Steve Mayou was dumbfounded when he was told he’d have to take courses in introductory physics and basic math on his path to a bachelor’s degree in sustainable building science and technology. Over a 14-year career in the Navy, Mayou had already worked as a nuclear reactor operator on three submarines. Yet just about the only thing his college offered in exchange for that experience was one credit for physical education.
“Not only did I do a physics class as part of my training, I had the ultimate lab,” he said, the anger still evident in his voice. “I was splitting atoms every day.”
Mayou fought back and ultimately got some additional credit for his training and experience at the three different higher-education institutions he attended in Washington State—Edmonds Community, Olympic, and South Seattle colleges—including for that physics class. But he’s seen many fellow veterans who didn’t.
“The frustration comes down to, we’ve already done this,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to bully the schools into giving us credit for it.”
While some states, a few universities and colleges, and the military itself are slowly working to improve this process, “a large portion” of veterans remain unable to turn their experience and training into academic credit, said Barrett Bogue, vice president of Student Veterans of America, which advocates for vets seeking higher educations.
There are numerous reasons for the gap. Often, the descriptions for military training and civilian academic courses don't align, creating a challenge for institutions trying to apply one framework to the other. Nor are the standards about transfer credits uniform; what schools accept varies widely from one university or college to another. So does institutions’ willingness to even check.
“There’s not one consistent standard,” Bogue said. “The only thing that is consistent is that student veterans continue to struggle to translate their military service into college credits.”
This despite the fact that many colleges and universities are actively recruiting veterans and the $11 billion a year in GI Bill benefits they collectively spend. Yet while at least 773,000 veterans are now using the GI Bill to go to college, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Bogue said “there’s a large portion of that population that has military experience that has not been successfully applied for credit.”
The result is that taxpayers are on the hook for educations they already paid for: the training given veterans when they were serving and the added cost of veterans languishing in college for longer than they’d planned. Some of these vets are forced to re-take so many courses that they run out of GI Bill money before they graduate. Some quit altogether.
Repeating coursework also slows down the pace at which veterans get the degrees they need to qualify for high-demand jobs, including in health care. Illinois, for instance, is facing an “imminent shortage” of registered nurses, according to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, which advocates for helping veterans get credits. It also needs nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and emergency medical technicians.
There’s a huge supply of qualified new workers for these fields, CAEL points out: the estimated 35,000 veterans returning to Illinois each year, many with training and experience as Army medics, Navy corpsmen, or Air Force medical technicians.
The recognition of potential solutions like that has begun to prompt change. Illinois is one of 13 states that have signed onto the Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit, joining Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin in trying to make it easier for veterans and service members to convert their experience into academic credit.
“Employers are beginning to realize the value of having veterans in their companies,” said Danny Eakins, education, employment, and policy administrator for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services and an Army combat veteran who served in Iraq. “We don’t need to teach a medic who was doing tracheotomies on the battlefield how to do CPR. And the American people and society in general want to do something. They don’t want to hear that veterans are coming back and not getting credit for anything.”
At a time when enrollment is leveling off and even falling, colleges and universities have an incentive to help now, too: Making life easier for veterans “might attract their dependents, their spouses, maybe other veterans,” said Sara Appel, the Multi-State Collaborative’s project coordinator. “Word of mouth in the veteran community is very, very powerful.”
That doesn’t mean the problem is easy to fix, involving as it does two of what can seem the most impenetrable bureaucracies in the United States: higher education and the military.
To decide whether students should get credit for their past experience or educations, colleges and universities typically review not only transcripts, but details of specific classes they completed. And military transcripts can consist of indecipherable acronyms—the “military alphabet,” one university administrator calls it, rattling off a list of numbered and lettered forms and courses—and some are even confidential. Further complicating this is the fact that the curriculum for a particular class may be different in each of the military branches.
“It can be overwhelming,” Appel said. “It takes a lot of time, and if you have a lot of veterans at your institution, that just compounds the issue.”
Even if a college registrar finally masters the particulars of a program, the military might change it, requiring the entire process to begin again. And training and experience acquired in the field depends on an officer to record it, which may leave lapses.
“We have the same goals. We don’t speak the same language,” said Connie Beene, director of federal initiatives for technical education at the Kansas Board of Regents.
How complicated this is was evident at a CAEL conference in Chicago in November, which brought together college administrators and others trying to get more credit for veterans to recognize their training and experience.
Margherita Clark, the dean of health and human services at Lansing Community College in Michigan, recounted trying to do this beginning in 2001 after meeting a veteran who was being forced to start from scratch in a program to become a paramedic—even though he’d been an Army medic.
It took her nearly 12 years to correct that, for just this one program, at one college, which now has a formal process for military medics to get paramedic certification in half the usual time. The board of trustees agreed to assess the previous military credit for free; other universities and colleges charge a “transcription fee” of as much as half the price of the courses that are waived.
“It is hard,” Clark said. “You have to have dedicated staff at a time when there are cuts, cuts, cuts. And your administration has to support veterans and understand what that means.”
The military has been trying to address these obstacles, too. It’s introduced a new “digital training management system” to keep track of soldiers’ schooling. And it has consolidated health care education for all the services into the single Medical Education and Training Campus, or METC, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, which works with some colleges and universities to match up its courses with theirs.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Lieutenant Commander Melanie Ellis, who oversees strategic partnerships at the METC. “The universities will still have to extend some effort, but it’s going to be a lot easier for them.”
This still assumes that institutions will, like Lansing Community College, go to the bother, said Suzan Bowman, METC’s standards and evaluation chief. And she said “there are more that don’t call than do.”
But Bowman said she’s increasingly hearing of examples of veterans such as Mayou, who are fighting for their credits themselves. “More and more students are not taking no for an answer and they have been going into their schools and saying, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve done this.’”
Another was John Johnston, who spent eight years on active duty as a Navy cryptologist. When he began work on a bachelor’s degree in marketing at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he said, he was also offered only credits for phys ed.
“I looked at them and I was, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ If I had been a cartoon you would have seen the steam coming out of my ears,” Johnston said. “I knew that I was worth more than a P.E. credit.”
He eventually got not all of the credits he demanded, but enough to shave more than a semester off his time in college — including for a “global diversity requirement” he was told he’d have to meet.
“That was the one that really lit my fire,” he said. “Again the smoke’s coming out of the ears and I’m thinking, ‘If I’m not globally diverse, who is? I’ve been around the world three times.’”
The process “was a nightmare,” said Johnston, who graduated in the spring—he was the university’s marketing student of the year last year—and now works in sales at Kellogg’s.
Bogue, the veterans advocate, said the onus shouldn't just be on schools or veterans, but the military, too.
“If you’re that base commander who’s got schools coming onto your base for a military education fair, you need to be asking them very pointed questions, such as, ‘How does time as an infantryman transfer into college credit?’” he said. “There’s a lot at stake.”