The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) is working in close coordination with the Naval Aviation community to ensure that aspiring aviators can get a head start on their graduate-level education goals – even before they earn their wings of gold.
This summer, NPS began offering distance learning (DL) certificates to more than 100 Student Naval Aviators (SNAs) who are in the pipeline to attend flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. Pursuing full-time academic certificates optimizes the ensigns’ waiting time and gives them a leg up on promotion requirements later in their careers. It also helps extend reach and access to NPS education for the Naval Aviation community, which has long been under-represented at NPS due to a rigorous training timeline.
“Naval Aviation had a need in that we had a wait of multiple months for our student aviators. And in that time, we decided, hey, we’ve got to do something productive with them,” said Rear Adm. Richard Brophy, Chief of Naval Air Training. “So reaching out to the Naval Postgraduate School seemed like a logical choice, and thankfully, the Postgraduate School quickly stepped up and said, yes, we can help fill that need.”
The SNAs were essentially in a holding pattern between earning their undergraduate degrees and beginning flight school. NPS set up a specialized graduate educational opportunity for these ensigns as they awaited training in Pensacola, offering them an opportunity to earn multiple certificates through remote education.
“Working entirely via distance learning over two quarters, they will earn two certificates, one in an area of operations analysis and the other in an area of STEM,” said Dr. Joe Hooper, NPS Vice Provost for Academic Affairs (VPAA). “This is a good pilot in a different way of doing business, where we can offer flexible, ‘stackable’ certificates leading towards advanced technical graduate degrees for warfighting officers in a way that works with their career path.”
Historically, SNAs have been assigned to miscellaneous temporary duties throughout the Naval Aviation enterprise, but this was not necessarily the most productive or cost-efficient way for these young officers to spend their wait time.
“The thought was that if we could provide them courses towards an academic certificate, that would be a very valuable use of their time,” said Dr. Matthew Carlyle, Operations Research (OR) Department Chair. “It would keep them engaged and leverage their recent educational experience.”
“Students coming right out of their undergraduate degree are very technically capable and can handle a lot of the material that we offer in our certificates,” Carlyle added.
Fortunately, NPS has a robust, well-established capacity and experience with DL education, dating back to the mid-1990s; this capacity was further refined throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and developed into a new portal, NPS Online. As a result, conversations between NPS and the Naval Aviation community began in mid-May to explore starting a stackable DL certificate program during the summer quarter.
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Steven Pilnick, OR Senior Lecturer and Associate Chairman for Distance Learning, began coordinating with the VPAA’s office and Naval Aviation officials in Pensacola to ensure students were placed in the right certificate track according to their individual academic background and interests.
“We jumped on it very quickly; it was a very fast train,” he said. “Much of what was unique here is that Naval Aviation asked us to offer certificate programs for their entire population of backlog of ensigns. Through the VPAA’s leadership we were able to get department chairs, funding and infrastructure involved to massively ramp up the largest cohort we’ve ever had.”
Graduate certificate programs typically require four courses, so each SNA will take a total of eight courses over the summer and fall academic quarters – a full-time workload from an academic perspective.
“The department had to come up with creative ways to rapidly staff up for unplanned instructional labor,” Pilnick said. “We should give credit to some of the OR instructors, who were heroes and volunteered to add students to their workload and stretch the limit beyond what had been done before.”
Once the SNAs begin flight school and launch their naval aviation careers, they will find it difficult to pursue academic interests – attending school is time spent outside the cockpit.
Taking advantage of the wait time to earn the certificates now will give them a leg up down the road, especially when it comes to promotions, according to Ensign Louis Ketchman.
Following his commissioning in May 2023, Ketchman reported to Pensacola in the summer, though his flight school class won’t begin for months. In the meantime, he’s pursuing combat systems and systems analysis certificates.
“It’s a decent challenge,” he said. “We just got out of college, so we’re used to taking 18-20 credits at a time, but it’s all new material.”
Ensign Freddie McAlister, on track to earn certificates in data science and combat systems engineering, was planning on eventually pursuing his master’s degree, with the goal of first becoming a naval aviator and eventually an astronaut.
“Once I do get these certificates, I’ll be able to work on my master’s later in my career,” he said. “It lines up perfectly because to become an astronaut, I need a master’s in a STEM program, so honestly it’ll work pretty well.”
The program also aligns with Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro’s vision for relevant, continuous education, as outlined in the recently released Naval Education Strategy.
“Continual learning is critical to the success of any officer’s development, and so is having a venue like NPS that gives us those opportunities,” said Brophy. “What I needed as a lieutenant is not what I need now as a commander or a captain. And so having that evolving type of education, I think, will be critical for the success of our Navy.”
NPS’ ability to respond quickly to the needs of the fleet is a unique capability, and one that reflects favorably on the institution, according to Carlyle.
“It’s a nice illustration of how we can cooperate not only with our sponsoring agencies, but also with our core clients, our core personnel in the Navy that we want to serve,” he said. “With that coordination, we can provide them with an excellent educational value.”
That value in meeting the Navy’s unique needs for graduate education, and the fact that NPS is able to do classified research as well, is something that and you can’t do anywhere else, according to Brophy.
“Could I do this in outside institutions? Probably not, because I doubt we would have this type of flexibility. And I also wouldn't have it from the standpoint of the warfighting focus,” Brophy said. “For us to win in combat requires us to think deeply about combat. Not all institutions allow you to do that, and NPS does.”