May 2018

Investing in Our Enlisted Leaders

37th Commandant of the Marine Corps approves enlisted PME modernization
Volume 102, Issue 5
Illustration Staff Non-Commissioned Officer Academy Camp Lejeune 1982
Angalee DeForest

We must constantly evaluate ourselves ... place a critical eye on ourselves ... be willing to take a hard look at how we conduct business ... ask the hard questions ... and have the foresight and courage to take on new initiatives.”—Col W. I. Whaley,  Enlisted PME Vision 2010 Plan 6 April 1999

Change is happening overnight. Organizations worldwide are being challenged to rapidly adapt to their environment and to maintain pace with their competitors. The change is driven by technology. Advances in digitization and information processing power are opening doors to limitless innovations. How does an organization such as the Marine Corps, deeply rooted in tradition, make significant leaps forward? Organizational change need not be radical to ignite a cultural shift; it can be as simple as looking “in” to determine what has been overlooked.

The Marine Corps Operating Concept, Marine Corps Service Strategy, 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Planning Guidance,1 and other seminal concept documents consistently establish a demand signal inside Marine Corps University to improve the content, process, and style of enlisted education to more accurately reflect the evolution of enlisted responsibilities in the current and future operating environments.

To meet the Commandant’s vision of improving enlisted Marines’ capabilities in the future operating environment, Marine Corps University has to change the way it conducts business. Enlisted leaders are intelligent, tech-savvy thinkers who are more capable than ever. To become an institution that exploits the lethality of its warfighters across the physical and cognitive domains, Marine Corps University is challenging the status quo and pursuing change through a dynamic and sustained Modernizing Enlisted Education Campaign Plan. On 27 February 2018, the Commandant of the Marine Corps approved the first seven initiatives of the campaign plan designed to move the organization forward to ensure the Corps’ future readiness and relevancy. Modernizing enlisted education will further stimulate and reinforce the significant role PME holds in the development of an intelligently lethal warfighter.

Not a New Idea

My intent in PME is to teach military judgment rather than knowledge. Knowledge is of course important for developing judgment, but should be taught in the context of teaching military judgment, not as material to be memorized.”—Gen Alfred M. Gray Jr. 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Modernizing enlisted education is not a new idea. The call to change how the Marine Corps delivers formal education can be found in then-Col J. C. Breckinridge’s December 1929 Marine Corps Gazette article, “Some Thoughts on Service Schools.” In his essay, Gen Breckinridge urged the Marine Corps to reexamine how it educated its officers. He compared the antiquated training model of the Corps’ schools to how civilian universities, or experimental colleges, as he called them at the time, were developing the mind. In his essay, he wrote,

In other words, these [college] students are not taught to learn what is handed to them, and to accept it because it is handed to them in a college, and to mold their minds upon precedent and chronology. They are taught to dissect, to analyze, and to think. They are taught to develop their inherent intelligence and to use their minds for original thinking.

Globalization and technology proliferation have altered the battlespace and challenged the way Marines operate across five domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyber. Since the publication of Gen Breckenridge’s article, significant effort has been made to modernize how the Marine Corps educates its officers through regionally accredited programs and diverse educational opportunities that address the challenges created by the rapidly changing operating environment. Gen Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, recognized that the same value must be placed on enlisted education. To further Gen Breckenridge’s vision, Gen Gray affirmed the purpose of Marine Corps University. On 10 October 1988, in a letter written to the Commander, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, he wrote, “I want Marine NCOs and officers who know how to think about and in war, who know how to conceptualize an engagement, a battle, and a campaign and then execute the concept.”

To achieve Gen Breckenridge and Gen Gray’s guidance, Gen Robert B. Neller has frequently asserted that “enlisted leaders are the unexplored gold mine of our PME system.” To confront the Marine Corps’ current and future challenges, he explicitly states in his Institutional Task List, “In the future fight, our capable SNCOs must and will assume leadership responsibilities that were once the sole purview of officers.” The Marine Corps requires manueverists at every echelon who can execute off of intent in ambiguous conflict, who can outthink, outpace, and outperform our adversaries. Marine Corps University is advancing the way it educates the enlisted force, just as the Operating Forces evolve tactics and the acquisitions enterprises acquire improved resources to fight across the multi-domain battlespace.

