Liberal Education

Commitment to Liberal Education at the United States Air Force Academy

Located just north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) is one of our nation's federally funded military service academies. With an enrollment of approximately 4,400 undergraduates, the academy offers an integrated four-year curriculum of academics, athletics, leadership and character development, military training, and airmanship programs. Our mission is "to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation" (United States Air Force 2007).

The distinctive military mission of USAFA is clearly evident throughout the academy. For example, prior to the beginning of classes, our incoming cadets experience an intense six-week period of basic cadet training meant to introduce these new students to the military culture and the high standards of performance we expect. Once the academic year begins, cadets live in cadet squadrons that are modeled after the kinds of organizational units they will work in upon entrance to active duty. Even their academic classes reflect our military culture, as cadets wear uniforms, come to attention at the beginning of each session, and liberally sprinkle the words "sir" and "ma'am" into their discussions.

The reasons for the overt military culture are fairly clear. With rare exception, all our cadets will be commissioned as air force second lieutenants when they graduate. They are required to serve on active duty for at least five years after graduation, and many of them serve substantially longer. In fact, Air Force Academy graduates currently make up a sizeable percentage of the air force senior leadership, both at the academy and in the air force as a whole. Graduates of the Air Force Academy play important roles in the future of the United States Air Force.

This description highlights some obviously distinct characteristics of Air Force Academy graduates. For the purposes of this article, the most salient of these is that 100 percent of our students are guaranteed full-time employment—not just in a job, but in a profession—upon graduation. Furthermore, we know their future employer. What this means is that it is relatively easy for us, as an institution, to receive feedback regarding the preparedness of our graduates from our graduates themselves and their supervisors. It is also common for us to receive guidance from the cadets' employer (i.e., the United States Air Force) about any new capabilities that our future graduates need to possess.

Despite these distinctive characteristics, however, the Air Force Academy faces many of the same challenges that confront more traditional colleges and universities. The demands placed on our twenty-first-century military are nothing short of extraordinary, and officers are being asked to do things now that would have once been considered unimaginable.

As recently as twenty-five years ago, America was involved in the cold war, and the focus of the American military was on defending our country from the Soviet Union. Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the American military is fighting a very different kind of war in the Middle East and throughout the world. Even our most junior air force officers are asked to succeed in the face of great complexity, to operate without senior leader oversight, to identify hurdles and ways to overcome them, to perceive and adapt to the perspectives of others, and to take on tasks for which they have not been trained (Thomas 2005). To succeed in these conditions, they need to prepare in many of the same ways as their civilian counterparts at colleges and universities across the country. In short, air force officers need the broad-based knowledge, the intellectual skills, and the personal and professional responsibilities that are hallmarks of a liberal education.

A tradition of liberal education

A comprehensive liberal education has been the cornerstone of the United States Air Force Academy's curriculum from its inception. The academy's initial curriculum grew from the recommendations of a wide range of distinguished educators, legislators, and officers of the army, navy, and air force. Three fundamental questions guided the curriculum development process: What should air force officers know? What skills should they possess? And what curriculum would best provide them with that knowledge and those skills? Beginning in 1948, several air force boards and committees studied these questions for the purpose of proposing initial curricula at the academy. Each study consistently concluded that the answer to these questions was a broad, comprehensive, liberal education curriculum balanced between the social sciences/ humanities and basic sciences/engineering.

The Air Force Planning Board, directed by then Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, developed the following guiding principles for the academy's curriculum: (1) provide "a broad, general education as well as a sound background in aeronautical science and tactics" and (2) "produce an officer . . . broadly and soundly educated in the humanities, sciences, and military studies" (Air Force Academy Planning Board 1949, 5, 7).

Ultimately, Congress commissioned the Lieutenant General Hubert R. Harmon Committee (1949–54) to construct the initial academy curriculum. Leading military and civilian educators served on the committee. Independent reviews by prestigious universities—Massachusetts Institute of Technology for "scientific" (to include engineering) courses, and Stanford and Columbia for humanities and social science courses—also guided curriculum construction. The graduation requirements approved on January 19, 1956, included 148 2/3 semester hours, of which 138 2/3 were academic requirements, about half in basic sciences and engineering and half in social sciences and humanities. The remaining semester hours were for airmanship courses. In those early days, every cadet took the same "core" courses, and there were no academic majors (Woodyard 1965). The curriculum objective to provide a broad, general education with a roughly equal balance between the basic sciences/engineering and the social sciences/ humanities has remained the cornerstone of the academy's academic programs ever since.

