Navy puts more money toward higher ed, sailors will need to use it to get promoted

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Just a few months after it created the new position of chief learning officer, the Navy said it’s backing up its commitment to a more cohesive education system with more money: $300 million in new funding will be part of next year’s budget proposal.

And the Navy expects sailors to take advantage of it, because education is about to become a bigger factor in whether or not they get promoted.

The changes are some of the initial movements the Navy Department is making in response to the Education for Seapower study it released almost a year ago. That review found that although the Navy and Marine Corps have some excellent educational institutions, they lack a strategic direction to tie them together, and the services’ policies and budgets tend to undervalue the role education will play in future warfighting.

Besides appointing a chief learning officer and similar new roles on the Navy and Marine Corps’ uniformed staff, the Navy Department responded to the finding with an initial round of budget reprogramming, redirecting $100 million in the 2020 budget toward education.

But John Kroger, the new CLO, said the reforms are not just about additional funding; they’re also about reorienting the way the Navy spends its education dollars.

Education revolution

Traditionally, the Navy has focused those resources toward programs that turn sailors into full-time students for year-long stretches. And considering recent “revolutions” in education methodologies, there are better ways of doing things, he said Friday at a forum hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

“One of the very revealing conversations I’ve had was with the head of naval aviation. I think in the past a conversation about education and aviators would look something like this: ‘I need to send 10% of your pilots to a year of graduate school.’ And the head of aviation would say, ‘I can’t spare the pilots. It’s too expensive to produce them, I need them deployed, and if they spend a year away from the cockpit, their skills degrade.’ But when I met with the air boss, that’s not the conversation we had,” Kroger said. “Because I don’t need his folks to go to a year of in-residence, graduate education. I’ll take your F-35 pilots and send them to executive programs for three days a month at Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, the Naval Postgraduate School. They’ll get the education they need and we will maintain their operational tempo. That’s the revolution in education we’re seeing.”

Some of the funding also will go toward establishing the already-announced Naval Community College. The Navy hopes to use that new institution to both offer classes to its enlisted workforce and also grant them college credit for training courses they already must complete as part of their jobs.

“Trying to educate 40-or-50,000 students a year on a brick and mortar scale is cost prohibitive. But the revolution in online education makes that possible,” Kroger said. “Ten years ago, the quality wasn’t that great because we were figuring this stuff out, but it’s outstanding now. And reality is pushing us in this direction. If we do not take our intellectual capital more seriously, we will not be the world’s greatest Navy and Marine Corps. We have to be able to out-think our opponents if we’re going to out-fight them. I believe that profoundly.”

First need to reform personnel system

But Navy leaders say they won’t see the long-term reprioritization of education they’re aiming for unless the Navy’s personnel system also reflects those priorities.

Details are still to come, but officials say they intend to make educational attainment a bigger factor in which officers the Navy decides to promote. Another new factor will be how strongly those officers promoted education amongst the sailors they lead.

“If the process that we use to promote officers and advance them in their careers rewards education in the formal process and how we evaluate them, it’ll be valued across the service,” said Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary. “There’s a piece of this that you can impose from the top, but it’s just like any broad change initiative in any company. It has to be embraced by the people who are the really the up and comers, the ones that are going to be the leaders of the future force. And to the extent that they push on their leadership and demonstrate that they want this and it’s important for them, then the momentum just continues. So our job is to get this started.”

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But Kroger said in the few months he’s been on the job, it’s already become clear to him that sailors and Marines are hungry for more education. And he says at least some of the Navy Department’s functional leaders also see it as an imperative for the segments of the force they rely on. The Marine Corps, for example, has already volunteered parts of its cyber and IT workforce to make up the initial cohort of students at the Naval Community College.

“There is a clear, immediate need, and I see that in the department every day,” he said. “I also see people desperately wanting more sophisticated financial management and a brand new logistics curriculum in order to meet the kinds of standards that in industry are normal, but that we don’t sustain every day. IT is another great example where we just don’t have the capabilities we need to maintain and deliver a constantly upgraded world-class network. So I think the reality of the sheer demands that we have will drive this.”

But Modly said institutionalizing the importance of education across the Navy is a long-term fight.

Even from his position atop the Navy secretariat, it has been a constant challenge to get the DON’s budget planning and programming process aligned behind the effort,” he said.

He added, “I’ve been saying this for two years: ‘Fully fund education, fully fund education.’ When the [budget proposal] comes through and I ask if we’ve fully funded education, I hear, ‘Oh yeah, we’re all good.’ But then, when I out and talk to the institutions, they’re funded at 70% or something like that. So we’ve been very proactive this year, both in the fiscal [2021] build as well as looking forward to [2022] and beyond. And I’ve made it very, very clear to them that we’re going to reprogram all that money to fully fund the needs that can be executed this year.”