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Academic credits for military training don't always get you closer to a degree

Jan. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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If a school accepts a year or two worth of academic credit based on your military experience, does that really mean you’ll get your degree a year or two more quickly?

Unless you’re seeking a degree in a field nearly identical to your military duties, probably not, said University of Kentucky Veterans Resource Center Coordinator Anthony Dotson. And if a school offers to substantially trim your time to a degree based on unrelated military experience, beware.

“The advice I give to soldiers is: If it sounds too good to be true, it is,” Dotson said. “Anything worth having, ... you have to work for.”

Rather than relying on credit based on military experience, Dotson recommended that service members hoping to graduate quickly use credit-by-exam programs, such as College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, tests, which are available free of charge to eligible troops.

Central to the issue is the difference between accepted credit and usable credit.

The American Council on Education recommends various credits based on military experience. The University of Kentucky can accept dozens and dozens of hours worth of these credits from a vet, Dotson said, but hardly any of them will be usable toward a degree plan.

Most service members will have a usable physical education credit. Some may also have usable credits in communication or computer science, depending on their military duties. But a semester’s worth of usable credits — just a handful of classes — is typically the maximum at Dotson’s school, and most service members can only get out of one class, thanks to that physical education credit, he said.

What happens to the leftover credit that was accepted but not usable? “Most ... ends up being ‘general education,’ ” Dotson said. “It will land on your transcript, but it doesn’t shorten your stay at all.”

In some cases, all that extra credit on a transcript can cause problems with the Veterans Affairs Department, which may question why a student has yet to graduate despite amassing so much credit, Dotson said.

Cathy Sandeen, ACE’s vice president for education attainment and innovation, said in an email statement that colleges and universities decide for themselves how to incorporate credits recommended by the organization into degree plans. But ACE, relying in part on the new Joint Services Transcript, is working to provide schools more information about credits that stem from military training.

“With the increased need to help returning veterans, we are actively working with institutions to raise awareness about the rigor and validity of our credit recommendations and to create defined articulations and pathways from military training and occupational specialties into specific degrees and certifications,” Sandeen said.

Tech training can be exception

There are exceptions to the rule.

Kaplan University has started offering accelerated Associate of Health Sciences degrees, as well as bachelor’s degrees in the same field, to trained military medics.

Because of the overlap between academic and military medical training, the Kaplan program can take enough usable military training credits to cut the time to a degree by up to 75 percent, according to school spokesman Brian Salyer.

“These guys have done an extraordinary amount of clinicals and field training,” Snyder said. “It’s certainly worthwhile for the service member to count all of that training.”

Dotson said that when there are such “apples to apples” similarities between military training and an academic degree, schools can, and in some cases should, take the training as usable academic credit.

This is most often possible with technical training. Dotson highlighted the medical field as an example. Even if you’re not seeking a degree in a technical field, you shouldn’t have to sit through years of classes when you already know the material.

Dotson recommends troops take CLEP tests, which gauge a person’s level of expertise in particular subject areas and offer credit that is more likely to be usable toward a degree plan.

The tests are available at more than 100 installations around the world. DSST exams, as well as the UExcel tests offered by Excelsior College, also can be used to test out of taking particular classes.

Dotson, a former Army lieutenant colonel, practiced what he preaches, taking five CLEP tests worth 30 credit hours when he was a student.

“I CLEPed my freshman year,” he said.

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