Making It Count: Earning Credit For Military Experience
Transitioning from military life to college can be difficult, especially when it comes transferring credit.
Rich Bennett spent a year in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the U.S. Army. As part of his training, he was taught the county’s main language, Pashto.
“When I took the class, they said this will fill your Bachelor of Arts requirement for your language," said Bennett.
The course involved 420 hours of instruction. He received a certificate of completion from the Defense Language Institute for the training at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.
When he left the Army, he enrolled at Northern Illinois University to finish his Communications degree. Bennett said he was told Pashto would not count toward his language requirement.
“A university sees that and they're, like, ‘that’s not anything anyone’s ever heard of, that’s not a language we offer.’ That was my first hurdle,” said Bennett.
So he signed up for Spanish for the summer, but the class was canceled. He considered area community colleges, but those didn’t work out either.
With the help of counselors, he found a language that could be taken for only two semesters (instead of four) to fulfill the requirement. “I don’t even know how to pronounce it," Bennett said. "It’s K-h-m-e-r."
Khmer is the primary ethnic language of Cambodia.
"I guarantee I’m never going to go to Southeast Asia or wherever they speak it. I’m just taking it to graduate so that I can get out and start working. I’m 32. If I don’t start working, my wife’s going to kill me," said Bennett.
Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Borggren is familiar with stories like this. The American Council on Education, or ACE, uses faculty to review military courses offered at bases. They issue guidelines that colleges can use to consider credit.
"Unfortunately it's not as simple as student veterans themselves being able to say 'this should count for that.' Where we've encountered some, I wouldn't even call it resistance, I would say a ‘lack of an understanding’ in terms of how to do it, is at the transfer specialist level, the campuses themselves," Borggren said.
Cathy Sandeen is with the American Council on Education.
“When you think about all the things that service members need to do and know to be successful in their jobs, and in many cases, their jobs are life and death type jobs, it's a broad array of information and knowledge that they need to have, so faculty are able to go in there and make those connections," said Sandeen.
But it is difficult to review every course offered in the military. ACE only reviews courses requested by the Department of Defense, not by individuals or universities. In Bennett’s case, he said he was told by ACE his Pashto course wasn’t among those reviewed, so there wasn’t a recommendation for NIU to take into consideration.
“I’m not saying they are doing a bad job. I’m just saying there’s just too much in the Army that we can learn that they can keep up with,” said Bennett.
Colleges often use a combination of factors to determine if military experience is worth college credit. At NIU, Admissions Director Kimberley Buster-Williams said counselors start with military transcripts and cross-check that with other students. She adds the process is easier when a veteran is studying in a field similar to their military experience.
“It is case by case, but we do maintain a database so, as credits are reviewed, that is available in the database so future students don’t have to start the process all over again. So it builds on itself,” said Buster-Williams.
Bennett was able to get physical education credit without hassle.
Rock Valley Community College offers four physical education credits for students who complete basic training. Records Assistant Tina Swiger said the school considers the ACE recommendations.
“We really take what the students have done or have learned, and we let the instructors and associate deans who are teaching these classes make the decision of whether or not the credit should be awarded, whether it really is what we are offering,” said Swiger.
Connecting all of the dots is something Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Borggren said is a work in progress.
“One of the ways that we've worked to overcome that is by bringing in the folks who do those federal recommendations from the American Council on Education and having them do in-depth workshops with transfer specialists from across the state, saying, 'Here's how we arrived at it, here's the Illinois educator who was actually part of this process and let him tell you about his experience when he went to the base,'" said Borggren.
NIU student Rich Bennett said that's not likely to help him, but he would like future students to avoid the red tape he went through.
“If I went to the University of Illinois and I took English 101 and I went to NIU with that transcript, they would say ‘yes, U of I. I have heard of that," Bennett said. "This is a transcript that was easy for you to procure, that said English 101.’ That’s how it should be. I think everyone should look at military training and say ‘this is equivalent.’ If you can fight a war with this information, you can definitely go to a university with that information.”