Why Higher Education Is Still Our Country’s Greatest Defense

June 11, 2024

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Above: The 7oth National Security Forum, May 7-8, 2024 at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

In today’s world of shifting geopolitical relationships, growing concerns about national security, and increasing global economic competition, what keeps us safe goes way beyond just tanks and troops. A recent National Security Forum at the Air War College highlighted a surprising but crucial element: a strong higher education system.

This connection between education and security isn’t exactly new. The founding of the American Council on Education in 1918 during World War I underscored this vital link. The Council was established to address the critical shortage of skilled personnel for the war effort, and its creation stands as a powerful testament to the role universities play in national preparedness.

The National Security Forum experience really drove this point home for me, but it also sparked a big question: Given all the changes in the past century, how can the higher education community leverage its strengths to do an even better job of contributing to national security?

The National Security Forum

The National Security Forum is the culminating event for students at the Air War College—a highly selective, regionally accredited, in-resident graduate program that spans 10 months. The forum brings together prominent community leaders, military officers, government workers, and citizens to chat and share ideas about national and international security issues. The main goal is to get everyone talking about the different tools we can use to keep us safe, such as diplomacy, economics, information, culture—and yes, even the military. By doing this, the forum helps community leaders to better understand security while also giving military and government personnel a chance to learn from a wider range of perspectives.

As we discussed during my time at the forum, higher education institutions are the foundation of a strong democracy and a healthy society. They help to create informed citizens who contribute meaningfully to their communities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Colleges and universities teach critical thinking, innovation, and ethical leadership, and they also help to close the gap in education levels and create opportunities for everyone. This inclusivity helps to build a well-rounded workforce that can adapt to the ever-changing demands of the global economy.

The talented workforce nurtured by higher education is essential for national security. A highly educated workforce is better equipped to handle modern security challenges such as cybersecurity and advanced technologies. Colleges and universities are the incubators for the next generation of leaders, scientists, and innovators who will drive our economy and our security agenda forward.

But as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, we are sure to face certain challenges on all these fronts.

Supporting higher education’s changing role in workforce development

One critical challenge that exists is the disconnect between the skills students acquire and the demands of the workforce. This creates a translation gap that hinders graduates’ abilities to seamlessly enter the job market. Bridging this gap must be a cooperative effort among higher education institutions, all levels of government, businesses, K–12 schools, and the nonprofit sector.

It’s complex but necessary work. As examples, federal policies aimed at workforce development play a critical role through initiatives such as the Defense STEM Education Consortium, and various federal apprenticeship programs focus on developing skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These programs are designed to build a highly skilled workforce that is capable of tackling the complex security challenges of the future. By investing in STEM education and training, federal policies ensure a steady supply of qualified professionals for critical national security roles. And by replicating this collaborative model across different industries, we can ensure a more prepared and competitive future generation for the American workforce.

A few more examples of the critical work being done:

Strengthening community colleges: Investing in community colleges, which offer career-focused programs and often serve nontraditional students, can provide valuable job training and skills development opportunities for a wider range of the population. This investment strengthens not only individual students’ futures but also the economic vitality of the communities they serve.

Higher education–business partnerships: Employers need to clearly define the skills and knowledge they seek in potential hires, while educational institutions should develop curriculum with input from industry professionals. This collaborative approach ensures that graduates possess the right skills upon entering the workforce. Building trust between educators and employers is also essential. Open communication about expectations fosters a smooth transition for graduates and strengthens the overall system.

Credit for Prior Learning (CPL): CPL is a valuable tool for translating learning into workforce competencies. Identifying learning outcomes that align with various educational and workforce currencies is increasingly important. Employers seek effective ways to identify candidates for hiring and advancement, while learners desire clear, cost-effective paths to well-paying jobs. Higher education could align program outcomes with employers’ competency needs, using skills as the shared unit of analysis to connect the dots.

Learning and employment records: ACE’s research and work with learning and employment records (LERs) indicates that workforce partnerships are a key solution. Collaboration and communication help build pathways and pipelines to directly hire graduates and cultivate a community involving K–12 education, social services, regional workforce agencies, and training providers that supports a developmental, human-centered approach to the employment landscape. Rethinking Community College Systems for a Skills-Based Talent Ecosystem outlines a first step in unpacking the complexities of LERs.

Stackable credentials: Supporting the development of stackable credentials, including industry certifications that can be combined to build toward a degree, can provide a more flexible and affordable path to upskilling and reskilling throughout a career. Stackable credentials allow individuals to gain new skills and knowledge in a targeted way that meets the specific needs of their current or desired jobs. They can be a valuable tool for employers, as they provide a clear demonstration of an individual’s qualifications in a particular area.

The National Security Forum cemented my belief that a strong higher education system is not just a societal benefit but rather a pillar of national security. Universities cultivate the future leaders and innovators we need as well as a workforce equipped for the complexities of the twenty-first century.

Workforce development in this context transcends mere job training. It’s about nurturing critical thinking, adaptability, and the ability to learn and re-learn throughout students’ careers. These are the very skills needed to address the ever-changing security threats we face. By collaborating with policymakers, businesses, and others, we can ensure that our higher education system fosters a skilled citizenry not just for specific jobs but also for the ongoing challenges that define national security. In essence, a robust higher education system is not only our greatest defense—it’s also the foundation for a secure and adaptable future.

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