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Get a degree — or risk falling behind those who do.
Sailors with degrees are making rank faster than their peers each and every cycle, outpacing them because of extra advancement points from their degrees plus the benefits of more education, like better study habits.
In ratings where advancement chances are slim, the few points earned from having a degree is enough to make the difference for hundreds of sailors every cycle, new advancement data reveal. Earning a degree — or just studying for one, Navy officials say — gives sailors an advancement edge.
"It really will supercharge your career," said Ernie D'Antonio, director of voluntary education programs for the Navy's Center for Personal and Professional Development. "Once you start on this path, you are going to change. Your mind will expand and you'll see things differently. You will approach things differently."
In May, when the E-4, E-5 and E-6 advancement results came out, 23.4 percent of those passing their exams got a new stripe and moved up. Yet among those with degrees, the rate was considerably higher — 27.5 percent.
That advancement edge has been the case, to varying degrees, since 2008, when the Navy began to give points to sailors with degrees.
But it's not the points that put these sailors over the edge. On every advancement cycle since the changes, 70 percent or more of those with education points made it without needing those extra points.
The benefits are big. Take hospital corpsman, far and away the largest of the rates in the latest cycle. HMs with degrees in ratings E-4 through E-6 advanced at roughly twice the rate of their counterparts.
The boost was even more substantial in some rates, like air traffic controlmen, where those with degrees had advancement rates 21 percentage points higher when competing for E-5. Or degree-holding aviation electrician's mates, who saw a 17 percentage-point boost compared with their peers when up for third class.
But having a degree is by no means a lock. In some cases, those with degrees underperformed against their peers.
One example is aviation boatswain's mate (equipment), where a bit more than 9 percent of those with degrees made E-5, compared with more than 23 percent advancing as a whole. That result was due in part to the small number of eligible sailors with degrees (11), and was the exception to the general rule giving those with degrees an edge.
The boost was highest at E-5, where Navy-wide, 19.8 percent of eligible E-4s put on their second stripe. But among those with education points, the percentage was 30.6 — nearly 11 percentage points higher.
The benefits of higher education extend far beyond having a diploma hanging on the wall. It will help you get ahead in the enlisted ranks, without question, officials made clear.
"These benefits are as tangible as they are intangible in that a sailor develops critical thinking skills, they develop the ability to analyze," D'Antonio said. "They develop the ability to communicate by enhancing their communication skills."
This likely isn't limited to academic degrees, continued D'Antonio, who said that more studies would show that sailors who complete military apprenticeships and civilian certifications have a similarly higher rate of advancement and retention.
"All those things are really tangible things they're learning through the education and certification and credentialing process they then come back and bring into the Navy," D'Antonio said.
A sailor who gets a degree or a certification will have a higher level of confidence, which translates into professional success, he said. This starts with the commitment to studying and striking a work-life balance.
"That's big — they're learning the ability to balance, to juggle multiple balls in the air at one time," D'Antonio said. "And all of those are critical skills are not only going to help them in their developing their professional skills — it's going to help them personally in their job and make them a better sailor and leader."
And it's not just degrees. A 2009 Naval Postgraduate School study showed that those who use tuition assistance advance faster. It also found that sailors who use tuition assistance are more likely to stay in.
The NPS study tracked recruits who entered the Navy between 1994 and 2001 with four-year obligations. These sailors were followed for five years so researchers could survey retention choices.
"We find that first-term sailors who use [tuition assistance] to enroll in college classes have a significantly higher probability of re-enlistment and of promotion to both E-4 and to E-5," lead authors Stephen Mehay and Elda Pema wrote in their report.
At E-4, those using TA upped their advancement chances by 23 percent. At E-5, it was 20 percent, the report concluded. Those rates were higher for those who completed courses.
"TA participation increases the probability of promotion," the study said.
Don't let past difficulties with education slow you down. Experts say many sailors succeed at college or vocational work because they're more mature and driven.
"That's a big addition to the confidence factor there, too," D'Antonio said. "Building that confidence is directly translatable into the workplace. It's literally changing sailors' lives."
Just starting a college degree can help a sailor, he said. The Navy requires a sailor to set a degree plan — laying out their educational goals before the service will shell out a dime of TA.
"You have that whole planning process where the sailor is interacting with many different people — counselors, their command — and putting it all together in an action plan for themselves with the ultimate goal of an associate, bachelor's or master's degree," he said.
Taking college classes helps sailors improve their study habits. And that helps them get ready for the Navy-wide advancement exams.
"All this makes them better leaders," D'Antoinio said. "They can deal with different paradigms and deal with different and difficult situations better because they can analyze them and make better decisions."
The bottom line, he said, is those who participate in the voluntary education and certification programs are looking to improve themselves.
"Those who use tuition assistance are looking for ways to improve themselves personally and professionally, and I think that dynamic comes through in the rest of their lives as well," he said.