When Benny Lloyd enrolled in nursing school at the University of South Florida, the Navy veteran brought with him the experience of having been a search-and-rescue swimmer, trained to provide life-saving medical care in some of the most challenging situations.
“Looking at the kids next to me, I knew I was going to smoke these kids,” said Lloyd, who was 35 at the time. “I had a competitive advantage.”
But while he may have had a head start over 18-year-old classmates right out of high school, Lloyd got no academic credit for it. He had to slog along with them through introductory courses in anatomy and physiology, the fundamentals of nursing care, and how to conduct physical examinations, among other subjects. The only benefit of his time in the military that the university conferred was to recognize his basic training by tossing him two credits for phys-ed.
Lloyd, now 39, completed his degree and is on his way to a earning a master’s next year. Those are the kinds of credentials required to get civilian nursing jobs. But it took him longer than it needed to, in part because universities and colleges give veterans so little credit for their military training and experience—even though the skills they’ve learned, in fields like nursing and law enforcement, are in high demand, and even as more are being discharged into a persistently soft employment market. Some 684,000 veterans are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Getting so little class credit for so many skills learned on the battlefield has long frustrated America's military veterans. Now it threatens to delay or derail the education of a growing number of veterans: Officials say they're bracing for an influx of servicemembers seeking education benefits as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. More than a million veterans are receiving education benefits, the Veterans Administration reports, which is already up almost double from about 564,000 in 2009, before the military drawdown.
But things are slowly starting to change. Lawmakers in Washington state have unanimously voted to make public universities and colleges give academic credit to veterans for military training, and the governor has signed the measure into law. A similar bill is under consideration in Michigan. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich has proposed requiring that veterans’ experience be taken into account not only for academic credit at that state’s public institutions, but for professional licenses.
“If you can drive a truck from Kabul to Kandahar, Afghanistan, don’t you think you should be able to drive a truck from Columbus to Cleveland?” Kasich asked in his state-of-the-state address.
In addition to time, the problem is costing veterans money to pay for courses about subjects they already know, often subsidized by taxpayers through GI Bill benefits that have totaled nearly $35 billion since 2009.
“It’s frustrating,” said Will Hubbard, a Marine Corps veteran and vice president of Student Veterans of America, or SVA, which is pushing universities to change this. “Some schools may say they’re veteran friendly, and that could be true. Could they be more veteran friendly? Absolutely.”
A new study by the SVA finds that veterans who enroll in college using money from the GI Bill take longer to finish than other students—a median of five years for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree candidates generally take a median time of four years and four months, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Veterans often go to school while simultaneously raising families, holding jobs and serving as reservists, all of which can slow them down. But so can universities’ reluctance to give them credit for what they already know, advocates say.
“Even things like military courses—educational experiences that clearly translate—do not always transfer,” Hubbard said. “I can understand, if not condone, that they don’t give credit for experience. But when you have classroom experience, that’s bewildering. That really is confusing to me.”
In addition to changes at the state level, individual schools are moving on their own to give veterans more class credit for time served and skills learned. At the University of South Florida, the nursing school will start a pilot program in the fall for veterans that will waive as many as 16 credits for them, based on their military experience. That’s equivalent to one semester. The university estimates that as many as 20,000 former medics and Navy corpsmen are jobless nationwide, even as there’s a shortage of civilian nurses —particularly in states like Florida, which has 1.5 million veterans and 61,000 personnel on active duty. By 2025, the nation will need 260,000 more registered nurses than it’s scheduled to produce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which says the problem is worst in the South and West.
“We want to capitalize on the knowledge they already have, rather than teaching them how to take vital signs or make beds,” said Alicia Rossiter, who is both the college of nursing’s veteran liaison and an active-duty combat nurse. “Our combat medics and corpsmen put in chest tubes, they’re doing tracheotomies, they’re doing frontline battle care. The wealth of information they bring is just a win-win.”
The new USF program has already gotten 500 inquiries for just 24 available seats. That has prompted other colleges of nursing to watch the experiment, and a few are applying for grants to try the same thing.
“There are a lot of jobs, and we have these phenomenally talented veterans,” said Rita D’Aoust, the nursing school’s associate director for academic affairs. “They are a phenomenal applicant pool because of their maturity, their experience, their commitment.”
Bryan Robinson, a 26-year-old former Air Force MP enrolled at USF, doesn’t understand why he can’t use his military experience toward the criminology degree he’s seeking.
“Everything we’re doing now, I did in the military,” Robinson saod. “They should at least waive something. I already have hands-on experience. Why do you have to take these electives? It’s slowing us down and costing us benefits.”
Scheduled to graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree, Robinson won’t have enough GI Bill money left to pay for the master’s degree he also hopes to get. The benefits expire four years after they begin, meaning many veterans are at risk of dropping out or have to take on debt to pay for the rest of their educations.
Universities have generally been reluctant to accept transfer credit from any student. Hubbard, of the SVA, agreed that part of the reason for this “comes back to the business model of these universities,” which charge by the credit; letting students forgo credit means the institutions must forgo revenue.
It’s also cultural, he said—a problem academics and others may have “translating military experience to the civilian world.”
But policy makers begin to pay attention to the issue, Hubbard said, “the universities will be next to feel this pressure. It wouldn’t surprise me if more universities started getting heat about this.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.