When former Navy Reserve Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Russo was ready to go for his bachelor's degree at American Military University after earning an associate degree at Ashworth College, the intelligence studies graduate worked hard to ensure his transfer to a new school was a seamless one.
His three-step course of action — knowing his long-term goals, communicating with school counselors and organizing his educational records — led to academic success and a job as an analyst with the federal government. Experts say it's a smart transfer plan from which any college student can benefit.
Know your goals
Often, students switching schools mainly are interested in how many credits will transfer from previous coursework and military experience. The real focus should be long-term goals, said Tracy Cosker, associate vice president of transfer students for American Public University System.
If you take a longer perspective, you'll have more realistic expectations about what classes will transfer.
"Students should expect that a lot of military experience will end up [as electives] unless their military job closely aligns with their long-term goals," Cosker said.
If your military experience is in personnel and your long-term goal is to get a business degree and move into the corporate sector, for example, a lot of your military credits may transfer as nonelective credits. However, if your ultimate goal is to be a high school history teacher, your military credits may only transfer as electives.
It's the difference between accepted or awarded credits and applicable-to-degree credits, said Ramona McAfee, assistant dean for military and federal programs at Columbia College in Missouri
"You can transfer in 100 credits from School A, but based on your new degree plan, only 40 [of those] may be applicable to the degree sought," she said.
"That's why you need to focus on long terms and not ‘How many credits can I get?'Ÿ" Cosker said.
Without a master plan, you could waste a lot of time: "I don't know how many times I've seen someone who has moved from school to school to school and they have taken English 101 over and over again," Cosker said.
Most schools require two levels of English, she said, but students need to understand that you can't take the intro level of English four times. "I always tell students, if you have taken an English class, don't take another one until you've decided where you are going to rest your head, [because it might not transfer]."
Once you've figured out what your long-term goals are, reach out to those who can help you reach them, said William R. Gideon, associate director of military distance learning at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. This includes:
* Talking to your military education counselors about what schools have programs that meet your academic goals.
* Talking to advisers at these schools to clarify program requirements, costs, credit transferability and acceptance of military credits.
* Establishing a degree completion plan; the experts recommend an agreement from the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Degree Network System.
Good communication also can prevent you from having to transfer schools for the wrong reasons, Cosker said.
"What I see happening a lot with students is they are doing a great job at an institution, then they hit a class they have trouble with. Rather than having a communication with the professor or talking to an ESO [education services officer], they jump ship on an entire program," Cosker said.
And don't assume that you have to transfer if you move or deploy. Most schools now have at least some online components; talk to someone at the school about your options. Even if you feel more comfortable in a classroom environment, consider taking even a few online courses while you are deployed so you can stay at your school, Cosker said.
"Talk to your ESO and your student adviser before you make any transfer decision. You'd be surprised at what can be done to work around even having to transfer."
"Students need to keep copies of everything," McAfee said — including the obvious, like grade reports and transcripts, and the not-so-obvious, such as class syllabi and course catalogs from the year or years you attended a school.
What's the significance? Similar classes may have very different names at different schools. For example, McAfee said, "[Remedial] math might be Math 105 at one school. At another, Math 105 is Intermediate Algebra or College Algebra."
If you've saved your paperwork from a class at one college, another school can evaluate and award credit accordingly, preventing you from taking redundant courses.
Saving everything also can clear up discrepancies during course-transfer evaluations. McAfee recalls one student who was adamant that a course she had taken — listed as a food presentation class in the course catalog — actually was a science and nutrition class.
"She had saved the syllabus and course exams, and, lo and behold, it was determined to be a science and nutrition class," McAfee said.
The lesson? "Do not assume that something is not of interest or value," she said, recommending a simple practice she has observed from past military students: Get a three-ring binder and some page protectors, and create a page or section for every step of your academic career, whether it be training, coursework or credit-by-exam results.
Ultimately, McAfee said, responsibility for college success — whether it be transferring schools or finishing your degree — lies with the student.
To that end, don't sign up for a course before reviewing your transcript or SOC agreement with an adviser. And remember: You may not always like what you hear.
"I tell people, if you don't like what one person is telling you, go see someone else. If something does not seem right to you, ask a number of people, until you receive consistent information. Then, it is probably written in concrete and can't be changed," McAfee said.
"Take responsibility for your education. No one else will do it for you."