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Don't get left behind: Sailors without college degrees may struggle to stay competitive

March 19, 2017 (Photo Credit: MC2 Cory Rose/U.S. Navy)
Soaring levels of education among today’s deckplates is revolutionizing Navy culture and career paths as sailors look for any edge to set themselves apart from the pack.

It’s a sweeping change that is blurring the once-rigid lines between officer and enlisted sailors and forcing the Navy to rethink the way the service pays, promotes and retains its career force.

The shift over the past several years is staggering. The number of enlisted sailors with college degrees has increased fivefold, from about 11,000 in 2011 to 60,000 in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Navy data shows.

Today roughly one in four enlisted sailors has earned either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, and many are working toward a master’s degree.

The reason for the increase is simple — it’s helping them stay ahead of the pack and improve their career prospects. And word is spreading through the force like fire through dry grass.

It’s already having a big impact on who advances in the critical mid-career paygrades of E-4 through E-6.  Advancement rates among sailors rising to E-4 through E-6 with degrees has been over 31 percent, far higher than the rate of 23 percent among those without degrees, according to a Navy Times analysis of data obtained from the Navy Advancement Center.

Culturally, the rising levels of education among rank and file sailors is bringing down the walls between the deck plates, the chief's mess and the wardroom — barriers that were set in stone for decades and reflected the Navy's rigid caste system. 

"It’s doing a lot to end the old caste system we’ve been used to for years and which was once very strong in our Navy, even as late as the 1970’s and 1980’s," said a former high-level Navy master chief.

"It's a pretty dynamic shift in the culture because you are now finding command's chief’s messes these days that are almost just as educated as their wardrooms,” the recently retired master chief said.

"You have to be more worried about having leadership that can keep up with the change and stay ahead of our sailors and continue to find new ways to challenge them."

The deciding factor

Navy-wide, there's no official requirement for enlisted sailors to have a degree to advance.

Nevertheless, having a sheepskin is becoming a de facto requirement for sailors seeking the ultimate edge in moving up in the ranks in the Navy of the future. 

Officially, the change was set in motion in 2008 when the Navy began granting advancement points to those seeking to make E-4 through E-6. The Navy currently gives sailors with associates degrees two advancement points added on to their final score at advancement time. Those with a bachelor’s degree get four additional points.

Many sailors earn advancement by a hefty margin. However, there are some sailors who barely make the cut and the extra degree-related points were the deciding factor for about 25 percent of sailors who have degrees and successfully moved up in recent years, Navy data shows.

It’s more than just the points. Some Navy officials believe other more intangible factors are driving the trend. Sailors who take college classes and earn degrees develop better study skills and can prepare more successfully for Navy advancement tests.

"The points are valuable and I'm sure it's what many sailors look at, but it goes deeper than that," said Command Master Chief (SW/AW) William Houlihan, top enlisted sailor at Naval Station, Mayport.

"A sailor who has worked toward their degree while on active duty has accomplished something — proven something to themselves — it boosts their confidence and you can see it on the deckplates."

Some Navy officials are reluctant to draw direct connections between degrees and promotions. They know sailors with degrees are advancing better than their shipmates without them, but can't point to a definite reason beyond the extra points adding to their total scores.



"Statistically, we can tell you that there are a larger number," said Tom Updike, the enlisted advancement execution head at the Naval Education and Training Professional Development Center which oversees the Navy's advancement exam cycles.   

"But as for what is making these people advance at a higher rate than those who don’t have degrees, we’re really not in a position to make any conclusions. There would have to be a deeper analysis done." 

But regardless of the reason, the numbers are climbing -- fast. In just two years, the Navy saw a 40 percent spike in the number of sailors getting degrees. In 2016, the Navy documented 9,606 sailors getting some kind of degree, up about 2,800 from the 6,805 sailors who reported new degrees in fiscal year 2014, Navy data shows.

And it’s not just degrees. Sailors also getting educational or vocational certificates at record rates, too.  

Blurring the lines

Throughout Navy history, college degrees were the domain of the officer corps alone — for most, they were required to even get a commission.

