The relationship between education and job performance among enlisted military personnel has been debated for many years, yet little actual research has been conducted on this topic. Studies that have been done focus on the impact of education on the careers of officers, not the enlisted men and women who make up the majority of the armed forces. This is especially surprising considering the military has been offering tuition assistance to enlisted service members since the 1950s; one would think such a significant investment would have sparked more inquiries into the effectiveness of these programs in improving military capabilities.
Our research team at the Naval Postgraduate School recently completed a study examining the relationship between educational attainment and enlisted Marines’ readiness and performance. Our goal was to gather insights that could inform policy makers at the service and national levels. With a better understanding of the connection between education and performance, the Marine Corps—and the military as a whole—may be able to make more informed decisions about developing its enlisted personnel, with the ultimate aim of improving the effectiveness of the force.
Enlisted Education History and Future
Enlisted education typically is given priority only when military organizations are facing dire circumstances. During the Crimean War, for example, English enlisted soldiers were dying because of a lack of information on basic hygiene and the resourcefulness required to sustain themselves in an austere environment. This realization led to servicewide education reform for the enlisted ranks.1 Then, and now, efforts to educate enlisted service members have consistently been reactive in nature.
Within the Marine Corps, education funding has been looked at almost exclusively as an incentive for recruitment and reenlistment rather than a way to increase military capability. Rarely is a college degree considered in decisions about enlisted assignments and placement for duty stations and billets. When recruiting suffers, the Marine Corps leans on and advertises the educational incentives of service, but there is no plan for what to do with those Marines who use tuition assistance when they attain a degree.
More enlisted Marines with formal education seems to answer the demands of a battlespace that former Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger said will be characterized by complexity, chaos, and uncertainty. “We must outthink, outmaneuver, and outfight potential adversaries. We will need to operate with a level of sophistication, ingenuity, and skill that our adversaries will not expect and cannot match,” he noted.2
This rings especially true as the Marine Corps pivots to implement its expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept. EABO calls for a highly distributed, agile force capable of operating with limited support in remote areas. This dynamic environment demands critical thinking and adaptability. Marines operating under EABO must have a deep understanding of the complexities of the evolving battlespace and be able to rapidly shift perspectives and generate alternative solutions.
According to the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, EABO will require “mature, competent, highly trained and educated Marines.”3 Enlisted Marines, equipped with a strong formal education, will be essential in this transformation in operational strategy. They will be tasked with understanding and executing intricate tactics in a complex and potentially chaotic environment, underlining the need for advanced educational opportunities for these service members.
As the Marine Corps continues to move toward its 2030 vision, the value of educated enlisted personnel, capable of applying advanced problem-solving skills in an uncertain and rapidly changing landscape, is ever more apparent.
Research Methodology and Results
The research used quantitative methods to understand the impact of higher education on the career outcomes of enlisted service members. The team analyzed data from July 2005 through December 2020—more than 35 million observations from the Marine Corps’ Total Force Data Warehouse. Personnel data was divided into four categories:
• Marines who enlisted and attained at minimum a bachelor’s degree by the end of their first contract
• Marines who enlisted and did not attain a degree by the end of their first contract
• Marines who enlisted with at minimum a bachelor’s degree
• Marine officers who were never enlisted
The analysis revealed two key findings. First, Marines who obtained a bachelor’s degree at any point during the observation period tended to outperform their peers who did not on a number of performance metrics, including cumulative fitness report averages over the course of their careers and physical fitness score averages. These Marines also were less likely to be involved in misconduct.
Second, on many metrics, enlisted Marines who attained their bachelor’s degree within their first enlistments tended to show the highest overall performance and were most likely to reenlist compared with the other groups. Marines who attained their bachelor’s degree while in service were 22 percent more likely to reenlist for a second term than those who did not, and were 58 percent more likely to reenlist for a third term. These patterns held true even after controlling for Armed Forces Qualification Test scores, ethnic background, gender, and entry-level physical fitness.
While the research design does not allow a finding of causality between education and performance, misconduct, and retention, the data does suggest a strong correlation between increased opportunities for education and exemplary performance in the service. Thus, a deliberate and increased investment in education opportunities could lead to improved performance, reduced misconduct, and increased warfighting proficiency among enlisted Marines.
Since the completion and publication of this research, there has been significant policy progress to expand educational opportunities for enlisted personnel. The most notable is passage of the Smart Act, which removed language in Title 10, U.S. Code, that had limited enlisted access to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). Signed by President Joe Biden on 23 December 2022 as a part of the fiscal year (FY) 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, the bill is a major milestone that should have a positive impact on the career progression of enlisted service members and the overall performance of the military.
In response to passage of the Smart Act, the Marine Corps immediately launched a pilot program to send a select group of staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) to NPS starting in July 2023.4 In the first three-week application window, 48 exceptional and driven SNCOs applied. Five were selected for admission into graduate programs. At press time, they were in Monterey, successfully wrapping up their first quarter at NPS.
The SNCOs were chosen based on their performance records and potential to benefit from advanced education in their military occupational specialties. The program is designed to provide them with the skills and knowledge to be extraordinarily qualified leaders in their fields, thereby contributing to the service’s overall capabilities and improving the efficacy of the force. It also will place graduates into critical billets for utilization tours at Headquarters organizations, including Manpower & Reserve Affairs and Installations and Logistics.
The pilot program will provide data to assess the effectiveness of enlisted participation in graduate programs at NPS and, if successful, might be expanded to include more enlisted service members and potentially all service branches. In fact, the Marine Corps recently began preparing to release the FY24 program, which is expected to not only increase the number of participants but also broaden the range of programs to which they can apply. Moreover, the locations for post-graduation utilization tours are likely to be expanded.
In addition, in the 2023 update to Talent Management 2030, General Berger called for leaders at Training and Education Command and Manpower & Reserve Affairs to “assess the utility of enlisted graduate education and make recommended changes to the Marine Corps Graduate Education Program no later than Q3 of CY 2023.”5
Investing in enlisted education is crucial for maintaining the U.S. military advantage in an era in which rapidly advancing technology is creating ever more complex military systems and operating environments. And given that more than 80 percent of the military is enlisted, developing well-educated, strategic and critical thinkers within this cadre is more important that ever. Meeting this talent acquisition, development, and sustainment challenge is vital to ensure the Marine Corps—and the military as a whole—can respond and adapt to the future technological and strategic landscape and deter or, if necessary, defeat an enemy who is pursuing a talent development campaign of its own.
1. Richard L. Blanco, “Education Reforms for the Enlisted Man in the Army of Victorian England,” History of Education Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Summer 1966).
2. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 2019).
3. Department of the Navy and Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, May 2023), 2-1, A-4.
4. MarAdmin 007/23: “Announcement of the FY23 CMC Marine Corps Graduate Education Program—Enlisted (Pilot),” 9 January 2023.
5. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Talent Management 2030 Update (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, March 2023).