Thursday, December 17, 2009

All Graduates Are Not Created Equal

I am in the military. The post I am about to write will probably make half of the military officer corp want to punch me in the neck. But I came across this post in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle and had to comment. I like this post not only because it applies to my specific life situation but because it clearly illustrates how it is often not the players who are to blame, but the rules of the game itself.

I taught some online graduate courses, aimed mostly at overseas military officers, at Troy when I was teaching full time at their main campus. Trying to treat it as if it were a legitimate graduate class was a constant source of frustration. Students simply didn't have the time to do the reading and research -- they were, after all, on active duty in a military with a high operations tempo. But they'd been led to believe that the courses would be easy -- there wouldn't be much work and they could do it at their leisure. The school got a lot of money, paid its faculty quite generously, and the students got the credentials they wanted. Those of us who resisted the degree mill model were messing up that model. (I'm reliably informed that the rigor has picked up, although not to the level one would expect in a traditional on campus graduate program even at Troy.)

But the military is as much at fault here as the degree mills. They quite literally treat college education as a check in a box. A master's degree from Harvard or one from Walden both get officers over the "must have master's degree" hurdle for promotion to lieutenant colonel. And, since few officers are given the time to attend classes at a real school, the incentive to get a dubious degree in the little spare time available is powerful. The same is true, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the federal civil service and for teachers in many school systems across the country: It's the degree that matters, not the learning

This post is why I don’t have my masters yet. I signed up for a Kaplan GMAT prep class last week to get my scores as high as I possibly can in an effort open doors to a full time program or perhaps an executive program a few years down the road. As of now I have resisted the "checking the box" mentality described in Mrs. McArdle's post above, but not without a few awkward conversations with some of my senior leaders. If you know an officer in the armed forces ask them about this cultural mentality and I am quite confident they will assure you it is real. For some career fields like pilots this mentality makes sense. The pilots need for promotion coupled with a commitment that makes them all but career officers provide a very strong incentive to finish a masters program regardless of its credibility or educational benefit. As a pilot you have a ten year active duty service commitment after your initial pilot training which can take as long a couple years for some. With perpetual retirement benefits after twenty years of service it is easy for most to put in the extra 8 or 10 years and achieve those benefits. Assuming that the pilot is proficient the only things that really stand in their way of promotion throughout that time frame is professional military education and a masters degree. As described above the current operations tempo of two wars has made many programs unattainable for officers, so many understandably take the path of least resistance.

I have also seen the ugly side of the article that the author vents about on the civil service side of the government. At my last base there was a civilian employee who had a masters and made more money than a few very competent fellow employees because of that masters. She was run out of that place in less than a year which, for those who have seen firings in the government sector, is very fast. She could literally barely read. Her interpersonal skills were atrocious. And her ability to learn was nonexistent. Not trying to be mean; just the facts. I often found myself wondering how this person got a high school education let alone a masters degree. But someone awarded her a masters, and based on that masters she was awarded a position with higher pay than many of her coworkers with similar experience and undoubtedly more talent. It was that experience when I first became aware of our nation's obsession with credentialing vice true capability.

Those experiences and my own self awareness have led me to resist getting a 'box checking' online degree. This is not to say all online degrees are poor, as I have some friends who are getting a hell of an education with a prestigious degree to go with it online. I am just saying that for me, I need to be in a community classroom session. Although one of the constant themes on BadskiBlog is the quest for knowledge and self education, I know and respect the value of the classroom experience. Discussion, which is all but absent while reading a book, is an essential part of my learning experience. More importantly I look forward to the interaction and connections with like minded motivated people that is most naturally curated through classroom interaction and the sharing of a common bond. I am fully aware that it may hurt my post military employment opportunities applying to positions at competitive companies sans masters. With that being said, in order for me to be true to myself, to respect my desire to actually learn and grow, and to meet other motivated and quality people within a classroom setting I will choose holding out for a prestigious and proven school instead of a “check the box” degree mill program.


Cameron Schaefer said...

Spot on my friend! Great find! Don't be surprised if some of this material shows up on Schaefer's Blog at some point (with a hat tip of course).

I, like you, have been resisting the box checking master's route. My hope is to take the GMAT this spring after studying for 3-5 months and get into the best online MBA program possible.

Where the military has gone terribly wrong is making a degree of such great importance, but providing absolutely ZERO time off work to accomplish this time consuming feat.

I could rant for a while, but I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir. Resist the typical career progression Badski and do what you know is right! I'll be right there with you.

Matt Bader said...

Dude I am so happy to hear that from you! A pilot no less! No offense. I thought I was the only one who thought that way and was starting to think maybe I was just coming off as a pompous ass. That is not the case at all. It is all about self awareness and how much value you place on learning and self improvement versus credentials. We will have to talk sometime about similar stories resisting the status quo. I have a few good ones. Have a good holidays. Are you heading home or sticking in the NW? I am from Portland so we are heading back to the best coast tomorrow.