In the past, most enlisted sailors who spent their off-duty time studying and taking college classes did so with the goal of earning a regular commission.

Not anymore. These days, more sailors are getting degrees to advance in their current career path and to become competitive as they move up in rank. There are a handful of sailors in today’s Navy who have doctoral degrees, yet remain in the enlisted ranks.

Retaining those sailors will be a challenge for the Navy, especially in career fields with lucrative options in the private sector. That’s why the Navy has been looking at policies that would allow for fast-tracking advancement for the most talented sailors.

The Navy is also revamping its rules for reenlistment bonuses to better meet the needs of high-preforming sailors.  

Financially, as the Navy targets’ some enlisted career fields for more reenlistment bonuses, the pay gap  between officers and enlisted will shrink.

Culturally, the increasingly educated workforce is upending some traditional top-down management styles – a change that many senior enlisted leaders believe is a good thing for the Navy today and in the future. 

"An educated force is a more confident force," Houlihan said. "I want a sailor who will engage me, challenge me when the time is right -- If the mess is intimidated by that, then we'd better catch up, fast."

The shrinking gap between officers and enlisted is partly a result of the education opportunities afforded to today’s troops. Today’s military overall offers more robust Tuition Assistance benefits than in the past, when service members had to pay a significant portion of their school bills with out-of-pocket cash. Today’s G.I. Bill also offers generous education benefits.



"I often feel that the difference between a junior officer and a junior enlisted sailor has nothing to do with how smart they are, or whether they have the propensity or desire to learn. It's having the ability to attend a four-year school on their own, while the enlisted sailor is often looking to the Navy for that opportunity," said Bill Hatch, a retired Navy commander who now teaches manpower policies at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

What has Hatch worried is that the enlisted’s best and brightest might be leaving the enlisted ranks for the wardroom.

"I've always worried about this -- when I came to NPS in 1998, I would query my students in the manpower curriculum and about 25 percent said they were prior enlisted," he said. "Today when I query my students, it's 50 percent at a minimum."

“So the question is: What does that mean for leadership in the senior enlisted ranks as we continue to strip out these folks who get bachelor's degrees and leave the force? That's something that needs to be considered, too."

Chiefs’ advancement

The dynamics are also changing for those seeking to advance up in the chief's ranks. 

The benefits at the chiefs’ level is harder to quantify. There is no official point system for those evaluations, and board deliberations are kept secret to preserve impartiality.

Yet many who have served on selection boards say that having a degree – or not – can be a tie-breaker when it comes to making chief – or higher.

The marching orders for those selection boards – known as precepts – for the 2018 chief petty officer selection board doesn’t specifically tell board members to consider whether sailors have degrees. But it’s clear from the precept document that education is on equal ground with other factors.

“The Navy's ability to meet this leadership challenge depends, in part, on having leaders for, and from, our entire Navy who reflect our very best, including performance, background, professional experience, education, and the spectrum of professional communities. These are factors for you to consider in selecting candidates who are best and fully qualified for advancement,” according to the official board instructions.

The former senior enlisted sailor said he’s seen it happen.

"What this means is that, all things being equal between two eligible first-class petty officers, having a degree could become the tie-breaker for the board in determining who gets their anchors and who must compete again next year," he said.

But don't forget your job

But what the Navy needs to be careful of, he added, is making it mandatory for enlisted sailors to earn degrees at any level. It's a path the Navy went down in 2005 when the service announced that by 2009, all E-7s must possess a minimum of an associate's degree to even compete for advancement to E-8.

"The frustrating thing was when we went to that mandatory piece, it was a huge distraction for the [chief's] mess," he said. "You had chiefs focusing on that requirement versus focusing on their job."

Sailors working toward degrees must be able to balance it with what the Navy is asking of them on a daily basis.  

"I’m a firm believer of doing it, but start as early in your career as possible and take your time," he said. "Take a class here and there, but don’t try to cram five classes into a semester — even if you are on shore duty — because if you are, you probably aren’t doing your job."
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