A year after the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration took hold in the Defense Department, many professional military educators and their students worry that military colleges across the country will not be spared from the impact of the across-the-board cuts.
A decline in student numbers at military colleges and universities is expected as the cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act become reality. Most military personnel attend the dozens of colleges as an assigned duty that is both considered a professional honor and seen as a necessary requirement for promotion.
The military covers the costs, which can range as high as $75,000 a year per student.
The sequester has reduced the defense budget by billions, and further cuts are expected this year. So far, funding for professional military education has been largely spared — although some say that may soon change.
“Traditionally when money gets tight, they skinny down the attendance,” said Steven Bucci, director of foreign and national security policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “That has not necessarily hit home yet. [But] I think everyone is expecting it to happen.”
Cynthia Watson, associate dean for research and outreach at the National War College in Washington, said she has noticed students there — generally officers in paygrades O-5 and above — expressing increasing concerns about the future.
Cuts in class sizes at the military colleges, especially for senior officers, would narrow the traditional path to promotion, setting a ceiling on their career possibilities and making them think about whether it’s time to consider other options.
“A number of the students, particularly from the Army or the Marine Corps, where we’ve seen the most dramatic downsizing, [are] saying the environment they’ve been operating under the past few years has been changing dramatically,” Watson said. “And the opportunities to incentivize them to stay are not there.”
When faced with budget cuts, the military tends to return its education programs to their cores, Bucci said, cutting innovative programs that go beyond the essentials.
“At the Army [War] College, they had a great program on cybersecurity and it was heavily subscribed to,” he said. “When all the budget cutting started to come, that was considered by Army leadership [as] “extra,” not part of the core. So they cut it.”
But some experts say tightening the focus of military professional education programs could be beneficial.
“Part of what’s going on is good — narrowing the focus … and getting back to the basics,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, who served as commander of Combined Forces-Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and was on the staff of the National Defense University from 2006 through 2010.
“There’s a good argument that this is a time to preserve educational funding,” Barno said, but there’s also a need to make sure that such funding yields productive results for the military.
Still, he said, professional military education should be “one of the last places” to make budget cuts.