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transfer military education to college credits
Credit: U.S. Military Academy

CHICAGO — 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.

That’s because, over a 14-year career in the Navy, Mayou had already worked as a nuclear reactor operator on three submarines. But 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 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.

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The work of synching up military and civilian course descriptions and making more information available about what credits may transfer varies widely from one university or college to another. So does institutions’ willingness to even check.

“Some people give up. As with anything, you get the door slammed in your face so many times, at some point you’re going to say, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ And that’s horrible.”

“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.

“If you’re really veteran friendly, you’re not going to provide a headache to service members or veterans who want to enroll in your institutions, who quite frankly want to bring an economic benefit to your institution,” Bogue said. “Why on earth you’d want to throw up roadblocks to that is beyond me.”

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 again for educations they already paid for — the training given veterans when they were serving — and that veterans languish in college for longer than they’d planned, forced to re-take so many courses that they often 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.

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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 eminently 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 — the others are Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — trying to make it easier for veterans and service members to convert that experience into academic credit so that it not only doesn’t take them longer than it should to graduate, but so they finish faster.

“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 himself 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.”

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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 or not 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. 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.

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The dean of health and human services at Lansing Community College in Michigan, Margherita Clark, 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.

Universities collect nearly $11 billion a year in GI Bill benefits, but many don’t give credit for military training or experience.

“Why is this student not getting credit?” Clark remembered wondering.

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 “there are more that don’t call than do,” said Bowman.

But she said she’s increasingly hearing of examples of veterans such as Mayou, who are fighting for their credits themselves.

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“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,’” she said.

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 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. Even at a university he said is generally sympathetic to veterans, “There is a little bit of, ‘This is the way it’s always been done and you’re not going to tell me what I’m going to accept in my department.’”

And fellow veterans, he said, may not have the successful ending he did.

“Some people give up,” Johnston said. “As with anything, you get the door slammed in your face so many times, at some point you’re going to say, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ And that’s horrible.”

Veterans should know in advance what credits they may get, before enrolling at a university or college, Bogue said. That’s the military’s job, too, he said.

“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.”

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  1. There’s a danger of this becoming comparable to a ‘life experience degree’ like the one’s sold online. In other words, “I’ve cooked food for years, so I should get automatic credit in culinary school” or “I’ve been a mechanic for years, so I should get automatic credit in automotive school.” “I was in the navy for years, I should get a free degree in marine biology.” Etc., etc.

    Should these life experiences (which everyone has in one area or another) really be counted as college credit? I am skeptical about life experiences substituting college degrees. If you are confident you know something, the best way to confirm it is by completing the degree.

  2. I have to respectfully disagree with Joe’s response. Your analogy is a comparison of apples to oranges, and certainly misrepresents the situation. These veterans aren’t simply people with life experiences, but fully trained and thoroughly educated individuals!

    For instance, as one who served almost a decade in the US Navy, I am certainly aware of what being a Navy Corpsman entails. These are essentially fully trained nurses at the least, not simply someone with brief First Aid training! Should they not receive any college credit for their training?! That is the point here. At no point does anyone imply these veterans deserve a full degree for free!

    I was in the nuclear field like Steve in the article. I know what a Reactor Operator is; I’ve seen their training. It takes about two years to complete training as a Reactor Operator in the Navy, and almost as long to complete the training I received as a Laboratory Technician. This involves a lot of physics, thermodynamics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, etc. All of this is to OPERATE A NUCLEAR POWER PLANT. Yet, most schools I tried to apply to only accept at most 3 credits from this! Steve literally did split atoms every day! Is that simply life experience? Why shouldn’t Steve be granted a fair amount of college credit? Maybe not a full degree but at least some credit!

    The issue isn’t a simple matter of confidence, but redundant and expensive requirements when the resources could be much better placed. I can’t help but suspect that money is more of a driving factor in this situation, money that colleges aren’t receiving if they were to accept this training, and money that veterans could be using elsewhere, such as furthering their education beyond what they have already earned.

    Thank you, Jon, for this article!

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