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Veterans get credit for prior learning

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Bridget Petzold explains how Fayette Technical Community College awards prior learning credits to veterans.

Photo: Ellie Ashford​​​

Military veterans often have more skills than the general population but are less likely to earn a college degree and more likely to be unemployed. If veterans can get college credits for skills they learned in the military, they would be able to complete college faster and would be more likely to earn a degree or credential.

That’s the basis of the Maps to Credentials project managed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), the American Council on Education and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). The goal is to help three community colleges create an integrated prior learning assessment model to promote accelerated college completion. The three-year project started in 2011 with a $748,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

Representatives from the participating organizations and the community college partners spoke at AACC’s Workforce Development Institute (WDI) in San Diego earlier this month about the promising results they've seen so far.

Maps to credentials

The goal of the project is to encourage participating institutions “to increase their commitment around a highly visible and highly valued target population and improve their practices around prior learning assessments (PLAs),” said Laura Winters, senior project director at CAEL.

Inver Hills Community College (IHCC) in Minnesota, one of the community college partners, evaluated the most common military occupations for members of the Minnesota National Guard and “cross-walked them to our coursework,” said Anne Johnson, dean of business and social sciences.

Helping veterans complete college is the main goal

For example, someone who has served as a combat engineer might get three credits for the supervisory techniques in a business course at IHCC and three credits for construction management. A unit supply specialist could get three credits each for introduction to computers, introduction to business in society, and principles of management.

IHCC also helps design an individual program of studies degree based on a student’s prior learning to fit his or her needs. The average veteran or active military student is awarded 6.8 PLA credits, Johnson said, and that number is rising. PLA credits are listed on students’ transcripts as actual courses.

The college has a recruiter focused on adult learners and veterans who encourages them to take two classes geared toward helping them identify prior learning in the military or on the job and put together a four-year education plan.

“The ultimate goal for these classes is to teach them how to be higher education consumers,” Johnson said.

Institutional change

Miami Dade College (MDC) gives credits for military experience toward associate degrees in criminal justice, electronics engineering technologies, and office administration and certificates in medical assisting, said Tiffani Malvin, the college's PLA director. MDC is working on expanding the program to include finance and business, aviation, supply chain management and transportation logistics.

At MDC, the initiative “created momentum for institutional change,” affecting all students, not just veterans, Malvin told the audience at a WDI session. The college established a veterans task force and is looking at developing a veterans resource center and online orientation for veterans, centralizing the PLA program and exploring new methods to accelerate learning.

MDC collaborates with local veterans organizations to provide career education and resource fairs and works with local workforce agencies and employers to help vets find jobs.

Faculty buy-in essential

In North Carolina, Fayetteville Technical Community College (FTCC), located near Fort Bragg, has so far mapped a broad range of military occupational specialties to courses leading to an associate degree in general education or in specific areas, such as culinary arts, surgical technology, radiography and emergency medical science. 

Up to 48 of the 65 credit hours needed for an associate degree at FTCC can be satisfied with PLA credits.

Administrators in the central office create the maps, and department chairs forward the information to faculty, who are given three or four days to make a decision on whether to accept a student’s PLA for credit, said Bridget Petzold, program coordinator for business administration/operations management. The ultimate goal is to replace that system with a database.

Since FTCC started this program in fall 2010, veteran enrollment has increased 40 percent. The college awarded 214 degrees to veterans last spring, compared to just three in spring 2010.

Petzold said that there has been some pushback from faculty who fear giving credits for prior learning will water down their programs. Having everything documented and tied to the curriculum objectives has helped win over faculty.

Once faculty realize how this program benefits them, they are more likely to embrace it, Petzold said.

Teachers are finding that “service members are great students,” she said. “They participate in class. They are excited about learning, they bring a lot of experience to the classroom and they bring the discussion up a notch.”

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