By Tim Shea
Few things in modern American life inspire such widespread disdain as our system of higher education. Indeed, when it comes to American academia, complaints come fast and furious. The costs are too high. The students are too fragile. The post-graduation job market—and thus the return on investment—is becoming increasingly dreary. But while a lot of this might be dismissed as Millennials whining, or older generations whining about Millennials (because seriously, what haven’t they ruined?), not every gripe against colleges can be attributed to cross-generational grievances.
Putting it bluntly, the American model of higher education is old. Like, really old. Like hasn’t been substantially changed since the Big Bopper was doing his thing old. Over that same span of time, the U.S. economy has shifted from post-War recovery to an industrial powerhouse and then transformed further into a service-drive, tech-heavy global superpower. So is it really that crazy to expect something new and different out of our education system?
Apparently not. At least that seems to the mentality behind the plethora of “coding boot camps” that have sprung up over the past half-decade. Simply put, these programs take the computer programming education traditionally the realm of four-year degrees and condense it down to a slick and streamlined six months or less. The details of each boot camp vary, with significant differences found in both cost (free to quite expensive) and scope. What they have all have in common is their ability to disrupt the traditional education model by focusing exclusively on the skills needed to succeed in a specific career path.
Now, the obvious critique of this style education is that, by design, it is in no way comprehensive. It more or less ignores all of the history, and philosophy, and language arts that define the typical Liberal Arts education. This is important because the value of a broader education is not in teaching students technical skills, or even history and philosophy. The value is rather that, in exposing students to a variety of different subject matters, it cultivates a holistic worldview that facilitates the problem solving and dynamic thinking needed to succeed in the modern economy. If the labor pool shifts heavily to 6-month boot camp grads, the fear then becomes that workers will no longer be dynamic and innovative enough to propel the economy forward.
This is a valid concern, but it also raises an important question: if having no traditionally educated talent is a bad state of affairs, can the opposite also hold true? Is it really economically efficient to confine the preponderance of higher education to four-year degrees? To push it further, is such an education needed for most entry-level jobs? Probably not. And that’s where the military education model comes in.
For decades now, the U.S. military has been reliant on a system of continuing education to develop subsequent generations of leaders and subject matter experts. Basically, soldiers coming out of their individual entry training are equipped with the necessary skills to do their assigned job and the bare-minimum required to function at the bottom of a military hierarchy, and are taught little else beyond that. Seeing as these assigned jobs are often highly technical (think cyber-security, encrypted communications, and signals intelligence), this scenario isn’t all that dissimilar from less literal boot camps of the coding industry. After several years of service, however, these soldiers are afforded additional educational and training opportunities that emphasize leadership, administration, and the other less tangible skills needed to expand beyond a strictly technical job description. The benefits of this are two-fold in that it fosters the more holistic talents needed for the military to succeed as an organization while also focusing educational resources on those of proven merit and dedication.
It is not hard to see how this framework could be expanded to the civilian sector. There are no shortage of entry level jobs that currently require a college degree—coders, research analysts, graphic designers—that could easily be filled by graduates from short-term, intensive educational boot camps. And maybe for some of them, that will be it; the economy will always have a need for highly skilled and specialized technical yeoman. For those who aspire to leadership, strategic planning, and management rolls, on the other hand, continuing education could provide the liberal education required to become thought leaders in their chosen industry.
This is not to say that that military education system is the perfect model. To the contrary, it suffers from the strict rigidity and inefficiency of many government systems. Neither are we saying that traditional four-year universities have no place in the modern American economy. What we are saying is that companies (and employees) need to start looking beyond four-year degrees as the minimum acceptable level of education needed to succeed in the knowledge sector of the economy. With the proper shift in mentality, there is no reason that the U.S. economy can’t benefit from both the efficiency of highly-focused education tracks and the innovation provided by a liberal education. The military education model provides a conceptual framework of how this shift in mentality could look.