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The US military affords servicemembers a variety of opportunities to engage in postsecondary education, taking courses and earning academic credit, during and following their service. Those opportunities are a prominent selling point for enlistment and remain a priority for those considering joining up. There is a bitter irony in the high value that many service members put on these benefits because they do not yet know how difficult it will be to use the credits they have earned to complete a bachelor’s degree. This problem for student veterans is a specific example of a larger problem within higher education, one that can seem intractable. However, a focus on addressing these problems for student veterans can help scale down the problem in ways that enable individual institutions and systems to have a measurable impact.
Enumerating the Inefficiencies
One of the student veteran support professionals we interviewed recalled a set of twins who were attending a nearby community college and interested in transferring in order to pursue bachelors degrees. The siblings had taken the same course at the same community college, but received different answers from the same academic unit about whether they would receive credit for the class at the four-year institution because their files were reviewed by two different faculty members. This anecdote is a somewhat absurdist example of the myriad inconsistencies and obstacles students face when trying to transfer between two local institutions, a frequently documented, well-known, and seemingly intractable problem.
For individual student veterans, there are mutually exclusive choices to be made, frequently with little guidance and limited social capital related to higher education. Student veterans often prefer not to enter a bachelor’s degree program as first-time, full-time students, and thereby foregoing their previously earned credits, for a variety of reasons. These reasons include wanting to avoid the social isolation that can come from being older than traditionally-aged first-year students, needing to start full-time employment as quickly as possible, or trying to complete their education before GI Bill benefits run out. However, many opportunities for incoming college students are limited to first-time, full-time students, such as the Posse Veterans Program, and research shows that attending college full-time can increase a student’s likelihood of finishing their degree. These competing priorities and high stakes educational choices need to be made in a credit transfer system that is quite opaque, even to those within it.
At the national level, the credit transfer process is a loose hodgepodge of institutional policies, individual judgments, and disciplinary expectations within which students are left to make incredibly consequential decisions with little or no guidance or support.
At the national level, the credit transfer process is a loose hodgepodge of institutional policies, individual judgments, and disciplinary expectations within which students are left to make incredibly consequential decisions with little or no guidance or support. Credits earned and courses completed at one institution may or may not transfer to another institution, and if they do indeed transfer, they may not “count” in the same way toward degree completion, even if the title of the course is identical and they share a common textbook. This static and staid approach to transfer contrasts sharply with an increasingly mobile student population.
The challenges increase proportionately when considering state systems of higher education. For example, a recent survey of California community college students showed that more than half of students found the process of transferring from a community college to a university was difficult to understand. The difficulties students face in transferring in California persist despite decades of amelioration efforts, institutional commitments, and statewide legislation.
Research stretching back more than a decade has highlighted student veterans struggling to get previous coursework accepted for their current degree programs. In a survey conducted by AIR, female veterans and veterans of color were less likely to report that learning completed during their service was awarded credit than their White and male counterparts.
Concrete Steps Forward
The fairly grim national picture is punctuated by institutions, systems, and states taking concrete steps towards increasing transparency and efficiency in credit mobility. One such example is Ithaka S+R’s collaboration with the City University of New York to create Transfer Explorer, “a public, student-supporting transfer tool that provides, in real-time, transparent and clear information on how course credits and credits for prior learning (CPL) earned through trainings and exams transfer and apply across CUNY institutions.” This platform empowers current and aspiring students, as well as admissions officers and academic advisors, to know in advance if and how credits already earned will be applied toward future degree programs.
Often, student veterans benefit alongside other students when bachelor’s degree-granting institutions establish articulation agreements with local community colleges. Several of the student veteran programming leaders we spoke with at several high-graduation-rate institutions all noted articulation agreements as one of the ways in which their institutions were working towards becoming more student veteran-friendly. Under such arrangements, specific courses and/or course sequences that students successfully complete automatically transfer directly from the community college to a bachelor’s degree program in a predetermined way, reducing ambiguity and inefficiency. Although such arrangements can be useful for students at both institutions involved, they can be time intensive to develop and are difficult to scale beyond institutional dyads.
A broader approach to easing the transition of student veterans back into higher education are state-wide arrangements that provide similar predictability and planning around transferred credits. For instance, veteran students seeking to enroll at a public college or university in Kansas can take advantage of the Military Articulation Portal, a partnership between the Kansas Board of Regents and the Army University that “provides a central resource for military members and veterans to explore the course credit available to them at public post-secondary institutions in Kansas.” The platform allows searching by institution, academic program, or military learning experience with the hope of simplifying the path to degree completion and meaningful employment for veterans. Similar transfer credit articulation platforms exist in other states as well, including Minnesota, Ohio, and Florida.
Removing barriers and keeping student veterans on track to graduate helps both the students and the institutions where they enroll.
Fixing transfer, from the most local institutional policies to wide-reaching state initiatives, will help all students. However, the benefits of improvements to the transfer system can have a truly pervasive positive impact on student veterans. Few other student groups, if any, accumulate credits from such a broad array of learning experiences before entering a bachelor’s degree program. Removing barriers and keeping student veterans on track to graduate helps both the students and the institutions where they enroll; fixing the problems with transfer should be a priority for every stakeholder in the system, regardless of their role.