Reforming USAF Tuition Assistance

Lakenheath Mud PigThe recent decision by the Air Force to discontinue Tuition Assistance (TA) funding under heavy budget pressure drew equally heavy criticism from many.  This is unsurprising given the short notice and hurried nature of an announcement that impacted the education plans of an estimated 73,000 airmen.  Even with Congress ordering the service on March 21st to reinstate the program, key decisions loom concerning how it will be implemented in the future, sending ripples of uncertainty through communities responsible for recruitment, retention, and development policy.

The Air Force’s initial statements concerning the future of TA show an intent to scale back the level of benefit provided to each individual, a reasonable and arguably necessary adjustment considering the program has exceeded its budget for the past ten years, according to a recent statement by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.  But given the severity of the current budget shortfall and the inevitability of additional pressure in the near future, this simplistic approach may not be enough to make the program sustainable into the future.  It would also bypass an important opportunity to reform officer voluntary education and potentially free up millions of dollars for use by enlisted airmen who might otherwise be frozen out by future shortfalls.  Making the most of this opportunity requires weaning the officer corps from a peculiar development culture that has grown entrenched over time, largely as a result of the assumption of perpetually unlimited TA funding.  With that assumption now invalidated, the moment is right for substantive reform, but it will require more than a single-aspect, linear solution.  That’s because the problem is complicated.

Continuing education has been a thorny issue within the Air Force officer corps for years.  While individual officers cherish the availability of funded coursework as a means of self-improvement, many have grown to resent what is half-jokingly referred to as “forced development” and questioned just how “voluntary” their use of TA can be when failure to utilize it typically produces career jeopardy.  While the Air Force has not established a formal requirement for an Advanced Academic Degree (AAD) for officer promotion (aside from a select few specialties), review and advancement board processes are structured in ways that make the failure to complete an AAD a negative discriminator.  This has created a de facto requirement to complete a graduate degree for retention and promotion beyond the rank of Captain, making self-development often a product of systemic coercion rather than intrinsic motivation.

Frustrating to officers and commanders alike is the unwritten nature of the requirement, which generates confusion for individuals and leaves commanders on unsure footing when mentoring and advising subordinates.  Rather than an explicit requirement for an AAD by a specified career milepost — which would create two-way commitment and a predicate for resources — the service has opted to let market forces steer organizational behavior.  By providing full tuition coverage under a large annual cap and allowing degree completion to appear in an officer’s record — where it is visible to promotion and screening boards — the Air Force has structured incentives strongly in favor pursuing an AAD.  This has driven officers who have the time, inclination, and access to desired academic programs to energetically pursue degrees, with completion giving them a large competitive advantage over peers for promotion and retention. This has in turn forced those without the time, inclination, or access to do the same in order to remain competitive.  This leaves many trying to wedge degree work into a full calendar, pursuing a degree they really don’t want, or settling for the pursuit of what is available … because they’ve determined that not doing so is a high-stakes gamble that could end in career catastrophe.  This competitive spiral has tightened as board processes that thrive on easy discriminators to help them differentiate between officers with largely analogous performance records have come to rely more and more on AAD completion as a heavily weighted criterion.  Between 2004 and 2009, 718 of 956 officers non-selected for promotion to Major (75.1%) did not possess an AAD.  Over that same period, officers with an AAD stood a 96.1% chance of being promoted by those same boards.

As Reduction-In-Force (RIF) and promotion boards have eliminated or halted the careers of otherwise strong officers who didn’t have a graduate degree, a chilling effect has swept across the supervisory element, compelling commanders to encourage their young officers to get a graduate degree done early.  In other words, squadron leaders have been co-opted by a warped system, causing them to re-engineer the focus of their young officers — not for the sake of development, but for the sake of enhancing odds of career survival in an up-or-out system. This culture is in conflict with the aspiration for officers to spend their first several years focusing intently on technical superiority, airpower application, and hands-on leadership and management … activities central to their professional development.

At the same time, rules preventing boards from seeing where a degree was earned or in what concentration have reinforced the idea that “checking the box” is more important than the qualitative aspects of development. The result: many officers clicking their way through degree programs that often have little developmental value, but represent the quickest and most efficient way to document self-development.

Putting aside the costs of these systemic deficiencies in terms of focus and prioritization amid the most demanding warfighting circumstances of the modern age, it’s unclear whether taxpayers are receiving enough benefit to justify costs.  There is little evidence to suggest that brute force AAD completion — often exclusively online and without sufficient time to truly immerse in the material — is creating better officers.  In fact, it can be argued that by letting the open education market carry so much of the weight in developing its young professionals, the institution is missing out on a chance to more deliberately shepherd their growth.  More study would be required to validate or discard such a proposition.

What is more certain is that budget pressure will further intensify. Preserving the opportunity for enlisted members to pursue off-duty education — something with value largely beyond debate — looks increasingly dependent on finding savings elsewhere.  Restoration of a useful value chain on the officer side of the house would be a great place to start.  While not all inclusive, the following prescriptions, taken as a whole, could do much to improve the current system.