Academic majors were first introduced in 1964, with a commensurate reduction in the size of the general education (or "core") curriculum. Today, cadets can choose from thirty-one divisional, disciplinary, and interdisciplinary majors. However, the intent and scope of the core curriculum (now 102 credit hours) remains unchanged—to provide a comprehensive liberal education, spanning a broad range of disciplines, that prepares our graduates for the unknown challenges of military service anywhere in the world.

The evolution of our work

Although the academy's commitment to liberal education has remained the same since the institution's founding over fifty years ago, the approach we have taken to fulfill that commitment has changed markedly over the years. For example, early conversations about our curriculum were focused largely on the accumulation of credit hours: how many classes in each discipline should be included in our core curriculum? Over time, however, those campus conversations have slowly begun to change. Rather than focusing just on credit hours, the conversations have begun to focus much more on the achievement of agreed-upon outcomes or competencies for cadet learning and development.

Our institutional journey toward outcomes began in 1993, when our dean of faculty first established what we then called "educational outcomes" that bridged across each of our academic departments. Over time, those educational outcomes were followed by comparable lists of outcomes for the academy's military training and athletic programs. The establishment of outcomes within each of these "mission elements" was a big step forward, helping each mission element promote a more intentional approach to cadet development within its own area. However, it also encouraged a certain level of "stove piping" that was undesirable. Because each mission element (e.g., dean of students, academic dean, athletic director) was working toward its own respective outcomes, they tended to work separately—often competing for scarce resources, such as funding or access to cadet time.

The next major step in the Air Force Academy's evolution took place in 2003, with the creation of an integrated "Officer Development System." This system established a common education and training philosophy across the academy, and it also introduced the first integrated set of institutional learning outcomes. The authors of the Officer Development System created this integrated list by combining the outcomes originally put forward by each distinct mission element (Price 2004). In hindsight, this "bottom-up" approach was a bit cumbersome, and the resulting set of institutional outcomes turned out to be lengthy and difficult to remember and implement. Still, this was an important milestone in our institutional development.

In 2006, a team from USAFA attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Greater Expectations Summer Institute. That was the first time we learned about the essential learning outcomes as described in the Liberal Education and America's Promise initiative (AAC&U 2007). Those outcomes, combined with an emerging set of parallel air force "core competencies," served as important "top-down" guidance to supplement the outcomes the academy had developed through its previous bottom-up processes. The result was a major revision of the institutional outcomes, with a focus on making the outcomes concise, memorable, and consistent with both air force doctrine and best practices in higher education (see sidebar below). These outcomes embody the intent and spirit of the academy's mission and are, today, the focal point of everyone's efforts, whether they teach in our core curriculum, in a major course, in military training, in athletics, or in our signature airmanship programs. This has helped our institution work in a much more integrated way than in the past. Indeed, all the elements of the academy's curriculum (academic, military, athletic, and airmanship) now work together toward these shared goals.

Since 2006, our efforts, such as those described below, have centered on operation­alizing and instilling the USAFA outcomes, especially within our core curriculum and course of instruction.

  • We require each of our core courses or programs to "sign up" to promote one or more of the USAFA outcomes in a substantive way. The resulting curriculum map is now published in our Curriculum Handbook as the "Curriculum and Outcome Alignment Plan" (COAP).
  • We use the COAP to create interdisciplinary "outcome teams" made up of senior representatives from each of the academy's core courses or programs. Each interdisciplinary team is charged with overseeing the development of its outcome, the compilation of assessment data to inform the academy's future efforts, and to recommend improvements to the academy experience.
  • We have bolstered our assessment efforts. This includes both the collection of direct assessment data (typically embedded within core courses and programs and scored with agreed-upon outcome rubrics) and indirect assessment data, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement, surveys of our graduates, and focus groups with our "customers" —supervisors in the active-duty air force.
  • We have embedded structures that allow the outcome teams to report their findings to senior leaders, closing the loop on their assessment efforts. While still at a relatively early stage, these structures should allow us to continue to build upon excellence by moving closer to our strategic vision of assessment-based improvement of cadet education.

The way ahead

As we look to the future, we expect our curriculum to continue to be informed by both our colleagues in the higher education community and by the evolving needs of the air force. However, we also realize that we have come to an important crossroads. While we remain absolutely convinced of the need to provide cadets with a comprehensive, intentional, and developmental liberal education, we are also cognizant of the exploding complexity of the twenty-first century. For example, modern military operations require that the air force be prepared to win battles not only in the air, but also in newer realms of space and cyberspace. The Department of Defense has urged us to provide greater preparation in languages and intercultural knowledge and competence. The expanded use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) by the air force has led to the introduction of a UAS-RPA program for cadets, much like we introduced powered flight and soaring decades ago. And recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the need to introduce cadets to the principles of forward troop deployment, survival, escape, evasion, and resistance in hostage-like situations. In short, the qualities needed to be a successful air force officer continue to grow at a remarkable rate.

