The United States armed forces comprise the most robust, likely the most fearsome, fighting force on the face of the earth. What it lacks in manpower, it makes up for in technology and training. In fact, it might be more apt to say that U.S. armed forces are among the best trained in the world. While two long wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan – and a handful of military actions have wearied the American public, the resolve of the American soldier remains firm.
At least, that’s true abroad. One of the greatest hardships of the combat veteran – or any veteran, for that matter – is reassimilation into civilian life. The skills that veterans once leaned on in matters of life and death become obstacles to normal activities. Something as simple as driving down the road can become a harrowing experience. So, the federal government has placed a special emphasis on helping veterans come home and reintegrate with broader society. It hasn’t always been successful.
In fact, one focus that has seen little emphasis until recently is on helping veterans navigate the often-gargantuan bureaucracy entangled with the college experience. Many colleges deal with tens of thousands of students, and while administrations have gotten better at helping veterans navigate the particular challenges of college life, there’s one area in particular that continues to frustrate military veterans. That’s the topic of transferring credits.
Army Transcripts and Battlefield Credit
It’s not easy to be a combat medic. More properly referred to as Army Health Care Specialists, combat medics got their nickname because they are often deployed with combat units, so they’re involved on the actual battlefield and in combat conditions. Medics are responsible for providing emergency medical care and limited primary care and health protection. They’re like a cross between a nurse and a high-end EMT. It’s an extremely challenging occupation within the Army. There should be no surprise, then, that the Army does not let just anybody become a Health Care Specialist.
Candidates are placed in intensive training. First, there’s the requisite boot camp. More properly known as Basic Combat Training, this lasts 10 weeks. Health Care Specialists are then required to complete 16 weeks of Advanced Individual Training. This training almost always entails inpatient care, so combat medics have actual patient-oriented experience before they complete the course. After Advanced Individual Training is complete, Health Care Specialists can then specialize in any number of medical subareas.
There’s no doubt that there’s a great deal of education that happens in these classes over at least 26 weeks. The question that bothers veterans, understandably, is why colleges generally don’t accept any of this experience as transferrable. To a certain extent, it makes sense that life experience doesn’t necessarily equate to college credit. It’s less sensible to not take seriously time actually spent in the classroom.
Health Care Specialists are such a striking example, because the Army requires them to spend a great deal of time in a classroom learning a strong suite of applicable information. This is information that the college will essentially force veterans to learn again when pursuing a career path in the same field. This is no small thing. A big part of the Army’s pitch is that it helps prepare you for a career and for life by training you to have useful skills in various sectors. The apparent incongruity between the Army’s message and the college transcript is indeed quite puzzling.
What’s even more frustrating is the fact that many of these skills are in high-demand fields. Army Health Care Technicians are quite similar in their day-to-day duties as Emergency Medical Technicians in the civilian world. Likewise, many combat and armed-forces duties are similar to security and law-enforcement duties. Military veterans are highly sought-after candidates in both of these fields, as they have a proven track record of coping with challenging situations. According to a Time Magazine article on veterans and college credit, there are as many as 20,000 unemployed former medics and Navy corpsmen nationwide. However, colleges do little to fast track veterans through courses that, though in a military setting, have already been taken.
This can be a very discouraging process for veterans, especially because it’s usually piled on top of all the other challenges of reintegration after service. Often already juggling raising a family and continuing duties as a reservist, many veterans quietly combat their own depression and, in some cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The discouraging mix is often enough to push veterans out of the college experience altogether. That’s not what anybody wants.
College Credit for Military Service is a Difficult Translation
To be fair to colleges and universities, when it comes to college credit for military service, it’s often difficult to translate military experience – even in military classrooms – to a college equivalent. Even for the Health Care Specialist who takes 16 weeks of specialized training, sometimes it’s not a one-to-one conversion in terms of class time, often because military classes are so specialized. Additionally, the military does not break down their training into credits. Colleges have some difficulty, then, deciding just how much the training of veterans should be worth.
In other words, the college does not doubt that the veteran learned a lot in Advanced Individual Training as it appears on his or her Army transcripts, but will it cover three credits of Anatomy 101? Indeed, as colleges and universities are accredited by various bodies, sometimes the definition of a credit – and how much contact time is required to satisfy a credit – can be an existential marker. If the college ignores its own definition of a credit, then it can literally run the risk of being stripped of accreditation and closing its doors. Although an extreme example, it does help explain why many colleges are so slow to tackle this particular problem.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody is acting so slowly. Colleges are starting to gear up to do something to change the pervasive culture that seems to dismiss veterans’ experience. The American Council on Education (ACE), which councils more than 2,300 colleges, universities, and schools on how to handle veteran education, has issued recommendations on how to address translating battlefield experience and training into college credit. ACE also gives advice on how to translate AP exams and college classes taken in high school, so it seems to reason that the military-translation would be no sweat.
