By William M. Arkin and Alexa O’Brien
An information and intelligence shift has emerged in America’s national security state over the last two decades, and that change has been reflected in the country’s educational institutions as they have become increasingly tied to the military, intelligence, and law enforcement worlds. This is why VICE News has analyzed and ranked the 100 most militarized universities in America.
Initially, we hesitated to use the term militarized to describe these schools. The term was not meant to simply evoke robust campus police forces or ROTC drills held on a campus quad. It was also a measure of university labs funded by US intelligence agencies, administrators with strong ties to those same agencies, and, most importantly, the educational backgrounds of the approximately 1.4 million people who hold Top Secret clearance in the United States.
But ultimately, we came to believe that no term sums up all of those elements better than militarized. Today’s national security state includes a growing cadre of technicians and security professionals who sit at computers and manage vast amounts of data; they far outnumber conventional soldiers and spies. And as the skills demanded from these digital warriors have evolved, higher education has evolved with them.
The 100 schools named in the VICE News rankings produce the greatest number of students who are employed by the Intelligence Community (IC), have the closest relationships with the national security state, and profit the most from American war-waging.
National security-related degree programs cater not just to new technologies and education needs, but also to the careers of a regimented workforce, offering distance learning, flexible credits, and easy transfers to accommodate frequent deployments, assignment changes, and shift work.
Four categories of institutions of higher education dominate the VICE News list of the 100 most militarized universities in America: schools whose students attain their degrees predominantly online; schools that are heavily involved in research and development for defense, intelligence, and security clients; schools in the Washington, DC area; and schools that are newly focused on homeland security.
Twenty of the top 100 schools that instruct people working in intelligence agencies, the military, and the worlds of law enforcement and homeland security — including their private contractor counterparts — are effectively online diploma mills. Twelve are for-profit companies; several didn’t exist before 9/11. The schools have become so important that two of them, American Military University (No. 2) and the University of Phoenix (No. 3), rank near the top of the list based on the sheer number of their graduates working in the Top Secret world.
Seventeen of the 100 top schools are in the Washington, DC area, reflecting the concentration of all things national security around the nation’s capital. The University of Maryland handily outranks all other schools at number one, while Georgetown University (No. 10), George Washington University (No. 4), and American University (No. 20) — all considered among the country’s 10 best schools for the study of international relations — rank among the top 25 most militarized schools. But post-9/11 growth in homeland security and a high demand for cyber training boost schools as diverse as George Mason (No. 5), Northern Virginia Community College (No. 16), and Strayer University (No. 8), a predominantly online school headquartered in Herndon, Virginia.
Seventeen powerhouse research universities traditionally supporting the oft-cited military-industrial complex rank in the top 100, including Johns Hopkins (No. 7), Penn State (No. 15), Georgia Tech (No. 26), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 47). Ten of these schools account for $2.05 billion in national security research and development funding, which is two-thirds of the approximately $3 billion VICE News calculates the federal government gave to the top 100 schools last year. Yet rather than traditional weapons systems, what these schools mostly research — often in classified laboratories — is intelligence technologies, cyber security, and big data analytics, challenging the common view of what militarization means.
More than 250 schools now offer certificates and degrees in homeland security, a relatively new discipline combining emergency management, physical security, and information security. Meanwhile, intelligence courses are a growing prerequisite for criminology and law enforcement education, a transformation reaching beyond federal agencies into local police. With new programs and increasing government and private sector funding, the top homeland security schools include Texas A&M (No. 14), Louisiana State (No. 96), Duke (No. 66), the University of Minnesota (No. 76), and Rutgers (No. 73).
The rankings rely on a unique dataset of more than 90,000 individuals who have worked in and around the IC since 9/11. The sample represents approximately 6 percent of all the people in the US with a Top Secret clearance, and includes military and law enforcement personnel, government civilian employees, and contractors at the federal, state, and local levels.
The rankings were initially calculated based on how many people in the IC had degrees and certificates from each school, then adjusted using 51 additional factors, running the gamut from federal funding amounts to a designation as an Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence to participation in federal domestic security task forces.
The affiliations revealed in the resumes of Top Secret workers offer unprecedented insight into the make-up of the national security state. Many of the schools that rank in the top 100 are virtually unknown outside government — schools like Cochise College (No. 6), Excelsior College (No. 13), and Central Texas College (No. 18). Each of these institutions tend to serve a specific constituency: military intelligence at Cochise, Army personnel at Central Texas College, and law enforcement at the predominantly online Excelsior, headquartered in Albany, New York.