In many ways, our challenge is similar to that described by Gordon Moore and commonly referred to as "Moore's Law." Moore, cofounder of the computer chip manufacturer Intel, predicted in 1965 that the transistor density on integrated circuits would double about every two years—a prediction that has been remarkably accurate over the last forty-plus years (Intel n.d.). The challenge to place increasingly more circuitry on the same-sized computer chip has forced Intel and its competitors to be increasingly innovative. Similarly, because of the exploding complexity of the twenty-first century and the fact that cadets at the Air Force Academy must graduate in four years, we, too, are called upon to look for innovative breakthroughs that we can use to more effectively and efficiently prepare our cadets for future military service. Does our traditional core curriculum (with the same 102 semester hours required of all cadets) best meet the needs? Or, might it be better to require all cadets to engage in comparable (but perhaps not identical) learning experiences, as long as they develop the same USAFA outcomes? How can we leverage the "high-impact practices" (Kuh 2008) that we already have in place? How can we improve upon our current practices to make them even more effective? And how can we ensure that our high-impact practices are available to each and every one of our cadets? These are the challenging questions facing us at the academy today.

Acknowledging these challenges, the academy commissioned a team last summer to attend the AAC&U Greater Expectations Institute. What emerged from that effort was a new initiative, designed in part to explore ways to develop multiple, purposeful curricular pathways to outcome achievement (Leskes and Miller 2006). While the outcome of this initiative is not clear at this writing, what is clear is that the academy remains committed to a comprehensive, intentional, and developmental liberal education that enables student accomplishment of our learning outcomes. The stakes are simply too high to do anything less. Upon graduation and commissioning, all of our graduates take the oath of office by which they swear (or affirm) to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Who will be those adversaries during our graduates' careers? From what cultures and what geographic regions will these adversaries emerge? What technologies and innovations will they bring to bear in support of their cause (especially new ones that have yet to be invented)? And what new military strategies and instruments of power will they employ? Will our graduates be called upon for war fighting, humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, nation stabilization, reconstruction, or disaster response? While we can speculate on the answers to these questions, in truth we have no way of knowing with certainty what our graduates will be asked to accomplish five, ten, or twenty years from now. The only thing that experience tells us is that our graduates must be leaders of character ready to meet the challenge.

The founders of the Air Force Academy acknowledged that the best way to build this capable air force officer was through a broad liberal education, spanning the basic sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities. In a similar vein, today's air force officer needs a critical set of responsibilities, skills, and knowledge in order to succeed, regardless of the military, technological, political, or cultural challenges he or she may face. It is for that reason that the Air Force Academy remains committed to the tenets of liberal education. Our nation depends on it!

USAFA Outcomes

Commission leaders of character who embody the Air Force core values…

…committed to Societal, Professional, and Individual Responsibilities

  • Ethical Reasoning and Action
  • Respect for Human Dignity
  • Service to the Nation
  • Lifelong Development and Contributions
  • Intercultural Competence and Involvement

… empowered by integrated Intellectual and Warrior Skills

  • Quantitative and Information Literacy
  • Oral and Written Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Decision Making
  • Stamina
  • Courage
  • Discipline
  • Teamwork

… grounded in essential Knowledge of the Profession of Arms and the Human & Physical Worlds

  • Heritage and Application of Air, Space, and Cyberspace Power
  • National Security and Full Spectrum of Joint and Coalition Warfare
  • Civic, Cultural, and International Environments
  • Ethics and the Foundations of Character
  • Principles of Science and the Scientific Method
  • Principles of Engineering and the Application of Technology


Air Force Academy Planning Board. 1949. A plan for an Air Force Academy, volume I. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: The Air University.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Intel. n.d. Moore's law.

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Leskes, A., and R. Miller. 2006. Purposeful pathways: Helping students achieve key learning outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Price, P. A. 2004. Genesis and evolution of the United States Air Force Academy's Officer Development System. Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Thomas, B. 2005. Multi-national security transition command: Iraq. Presentation given to USAFA faculty upon return from deployment to Baghdad, Iraq.

United States Air Force. 2007. Air force mission directive 12: United States Air Force Academy. Office of the Secretary of the Air Force,

Woodyard, W. T. 1965. A historical study of the development of the academic curriculum of the United States Air Force Academy. PhD diss., University of Denver.

Rolf C. Enger is director of education, Steven K. Jones is director of academic assessment, and Dana H. Born is dean of the faculty at the United States Air Force Academy. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policies of the United States Air Force or the Air Force Academy. This article is in the public domain.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the authors' names on the subject line.

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