by Col. Phil McNair
Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, American Public University System
If you are in the military and interested in earning a college degree, chances are good that you are short on two things that might be holding you back: cash and time. Let’s talk about the time issue.
Few active duty folks are fortunate enough to be sent to school full-time on Uncle Sam’s dime. Realistically, your military duty obligations or job requirements, coupled in many cases with family responsibilities, may leave you little free time for college. And no matter how you look at it, earning a degree is going to be time-consuming.
As a result, it is in your best interests to figure out how to shave off as much time as possible from getting to the finish line and throwing your graduation party. One way to do this is by maximizing the number of college credits that you may have already earned, including those you may not even know you have. Every credit you can capture on your transcript when you begin your college program is one less you will have to earn by attending class. That means you can pay for fewer classes and spend less time studying.
Maximizing your college credits means looking at three areas and working with a college counselor to make sure you get everything that you are entitled to. In some cases this may mean shopping around among schools or considering a different degree program, or academic major, than you initially wanted.
First and most obvious, make sure you have a record (transcript) for any classes you have taken from other schools. Many military students and veterans have taken a class here and there during their service, and there is no reason those credits can’t be considered by your new school.
Second, talk to your counselor about something called prior learning assessment, or lifelong learning. Different schools have different names for this, but basically it is a process that allows you to show the school that you already have the knowledge being taught in certain classes. For example, you might be offered the chance to provide documentation about learning and knowledge you have acquired while in the service or in doing volunteer work, running a small business, job training, hobbies, and other activities. If your college values lifelong learning, they will often have some sort of mechanism for students to show what they have learned so they can skip classes or get credit for classes they may have already mastered in other ways.
Related to this concept is taking tests to demonstrate that you already have the knowledge taught in a class, and receiving credit for the class as a result. Taking a test is less time consuming and costly than sitting in a class for several weeks. Visit the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support for more information about this and other options. Some schools give credit for tests administered by agencies outside the school, like the Department of Defense, and others have their own version of such tests.
Third, ask about what credit you will receive for your military training. Many military training courses have been evaluated by the American Council on Education or by colleges themselves for possible college credit. If you were trained as a Military Policeman, for example, will your school offer you credit for a criminal justice class or two? Colleges that really understand and work with military and veteran students frequently provide credit for military training, and in some case for military experience.
Bear in mind that you may not be able to use all of your credits towards the degree you want. Getting credit for a criminal justice class may do you little good if you want to be an accounting major, for example. However, talk to your counselor about how you can make the best use of everything you have. Perhaps you can use the credits to offset elective requirements, or consider changing your major to a related field where more of your credits will count.
The bottom line is to be smart and approach going to college like an informed shopper. If you were buying a car you would probably shop around for the best deal; when looking for the right college find out which one will work with you to offer the most credit for what you may have already learned.