TCS Daily

GI Joe College

By Joanne Jacobs - February 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Some students pay extra for a Semester Abroad or Semester Afloat program. Others get paid to take college classes while they hike through exotic countries or cruise the seas. We call them . . . Well, we used to call them grunts, swabbies and jarheads.

Many Americans still think college is for the smart kids; military service is for guys who can't think for themselves.

But smart bombs require smart soldiers: It's not Beetle Bailey laser-guiding bombs to precise targets. Popeye needs more than spinach to work the carrier flight deck. The military wants high-tech warriors who can operate in independent units, handle multi-million-dollar equipment and solve problems under pressure.

Dropouts won' t cut it. But everyone else wants to go to college. Two-thirds of high school graduates, including C and D students, go straight on to college, helped by no-strings state and federal aid, such as Clinton's Hope Scholarships.

It's tough for the military to compete. And those who do enlist for college money have to leave the service to use the scholarship.

To recruit, train and retain educable people, the military is hoping to send a new message: It's not just an adventure; it's a college education. In-service education is nothing new. But now educational technology makes it easier for service members to earn vocational and college degrees, even if they're overseas or on board ship.

Last year, the Army inaugurated its virtual university, eArmyu. Soldiers pay no tuition; they get books, a laptop, printer, Internet access and an e-mail account, plus 24-hour online e-tutoring through Smarthinking and access to the University of Georgia' s online library. And tech support. They can choose from more than 4,000 courses and 90 certificate and degree programs offered by 23 colleges and universities. Popular majors are business administration, information systems management and criminal justice.

Soldiers must have at least three years left of service to enroll; already, some are extending their enlistments or re-upping to qualify.

The goal of eArmyu is to increase retention and "develop educated, Information Age-savvy soldiers who can succeed in the network-centric missions and battlefields of the 21st century."

Mentors in each field of study act as counselors, and try to create a "distance-learning community'' that links the corporal in Okinawa with the private in Germany.

The Navy's E-Learning web site also opened last year. Through the portal, sailors can access Navy College courses, or chat with distant classmates at the Cyber

Once sailors leave port, it's harder to surf for credits. For years, civilian instructors have shipped out to teach classes, but selection is limited. The Program for Afloat College Education is using technology to expand the choice of courses and colleges. However, on-board teachers and CD-ROM -- not web classes -- will be the mainstay for awhile, says Commander Brian Looney, education program director for the Chief of Naval Education and Training. Bandwidth is limited. "The primary mission is war fighting,'' says Looney. "That's where most of the bandwidth goes.''

The goal is to create online learning centers where sailors can study around the clock, says Rory Fisher of KEI Pearson, which won the contract to design the program in November. "The infrastructure doesn't support that yet, in most cases." But it's the wave of the future.

What the Navy calls a "Revolution in Training'' is pushing e-learning both to prepare sailors for more demanding military jobs and to help them earn college degrees. The revolution's center is Task Force Excel, which envisions the Navy moving from a blue-collar workforce to a fast-learning "gray-collar" force.

"We need sailors not just to program a specific task but to think,'' says Looney. "It's a more challenging environment out there."

"Join the Navy, go to college'' will attract high-quality recruits, Excel hopes. And the more the Navy invests in a sailor's education, the more likely he'll re-enlist.

Soldiers and sailors also get college credit for much of their advanced military training, helping them complete a degree.

Now consider that half the students who go straight from high school to college never earn a degree. They're depleted by excess partying, distracted by part-time jobs, discouraged by mounting debts. Many lack discipline or a sense of purpose.

Enlisting could become a more reliable route to a college degree than enrolling. But college hopefuls need to remember that the military's final tests can be truly final. The primary mission is war fighting.

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