The problem is that ACE cannot compel schools to adopt the new standards. Because they have no real power, ACE can only provide recommendations, which the schools and colleges can either embrace or ignore. One would assume that, as coveted as GI Bill®¹ funds are in all kinds of education environments, colleges would scramble to make themselves more veteran friendly. Sometimes, however, inertia is difficult to combat. It’s kind of like steering an oil tanker; there’s a delay between turning the wheel and watching the bow move in the same direction.
The Money Question
There’s no doubt that one of the most powerful influences in overcoming that inertia is, simply, money. The GI Bill® gives veterans roughly 36 months of college – any college – completely paid. This subsidized education is paid for by taxpayers in recognition of the sacrifice and burden carried by veterans who make up such a small percent of the total U.S. population.
What seems frustrating about the status quo, however, is that when colleges refuse to grant transfer credits for military training, the taxpayer is essentially paying for the same thing twice. To go back to our example of the Health Care Specialists, the 16 extra weeks of training, not counting specialization afterwards, covers many of the same basic concepts and tenets as introductory health classes, such as basic anatomy and patient care. Veterans, then, are often literally learning the same material twice.
This can lead to a sense of boredom, futility, and, perhaps most dangerously, uselessness. Veterans often develop a very strong sense of purpose overseas: They’re committed to the cause and to their fellow soldiers. Upon returning to the United States, many of those veterans suddenly lack that strong, driving force; they lack that purpose. Being forced to repeat classes can further strip veterans of that sense of purpose. In a way, it’s like being sent to the back of the line.
When any college student feel so discouraged, dropping out becomes a much more enticing option. Veterans are free to use their GI Bill® funds in any way they see fit, but in dropping out without a degree, it’s difficult not to feel as though that money has been wasted. The veteran in question certainly won’t be able to make use of it again, as once the money is spent, it’s gone.
A New Kind of Transcript: Joint Service Transcript
In 1972, the federal government established the Servicemember Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium to help returning veterans navigate post-secondary education. Colleges who joined with the SOC Consortium agreed to certain rules and conditions designed to make college easier for returning armed forces veterans and honor their service. With the explosion of choices in the postsecondary education market, the SOC has necessarily had to undergo some changes to become more efficient and more effective.
One of those changes, in partnership with the SOC, was the creation of a new type of transcript. This transcript was to be used by the military to attempt to facilitate better interaction between veterans and colleges. Called a Joint Service Transcript, or JST, it lists military coursework and occupations in language that colleges can understand, pretranslated into equivalent college credits.
JSTs work for all branches of the armed forces, and the transcripts generally report information such as military course completions with descriptions, college-level test scores, personal service member data, and military course completions along with descriptions. This is all preceded by a summary page, in which course codes for colleges participating in Sevicemember Opportunity College (SOC) programs are listed.
That the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard have a synchronized transcript is an achievement that cannot be overstated, especially when Army transcripts and, say, Marine Corps transcripts used to be so different. To be sure, the bureaucracy of the military is itself quite cumbersome, so it’s difficult for civilians in college life to be immersed in the minutia of military branches and services explanations. The JST makes it easy for admissions representatives in a wide variety of college settings to navigate the military experience.
Finding the Right College
This is a lot of information for a veteran (or the family of a veteran) to digest, and one could certainly be forgiven for feeling lost in the details. What it boils down to is this: There are institutions that are designed to help veterans succeed in life after active duty. The best bet for any veteran is to seek out those institutions when determining postsecondary education paths. One of the easiest ways to do this is right at first point of contact.
For example, SOC Consortium member Vista College employs Military Admissions Representatives, who are specially trained to understand the complex and unique challenges of moving from military service to college education. The designation of a specialist to deal with these specific challenges is an indication of how veterans will be considered throughout the rest of the process as well. In other words, the admissions experience gives a taste of the education and administration mindset.
Vista College also offers flexibility in terms of schedule, which military veterans and service members have often emphasized as important to the education experience. From day classes to night classes to online classes, this flexibility is helping veterans succeed on their own terms. Finally, it’s worth noting that Vista College will work with veterans on transferring credits from JST to the college transcript, to ensure classes aren’t being paid for twice – and to ensure that veterans and service members get the credit they deserve.
A Matter of Debt That Ought to Be Paid
Only 1 percent of the American population has served in the military, and this number has remained fairly steady during the years since the abolition of the draft. There’s a debt, then, that the remaining 99 percent owe in payment for protecting our freedom, our influence, and our way of life. The burden placed on soldiers may be unfair, but rarely, if ever, do we hear service member complain about this burden.
It seems incumbent on the rest of the population, then, to remove roadblocks from the path towards reintegration. The smoother the road the better the outcomes, and that’s just a part of the debt owed. This doesn’t mean that academic criteria should be thrown out the window or that veterans should get a free pass academically. Instead, it means that we should take the requisite time to make sure each veteran gets a fair deal, not only on an individual level, but on an institutional one.
At the end of the day, college credit for military service seems like a fair trade, especially for training and classroom time. There are plenty of colleges that agree with that assessment, so it seems sensible for returning veterans to choose a college that’s attuned to their situation. To ensure a veteran-friendly college experience, contact Vista College today.
¹GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.