Database helps vets gain credit for prior learning

Janelle Brekke, a MAP evaluator at California's Norco College, meets with a student veteran to discuss the MAP credits for which he may he qualify. (Photo: Norco College)

Military veterans throughout California soon will march into pre-approved community college course credits, as they have previously in other states like Texas, Virginia and Ohio, giving them the ability to spend hard-earned GI Bill benefits toward bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

As of February 15, vets can begin to expeditiously gain credit for prior learning — for courses they took in the service — at 52 community colleges in California thanks to the Military Articulation Program, a database that faculty can use to pre-approve articulations down to individual majors. It goes beyond the typical general education credits that veterans historically have received.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series on state efforts to help student veterans attain credit for prior-learning experiences. The second article will look at programs in Virginia and Ohio.

Twelve campuses have tested the site over the past few years, and the organizers hope to find funding and other wherewithal to take it statewide (they’ve received $3.5 million to date) and eventually nationwide, blending with systems in other states. The effort is spearheaded by leaders at Norco College and the Riverside Community College District, with support from the Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, the American Council on Education and CalVet.

Samuel Lee, vice president for academic affairs at Norco, cited a RAND study that shows only one in four veterans receives the credit they deserve for military study and training, as well as a study by San Jose State University that only about one-third of veterans believe they did so — and he noted that many veterans struggle to transition back to civilian life.

“Community colleges are an integral part of this transition, and we have a real interest in making sure that our veterans transition well, using education as a lever,” he said. Nearly half of post-9/11 veterans have a service-connected disability, and half of homeless veterans are African-American, he added, “so there’s a real equity aspect that we keep at the forefront.”

Saving time and money

MAP aims to save military students an average of one year of study and more than $25,000 in tuition and other expenses, increase completion rates by at least 17%, decrease time to completion and debt accumulation, and decrease or close equity gaps in access and completion.

Terence Nelson, regional project lead for MAP and a counselor for veterans at Saddleback College, said the software solution can help find matches between colleges’ course catalogs and the American Council on Education’s generations-old Military Guide database. “So you’re not manually going through each time a student comes with their transcript from the military,” he said.

Previously, intrepid counselors could walk students through the possibilities of gaining credit for prior learning based on their Joint Services Transcript, but the process was painstaking and required constant faculty outreach, Lee said. “It becomes unsustainable, and often veterans just give up,” he said.

“It would take hours, and weekends, to match up someone’s transcript. It was very difficult, and oftentimes, it meant the answer was no,” Nelson said. And even when the process led to a “yes” for that particular student, it didn’t for the next one.

“It’s rare when the innovative spirit, willingness and leadership all aligns,” he said. “That three-headed monster aligned, finally. We had a great opportunity to change the face of higher education for reentry students for years to come.”

Faculty buy-in

The MAP project enables faculty to proactively approve articulations, placing them in the center of the process, Lee said.

“We create that connection in MAP, and then that is presented to the faculty discipline expert in that area,” he said. “We believe by respecting the faculty’s purview that we get a better, more robust outcome and also more acceptance of that articulated credit on the transcript because it’s backed by faculty.”

Once an articulation goes through the approval queue and becomes available, “it’s available for any subsequent veteran who has that same recommendation with any kind of special process,” Lee said. “And it’s viewable by all the 52 colleges using MAP, and [the appropriate faculty] can say, ‘Yeah, I’ll click a button, and I’m going to trust Norco College’s articulation, and we’re going to adopt it at our college the same way.’ So then they can avoid all the hard work of creating those articulations in the first place. … We hope it creates an ecosystem where more and more colleges accept the articulations. The more colleges that adopt them, the more strength it has.”

Mark DeAsis, dean of enrollment and MAP administrator at Norco, said student veterans have been surprised so far by how many credits they’ve been able to receive, which in turn has lifted their sights toward completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Of 33 veterans at Norco who had gone through MAP as of late January, 25 had received between 15 to 30 units — or approximately one to two semesters, DeAsis said, and Norco had input 3,125 of its courses into the database for faculty to consider approvals regarding. Lee noted that the ACE database has more than 5,600 unique military credit recs.

“There are hundreds of thousands of combinations that we need to match to our college catalog,” he said.

Realizing the challenges

With the tech solution in place, the next steps are convincing faculty that the ACE recommendations should have their confidence, Lee said.

“It’s a very personal issue for most faculty. They built the courses themselves, often, they have a lot invested in them, and they want to see the students take their course,” he said. “They don’t make those credit recommendations [lightly]. So it’s a big challenge for us. We’re still working our way through that, but we believe we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Nelson said community colleges that want to participate in such a system need to build alliances (and committees) not only with faculty but also top administrators, both at their campuses and feeder institutions. He noted that the top three institutions currently receiving GI Bill money are all for-profit privates.

“They have a place in the marketplace as well, but we should be just as competitive,” he said.

In addition to expanding the program throughout California and beyond, the MAP leaders can see applying similar underpinnings to the formerly incarcerated and those who have received industry training and have built portfolios, Nelson said.

Lee cited a Council for Adult and Experiential Learning study of 25,000 adult learners that found those with credit for prior learning reach completion at a 17% higher rate — 20% higher for Latinx students and 14% for Black students — and 25% higher for community college students overall.

“This [system] is supported by data,” he said. “We would love to work with and join all the articulations that have already been done, and make a nationwide ecosystem for our veterans. That’s our goal.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.