Only three traditionally conservative schools (as determined by outside rankings), Texas A&M (No. 14), Liberty University (No. 42) and Brigham Young University (No. 84), are in the top 100, indicating that conservative social or political ideology plays little role in how schools are militarized.
Several elite schools on the list — such as Harvard (No. 32), Duke (No. 66), Stanford (No. 60), Northwestern (No. 80), and Cornell (53) — rank highly because of federal funding and specialized graduate programs. Harvard, for example, boasts a massive executive education program geared toward mid-career and senior federal employees; few Harvard-affiliated Top Secret workers obtained a bachelor’s degree at the school. That trend is repeated at other elite schools. In fact, of the top 100 ranked liberal arts colleges in America, none appear on our list of the nation’s 100 most militarized institutions.
The 20 predominately online schools on our list are akin to defense and intelligence contractors. The post-9/11 government expansion in national security and law enforcement increased the availability of tuition assistance and benefits for veterans and soldiers. For-profits have received the largest share of military education benefits, amounting to roughly 42 percent of post-GI Bill benefits between 2013 and 2014 and half of Department of Defense Tuition Assistance benefits.
In general, there are a wide range of reasons why schools end up ranking on our list. The business school at Villanova University (No. 22) educates a large number of managers and contract administrators for the classified black budget, a phenomenon only identifiable when looking at the resumes of hundreds of its graduates. West Virginia University (No. 72) is the lead academic partner of the FBI and the military for the study of biometrics, and is located near intelligence centers established after 9/11 that specialize in “identity intelligence.” The University of Central Florida (No. 50), a simulations research and curriculum specialist, is located near an Orlando-based federal training cluster and consortium that focuses on everything from war gaming to immersive training environments of the future.
A half-dozen schools in the top 100 had national security degree programs throughout the Cold War: George Washington University (No. 4), Johns Hopkins (No. 7), Georgetown (No. 10), Harvard (No. 32), MIT (No. 47), the University of Denver (No. 93), and Missouri State University (No. 95), formerly known as Southwest Missouri State. These schools continue to be well represented in the broader national security community, though national security credentials from those schools are less common in Top Secret workers minted after 9/11.
Strategic and intelligence studies programs that emerged after 9/11 at two universities are also prevalent in the educational backgrounds of the national security workforce: Duke (No. 66) and Mercyhurst University (No. 88). But fewer than 400 people out of 90,000 contained in our dataset have actual degrees in national security studies. Less than 5 percent of the total dataset have majors or advanced degrees in political science. International relations appears even less frequently, at 2 percent of the overall workforce.
Fewer than 100 people have graduate degrees in Middle Eastern studies. Less than 1 percent (fewer than 1,000 people) describe themselves as Arabic linguists. Of those, 60 percent are contractors, predominantly Arab-American citizens working for private companies under contract with national security–related agencies.
The Most Common Academic Concentrations in Top Secret Workers
1. Information Systems and Technology
2. Information Technology
3. Systems Engineering
4. Business Administration
5. Criminal Justice and Criminology
6. Computer Science
7. Political Science
8. Electrical Engineering
9. General Studies
10. Mechanical Engineering
Of the 10 most common academic concentrations present in the data, information systems, management, and systems engineering rank highest. Emergency management and disaster preparedness, which once fell under the rubric of public administration or urban and regional planning, is now largely subsumed under homeland security education alongside counter-terrorism. Degrees in intelligence-related criminal justice studies account for twice as many degrees as those in political science and international relations combined, even among military personnel.
Based on the most recent data for 2013, twenty-seven percent of those employed in the IC are civil service workers, that is, regular competitive civilian employees of the US government. Another 54 percent are military personnel, working directly for military intelligence agencies or seconded to other agencies. And 18 percent are private contractors — largely workers who were formerly members of the first two groups.
A frenzy of hiring following 9/11 after years of relative stagnation in the 1990s left the IC “dominated by senior and junior personnel, with shortfalls in the midcareer workforce,” according to a 2013 Rand Corporation study entitled Workforce Planning in the Intelligence Community. That frenzy brought in an enormous influx of junior personnel, overwhelming the formal training establishment at a time when the demand for non-traditional training shifted educational needs from military arts and sciences to information skills.
