AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the US Air Force experienced a significant policy debate regarding officer education. The question at hand concerned why officers attain graduate-level education or advanced academic degrees (AAD) and how those achievements should affect promotions. On the one hand, some officers, such as those serving as researchers, political affairs officers, or academic instructors, need education above and beyond their undergraduate training because the level at which they work is more specific than general. On the other hand, it is not completely clear why the vast majority of Air Force officers, such as those serving on aircrews, in personnel and finance units, and so forth, need more education than necessary to conduct their work.
This second group of officers, the generalists, represents the source of contention and debate. Moreover, this controversy led to conflicting policies from the most senior leadership, leaving the issue muddled and confused for today's junior and field-grade officers. This article discusses the main points of each policy and interprets them through the lens of modern economic theory. Using the well-developed ideas of human capital and signaling, along with empirical evidence, it argues that advanced education has become not a means of increasing knowledge and ability so much as a proxy for officers' commitment to their careers. The article extends this line of inquiry to nonresident professional military education (PME) programs, in which it finds much similarity. Finally, it offers a different vision, modeled on a sister service's program, that would make the education experience more valuable for both our officer corps and the Air Force by expanding opportunities at civilian universities in exchange for long posteducational commitments.
In 2005 Gen John P. Jumper, chief of staff of the Air Force, wrote a letter to all members of the service describing a significant change in promotion procedures and the Air Force's treatment of education in general. (1) Specifically, he directed the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) to mask officer education data on promotion boards through the rank of colonel, making it available only for brigadier general and above. By doing so, General Jumper intended to stop officers from pursuing AADs for the sole purpose of increasing their chances for promotion, also known as "square-filling" or "checking the box." Although he acknowledged the value and importance of education to the Air Force and its officer corps, the general believed that the pursuit of AADs should be deliberate and focused.
An earlier letter of General Jumper's, written in 2002 regarding force development, foreshadowed his education policy. (2) In that letter, he echoed the criticism of the status quo regarding education opportunities: "I know that a lot of you feel there are many reasons to be discouraged or dissatisfied with our current system--limited PME in-residence slots, limited advanced degree opportunities, or worse, square-filling master's degree programs that do little to make you better at your job or get you closer to your goals. I have experienced some of these issues myself and I hear the same feedback from you. So let's fix it." (3)
In 2006 the next chief of staff, Gen T. Michael Moseley, and the secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, issued a letter to Airmen that reversed General Jumper's decision. General Moseley also lauded the importance of education in his letter, stating that the value for the Air Force lay in having "intellectual throw weight." He announced that AFPC would unmask officer education data, starting with the promotion boards in 2008. (4) Thus, because of a sweeping policy change followed by a rapid reversal, the Air Force held promotion boards between 2005 and 2007 that excluded any and all information about an officer's education.
In determining the correct position, we should consider what Air Force instructions (AFI) say regarding official policies on advanced education for officers. Unfortunately, at least two AFIs directly address this topic, each of which takes a slightly different tack concerning the purpose and aim of graduate education for officers. Though not entirely inconsistent, each instruction's objectives are vague enough to encompass almost any viewpoint: General Jumper's, General Moseley's, or something in between.
AFI 36-2611, Officer Professional Development, notes that "AADs are important to officer professional development to the extent they enhance the officer's professional qualifications. A degree which is directly related to the primary utilization area is appropriate at any level since this degree adds to depth of experience. An advanced degree in management or more general studies tends to enhance job performance for officers reaching the field grade ranks where breadth development begins to take place." (5) AFI 36-2302, Professional Development, observes that "Graduate Education programs are designed to manage limited resources and support National, Military, and Air Force strategic objectives in an increasingly complex international environment with rapidly changing science and technology. Graduate education requirements are identified as specific positions for which an Advanced Academic Degree (AAD) is necessary to accomplish the job and meet the overall Air Force mission." (6)
AFI 36-2611 presents a wide and liberal view towards graduate education for officers, informing us that it improves job performance and is important to the development of all officers. Accordingly, education that enhances the depth or breadth of knowledge remains vital to winning the current wars. This slant on graduate education aligns with General Moseley's position: "As we continue to fight this Global War on Terror, we will be conducting operations in both familiar and unfamiliar places, with both old and new friends. To succeed, our expeditionary Air Force will need all the cultural, political and technical skills available." (7) Although General Moseley does not explicitly cite AFI 36-2611, his argument for unmasking education data on promotion boards and his encouragement of AADs are in complete agreement with this instruction.
Yet, a close reading of AFI 36-2302 reveals that only some positions need advanced education in order to carry out our mission. Graduate education, according to this instruction, should provide a very specific skill set required for designated billets. However, it does not address what the vast majority of officers should seek educationally. By emphasizing the scarcity of resources for graduate education, the AFI implies that possession of an AAD by all Air Force officers is not "mission essential." This educational philosophy seems to support General Jumper's position of offering graduate education as a deliberate development step: "We must make sure Airmen get the training and education required for their specialty or area of expertise. If you need additional education or training--you will get it.... Education must be tailored to benefit Airmen in doing their jobs." (8)
Given the differences in these instructions, we can see how the two chiefs of staff could have claimed to grasp the importance of postgraduate education as essential to mission accomplishment yet employed policies that mostly opposed each other. Each of their positions is perfectly justifiable in light of the AFIs on officer development.
The central question then becomes whether or not most officers engaged in voluntary off-duty education programs do so to augment their promotion opportunities or to improve their ability to serve the Air Force--or both. To help dissect and answer this question about the role of AADs in our promotion systems, the article draws upon current economic theory of labor and education--particularly the theories of human capital and of signaling, two distinct ideas postulated by economists Gary Becker and Michael Spence.
The Theory of Human Capital
The modern economic theory of human capital looks at workers in the labor force as a sum of acquired skills and knowledge. (9) Some of our personal human capital is useful in any setting, such as the ability to read, write, and do simple math. These abilities are designated general human capital because they can transfer to any work environment. Other dimensions of human capital are useful only in very narrow settings, such as the ability to operate a fighter aircraft in combat. We refer to these skills as …