The Campaign Plan

A smarter Corps is a more lethal Corps.”—Gen Robert B. Neller, 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps

In the wake of the release of the Marine Corps’ capstone documents, Marine Corps University seized the initiative to use this guidance to explicitly and implicitly guide curriculum design to develop enlisted leaders who can think critically, apply creativity, clearly and effectively communicate requirements and orders, and operate off of intent today and in the future operating environment. Modernizing enlisted education requires the development and execution of a sustained campaign. This campaign combines near-term, mid-term, and long-term solutions—some elegant and others more intricate; some evolutionary, others revolutionary—to achieve what the Commandant has directed. The Modernizing Enlisted Education Campaign consists of the five Lines of Effort (LOE) below:

  • LOE 1: Enhance enlisted educational structure, content, and methods.
  • LOE 2: Sustain the transformation (leading, mentoring, camaraderie, and MAGTF exposure).
  • LOE 3: Maintain superior faculty.
  • LOE 4: Create pathways to higher-education and degree partnerships.
  • LOE 5: Broaden educational opportunities.

These five LOEs are supported by the critical tasks (CT) below that realign Marine Corps University’s mission in support of the Commandant’s guidance and with the current National Defense Strategy that directs an emphasis on intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting:

  • CT 1: Rename Enlisted Professional Military Education Directorate to the College of Enlisted Military Education.
  • CT 2: Redesign all curricula to reflect a university format.
  • CT 3: Add a fifth week to the resident Sergeants School.
  • CT 4: Codify faculty advisor assignments and hire a faculty of civilian communications professionals for each Staff Non-Commissioned Officer Academy.
  • CT 5: Introduce a contemporary learning environment at each Staff Non-Commissioned Officer Academy (e.g., Wi-Fi, cloud storage, .edu network, etc.).
  • CT 6: Implement a Sergeants School Seminar through the College of Distance Education and Training (CDET).
  • CT 7: Implement an Advanced School Seminar through CDET.

Critical Task 1. The College of Enlisted Military Education

The CEME, or the “Enlisted College,” understood that institutionally, it had to evolve from training schedule templates and begin to form an academic environment that would align enlisted education with models of higher education and officer PME. Figure 1 illustrates Marine Corps University’s organization and where the Enlisted College fits into the overall construct. While seemingly insignificant, the name change establishes the Enlisted College as a more credible and reputable academic institution within the greater Marine Corps University and signals to the force the coming changes in enlisted education. In addition, the Enlisted College will build more efficient and effective pathways for partner civilian universities to award enlisted Marines with the college credit they deserve for the work they are already doing.

The Enlisted College will refocus on institutional requirements to exploit the capabilities and intelligence of the individual Marine. The Commandant has clearly stated that he desires to create pathways for Marines to help them achieve educational degrees. The principal appeal for this is that a better-educated force is a more ready and capable force. Ancillary, but of no less importance to that goal, is the desire to give Marines tangible benefits for their service and credit for the work they have done. The Enlisted College will become one of the many avenues that Marines may leverage to pursue higher education should they choose.

Critical Task 2. University Format

The rebranding of enlisted education to the Enlisted College also includes the reclassification of courses to formal schools (i.e., sergeants, career, and advanced schools). To more closely model an academic institution, programs of instruction will also reflect a collegiate format (i.e., semester hours versus training hours), in turn creating a more palatable format for colleges and universities to examine the Enlisted College’s curricula, award college-level credit, and develop continuing partnerships. The naming convention changes from bottom to top are reflected in Figure 2 and can be easily understood through the following word picture: students will attend the Problem Framing Lesson, in the Warfighting Philosophy Course, at the Sergeants School, at the Enlisted College—specifically at one of the regional SNCO Academies—which is a part of Marine Corps University.

The Enlisted College has invited numerous civilian colleges and universities to review its curricula to determine the type and number of college-level credits it will offer. Coupling this initiative with the adoption of collegiate-style curricula will increase the number of tangible credits provided, e.g., “English 101 and 102” vice “lower division electives,” and shorten Marines’ paths toward college degree completion.

Critical Task 3. Expanding the Sergeants School

Overwhelmingly, students have asked for more time at the Sergeants School. The current four-week academic schedule reinforces the continuous cycle of a “fire-hose effect” that many Marines have suffered from in their careers. Beginning fiscal year 2019, Sergeants School at the SNCO Academies will be five weeks long.

A critical vulnerability of the Marine Corps is how well young Marines sustain their transformation. The notion that a Marine’s transformation is complete upon graduation from entry-level training is detrimental to the individual Marine, the Marines he leads and influences, and the Nation. Buying back one week will increase face-to-face time between the faculty advisor and the Marine by 25 percent and will make a substantial difference in sustaining the transformation. Providing students an additional week will give NCOs invaluable time to strengthen their responsibility to cultivate a culture that promotes leadership, mentorship, and camaraderie at every echelon.

