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Higher education leads to success

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Today's air expeditionary Airman is deploying longer and more often than ever before in a world of shrinking budgets, bonuses and manpower.

However, one benefit that hasn't gone away in these changing times is the educational opportunities offered by the Air Force. Those opportunities are becoming more important for anyone considering the profession of arms as a career.

Effect on military career

"The secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff's decision to make academic degree information available to officer promotion boards is an obvious signal of the value they place on educated Airmen," said Col. Bruce Emig, 28th Bomb Wing vice commander. "Given two officers with otherwise comparable records, it's clear that advanced education will become a key discriminator in determining promotion opportunities."

A higher education for career-minded Airmen isn't stopping at the officer ranks. Enlisted Airmen with the ambition to advance to the senior NCO corps should get in school, too.

"Current Air Force leadership recognizes that senior non-commissioned officers with higher education usually bring increased capabilities to their position and have mandated a Community College of the Air Force degree before receiving a senior rater endorsement, said Chief Master Sgt. John Gillette, Ellsworth AFB's command chief.

Without a senior-rater endorsement, Airmen will not get promoted, the chief said.

While promotions and professional development are always important, there are many other advantages to obtaining advanced degrees.

The bottom line

Between 1980 and 2004, earnings increased proportional to education for all young adults ages 25 to 34 who worked full time, said Paula Howard, Ellsworth's Base Training and Education Services flight chief.

What does this mean in real numbers?

Males with a four-year degree or higher earned 67 percent more than males in the same age range who had a high school diploma only, Ms. Howard said.

"In 2004, a male with a high school diploma earned $30,400 while a male with a bachelor's degree or higher earned an average of $50,700," Ms. Howard said.


For enlisted Airmen, another benefit offered by the Air Force is the Community College of the Air Force degree. This is a bona fide degree from an accredited university available to the enlisted force. CCAF is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Chief Gillette summarized the importance of a degree like CCAF for both career-minded Airmen and Airmen who choose to separate after serving.

"Education is what broadens our perspective and enhances our abilities to perform our mission," he said. "Our enlisted force has taken on increasingly demanding roles in the Air Force and I believe that trend will increase. I believe most of our Airmen today recognize the importance of education to help them advance their career in the Air Force and the value it has if they choose to separate after their enlistment."

To complete the CCAF degree, a member must have 64 semester hours.

"Certain career fields receive enough credit hours from technical school to complete the 24 semester hours needed for technical education and most of the program electives, leaving only six semester hours in general education and 15 semester hours in program electives to complete," said Ms. Howard.

One concern Airmen may have in today's high operations-tempo environment is starting class and not having time to finish it before heading out for a deployment or temporary duty.

But, Ms. Howard says most institutions are very aware of this issue and can work with deploying Airmen to find a solution that makes sense.

"If you start school and find out you're deploying during the term, the local schools are very willing to work with you to complete (the courses) successfully, either by e-mail or some other distance learning program," she said. "If this isn't possible, and you're progressing as expected in the class, an instructor can give you an incomplete until you return and then you would have to complete (the course) the first term available after returning."

Virtual education

Another option for today's busy military member is an online academic education.

"Online programs have come a long way in the past five years," said Ms. Brown. "There are hundreds of accredited institutions now that are offering on-line courses and degrees. Every day state and private schools are looking at ways to provide students with online programs."

Ms. Howard cautions that a prospective military student should do some research before deciding on an online university.

"There are, of course, the dubious academic institutions that say they have certain (degree granting) credentials and don't. Before ever committing to a school, the Air Force member should always take the time to come to BTES and talk with me or our counselor to get a better picture of the school they're attending," she said.

Financial advantage

One concern the Air Force can nearly eliminate for the uniformed member is the cost associated with attending a university.
"The military member receives $4,500 per fiscal year toward his tuition," Ms. Brown said. "A person in the military has a wonderful advantage over those who graduate from high school and immediately go to college.

"Granted, normally an active-duty student can only take part-time classes but, for the most part, with 100 percent tuition assistance the member doesn't have any college debts except to purchase books."

Colonel Emig echoed Ms. Howard's thoughts.

"Think of your education benefits as part of your pay," he said. "If you don't use them, you lose that pay."

The cost of books shouldn't deter the military student either.

"Many times our active-duty members are eligible for Pell Grants based on their income by applying for federal financial aid," said Ms. Brown.

Airmen interested in learning more about accredited distance learning programs can log on to www.petersons.com/distancelearning/code/search.asp.

For more information on starting a degree program, Airmen can call their local education and service center.