1. Tie TA Eligibility to Squadron Officer School (SOS) Graduation.  The current model has many officers working to front-load their records with graduate courses before they’ve gathered enough experience to know what type of study might best complement their development.  The absence of any restriction on TA also opens the door to considerable investment in officers who are relatively unproven, before they’ve established a credible foundation in their given specialty.  In this construct, professional military education and voluntary academic education have little correlation or mutual influence in shaping an officer’s intellectual growth.  The foundational building block SOS seeks to establish — teaching officers to think across functions, organizations, and people to integrate the professional application of airpower — often can’t be firmly emplaced because officers have already begun shaping concepts through off-duty education.  Many get the intellectual cart in front of the horse by digesting leadership and management concepts they later find at SOS to have limited value in the unique Air Force operating environment.  Those same concepts consumed after SOS could be more usefully digested and operationalized.  This adjustment would also incentivize officers to compete for earliest possible SOS attendance in order to unlock greater development, making SOS a gateway to a career benefit with more selectivity and prestige than in the current system.  Most of all, this would create a deliberately designed and timed developmental milestone, helping lend a sense of sequence and rhythm to careers.  This would free officers to focus on unit-level development as they and the Air Force together determine whether a long-term career is in the cards.

2. Reduce the Level of Assistance for Those Eligible.  This idea has already been floated by the Air Force as a future cost control measure, and it’s a good start toward reform.  Having officers partner at a 50% level to help pay for their own cognitive growth would encourage them to perform at their personal best in a degree program to justify the investment.  It would also discourage selection of programs based on frivolous criteria like speed or efficiency, instead encouraging officers to seek out a true chance for challenge and growth worthy of their money.  The fostering of more careful choices would likely also slow down the rate of consumption of TA funds, which would be taking place within a much smaller cohort of officers than under the current system.  While numbers are difficult to know without insight into the particulars of the Air Force budget, the savings could be considerable, providing for a more sustainable funding baseline.  Completion of a degree funded at least in part with one’s own money also helps create a feeling of empowerment and ownership, reinforcing pride in development for its own sake rather than strictly as the acquisition of a talisman to be traded for career viability.

3. Mask AAD Completion From Officer Records Until O-4 Promotion.  Under the current system, degree completion is visible to central boards and to commanders at subordinate levels, creating too tempting a discriminator for reviewers assessing masses of records on compressed timelines.  Many have argued in favor of masking the AAD, a practice followed by the Air Force in the past.  A common counterargument to this proposal is that taking the degree out of a promotion file would not prevent Senior Raters — those responsible for preparing promotion recommendations and thus significantly responsible for shaping an officer’s promotion potential — from knowing the AAD progression of officers and using that knowledge in much the same way it is used currently.  In other words, officers themselves, knowing their progress would still be visible to the chain of command even if masked at the board, would continue making their decisions based on either achieving a competitive advantage or negating that advantage sought by peers.  This ignores a third option: prohibit AAD progress from being presented in the entire personnel record until after an officer has been considered for promotion to Major — not just the promotion file, but the entire file.  While there would still be generic knowledge of officers in a unit pursuing educational opportunities, it would lack sufficient clarity or granularity to be used in a board or pre-board process.  This would preserve an incentive for those seeking to assemble a degree before their peers, allowing it to be reflected in their record as soon as they begin reaching the managerial level of the Air Force and start competing for selectively-manned school, staff, and command billets.  But it would also negate any sort of advantage for AAD completion prior to that point, meaning that officers would again come to understand promotion to O-4 as a judgment of their body of professional work at the tactical level of war over the first 8 years of their career, rather than their capacity to juggle that performance with completion of an AAD.  It would also negate any rationale for degree pursuit aside from the developmental value represented in doing so, helping ensure officers pursue AADs for the most appropriate reasons.  Over time, this adjustment might also enhance the fidelity of promotion and retention board results by forcing reviewers to differentiate based on performance rather than binary discriminators, and this in turn would reward those supervisors and commanders most capable of accurately conveying performance in performance reports.

4. Enlarge the Role of the Commander.  Officer development is too important for it to be conducted without commander involvement and approval.  Requiring a commander’s signature before the extension of TA funds would create the implied task of face-to-face mentorship, keeping commanders involved in the intellectual growth of their officers and postured to offer insights and recommendations.  It would also help commanders achieve surveillance.  Even with adjusted policies and a re-worked incentive structure, the potential for mis-prioritization will persist, and an approval step gives commanders a chance to prevent those with core professional shortcomings, fitness issues, relationship strains, or disciplinary challenges from either overloading themselves or spending energies on advanced activities without having the basics squared away.  Finally, given the diligence required of commanders anytime they sign off on something, making them TA gatekeepers would enhance the integrity and credibility of the program with all stakeholders, an important matter when authorizing the use of taxpayer funds on such a large scale.

There exists in this policy area a unique opportunity for reform.  With sequestration forcing spending reduction across the enterprise, some of the standard arguments against fundamental change are more easily countered by the growing necessity to take calculated and intelligent but significant risk in order to realize significant savings.  When it comes to officer voluntary education, an aggressive, holistic, and well-implemented input could mitigate several stubborn force development issues plaguing officers, creating a better focused, more deliberately developed, and more accurately assessed officer corps to carry the institution into its boundless future.  Weaning the officer corps from a system of faux development is the first and most important step in creating the tradespace for an improved and more deliberate model.

Posted by Tony Carr on March 25th, 2013.

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