Through a concentrated academic effort, the Enlisted College, along with its faculty advisors, will restructure all academic schedules across the educational continuum to employ the use of formal case studies, problem-based practical exercises, and Socratic seminars and promote a better understanding of the Constitution and Oath of Office. The purposeful refocusing on institutional requirements will help combat many of the social ills prevalent today by expanding the study of the Marine Corps’ ethos and culture. Nurturing the Corps’ institutional health through the synthesis of its past will produce a broader knowledge base and an enriched understanding of our identity.

Critical Task 4. Civilian Communications Faculty

The faculty advisors assigned to the academies are the center of gravity for the Enlisted College and are selected because of their passion for teaching and leading. They represent the very best of enlisted leadership and, without exception, are superb Marines. The hiring of a civilian communications faculty at each of the six SNCO Academies reinforces the vital importance that is placed on Marines to communicate effectively. It also allows for more personal interaction between the faculty advisor and the student Marine. The communications faculty will be a team of professionals who will develop and instruct a comprehensive communications continuum from sergeant through advanced schools. The Enlisted College will challenge NCOs and SNCOs to strengthen their ability to read, understand, write, speak, persuade, defend, and influence—representative of the central pillars of enlisted education. This communications continuum will expand the conduit through which enlisted leaders develop the essential ability to act on intent and empower their subordinates in the future operating environment.

Critical Task 5. Contemporary Learning Environment

The current learning material available at the SNCO Academies effectively causes students to go back in time. Sergeants who graduated high school five or six years ago had access to educational technologies that allowed them to collaborate online, submit assignments, and customize their learning experience. It will take time to offer all students a technology-enriched environment that parallels their civilian education background; however, the SNCO Academy Camp Lejeune recently opened a brand new facility that supports what this initiative envisions for all Enlisted College students.

The Commandant’s prioritization of access to Wi-Fi, an .edu domain, and technology upgrades at the remaining five geographically dispersed SNCO Academies will improve faculty advisors’ ability to connect with their students. This initiative offers the Enlisted College the means to establish a flexible information infrastructure at each of the academies that can maintain pace with ever-evolving technologies. Introducing students to educational technologies during their PME deepens their understanding and offers opportunities to be bold and stand out in a blended learning environment.

Critical Tasks 6 and 7. Implement a Sergeants and Advanced School Seminar through CDET

The College of Distance Education and Training (CDET) seminar programs, derived from and parallel to their respective resident schools, provide expanded opportunity and flexibility to Marines and their commanders in the scheduling and completion of PME. Since fiscal year 2015, Marine Corps University’s CDET has executed a highly successful seminar program for the career school. This well-established seminar has educated more than 2,500 staff sergeants, which has increased flexibility for the operating forces.

The approval of a seminar for both the sergeants and advanced schools maximizes institutional flexibility and ensures that all Marines are afforded the opportunity to attend PME for their grade and remain competitive for promotion. The Sergeants School Seminar was piloted in fiscal year 2017 and is now executing at all eight CDET regional campuses. The Advanced School Seminar is currently being piloted and is poised to be available in all regions beginning February 2019.

The Enlisted College and the CDET work hand in hand to deliver enlisted curricula that meet the same Marine Corps University directed program and learning outcomes. The enlisted education continuum emphasizes the development of intellectual enlisted leaders who know how to think rather than what to think. For purposes of promotion and assignments, the completion of the Enlisted College resident schools or their associated CDET seminar programs are considered equivalent.

A Sea Change

 “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”—Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (circa 410 BCE)

The Enlisted College’s sustained campaign plan sets the tone for how the Marine Corps will educate its enlisted leaders and reflects the Commandant’s guidance to make the expansion of PME a priority. The future operating environment is now, and enlisted leaders are already assuming roles that were once the sole purview of officers. It is the Enlisted College’s inherent responsibility to ensure that it is effectively preparing enlisted leaders for the inevitable conflicts they will face as the Nation’s adaptive enemies seek to defeat Marines across the multi-domain battlespace.

The Enlisted College’s mission is clear: advance the intellectual lethality of enlisted warfighters.


1. These documents were published at Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, in 2016, 2017, and 2016, respectively.

Col Williams is the Director, the College of Enlisted Military Education, Marine Corps University.