The world of drones, networks, geographic information systems, and big data were emerging and demanding new skill sets. Tens of thousands of analysts were needed to operate software-intensive intelligence systems. Much of their certification was simply outsourced to the schools on our list.
Outside of the military and intelligence communities, the situation was even more challenging. The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created; in fact, more security personnel were hired by the DHS’s Transportation Security Administration in the first five years of its existence than the entire CIA, NSA, and State Department together employed. Online programs flourished, but skills training took over from any reliance on a liberal arts education.
On-the-job training has also influenced the educational styles of higher education institutions serving this constituency. They rely on more hands-on training and more college credits granted for experiential skills. Whether education quality has been sacrificed remains an open question, but there is no disputing that different types of workers and schooling has emerged, and that in the IC during the information era, education has often been overtaken by training.
As early as 2007, a crisis in national security education and training was already being observed. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported its concerns about the uncontrolled growth and significant shortcomings in the composition and skills of the Top Secret workforce as part of its unclassified report on the classified budget. Inadequate lead times in hiring practices, the excessive use of contractors, ineffective training, and the absence of language proficiency were just some of the deficiencies they identified.
The IC and its law enforcement counterpart is consumed with acquiring an ever-increasing flood of information — like targeting and biographical data — and then processing it, moving it, analyzing it, storing it, and networking it for later retrieval. The system to do so has grown so complex that the quest to develop significant regional or cultural expertise about the lands or peoples whom we are fighting has fallen by the wayside. The education backgrounds and the areas of academic concentration show that the national security community has transformed into an information age army more consequential than traditional warriors.
The gloomy result is that the academy (and by extension the philanthropic world) has failed to establish a post-9/11 academic program to cultivate the next generation of scholars who can offer a genuinely civilian counter-narrative to the national security state similar to the civilian arms control community created during the Cold War. Even at the most elite schools that rank in the top 100, the many centers and research institutes focusing on warfare and terrorism are predominantly adjuncts of the national security state.
The IC has also become more isolated and self-perpetuating. This phenomenon is evidenced by two categories of schools that dominate the rankings: Firstly, the set of 20 online universities that subsist as the quasi-outsourced training establishment for the military and homeland security, subsidized largely by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Second, the set of 17 Washington, DC-area schools that provide certification and post-undergraduate professional training for the inside-the-Beltway crowd.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, veterans brought more than $19.5 billion to colleges and universities through the GI Bill from August 2009 to September 2014. Nearly $8 billion of that went to for-profit colleges, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It has been 14 years since 9/11, but many of the national security alliances now in place with higher education institutions have emerged in the past three years. Classified research on campuses, once highly controversial, is making a comeback. College and university administrators and campus police are increasingly being enlisted in homeland security, counter-terrorism, and counter-intelligence.
Internally since 9/11, the government has initiated an abundance of programs to improve institutional understanding of the cultures and languages in the regions where we are fighting: The Pentagon has created a program of “Afghan-Pakistan (AFPAK) hands” specializing in mentoring and training. The military has developed female engagement teams to work in the Muslim world, specifically in Afghanistan. The Army lauded its human terrain system, enlisting social scientists in network analysis and (disastrously) in interrogations. In government, there have also been reorganizations galore to face the challenges of national and international security, from the creation of DHS to the establishment of the military’s US Africa Command.
Yet there is no indicator of any significant advance in foreign language expertise or regional specialty, or indeed of any greater capacity to understand or think critically about the state of domestic or international affairs. The international order is no more stable today than it was a decade and a half ago. The homeland is not safer. The threats, both internationally and domestically, are ever increasing despite all of these efforts.
An overwhelming avalanche of intelligence information, a looming threat to cyber security, the echo chamber of Washington, DC, the outsourcing of basic training to educational contractors — these are the realities of the national security state that are exerting a tremendous influence on higher education in America. As a result, what is too often being taught at these schools is not the art of war or peace, nor the capacity to understand the costs or benefits of either.Φ
William M. Arkin is a scholar, analyst, author and journalist who has been working on the subject of national security for over 40 years. He is author, most recently of Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (Little Brown, 2015). He is a national security consultant at Vice News and to NBC News Investigates, the investigative arms of NBC News.
Alexa O’Brien is a investigative journalist. Her work has been published in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50.