-military divide. Civilian institutions of higher education are the best place to do this. University campuses are excellent conveners of students and faculty from all walks of life, and they are also environments where thinking critically and having one’s worldview challenged is very much part of the point. Traditional college students studying side-by-side with active duty enlisted service members may improve their perception of the U.S. military and could be considered a recruiting tool.

This proposal is an opportunity for the services to value their enlisted personnel for their skills and subject matter expertise, as well as to cultivate that expertise. It recognizes the fact that enlisted thinkers are crucial to mission success and that the services are willing to work to develop strategic enlisted thinkers. Moreover, it enables the services to begin working toward stronger, more capable enlisted-commissioned teams that work together to tackle the complex problems of 21st-century warfighting.

Andrea N. Goldstein is the Chief Executive Officer of Service to School and a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Fletcher School. She is a Pat Tillman Scholar and Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Follow her on twitter at @AN_Goldstein

John Phillips is a career U.S. Marine who currently serves in the civil-military operations planning cell of III MEF as a reservist. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School, a Luce Scholar, and a Presidential Management Fellowship selectee. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The authors would like to thank the following military-affiliated students and alumni from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who shared their perspective on civilian education programs: Karst Brandsma, Jeremy Gwinn, Pete Maki, James Micciche, Raffi Mnatzakanian, and Ben Stumpf.

Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

  1. Aaron Jensen, “Leadership and Specialization in the PLA NCO Corps - Some Recent Developments” (2018 Conference on China Military Modernization, Republic of China (Taiwan): National Defense University, Graduate Institute of China Military Affairs, 2018), 23–24.
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