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Turning soldiers into scholars by turning military experience into college credit

Despite years leading troops and managing equipment on the front lines, soldiers returning to school may have to start from the beginning, alongside teenagers who have never held a similar level of responsibility. Now, a new Colorado law awards college credit for military experience--and requires that the state's schools accept it. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, how one state awards college credit for military experience.

    It's a way of both giving value for skills already developed in the field and ensuring that military students are enticed to get a degree.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story for our ongoing series Rethinking College.

    It's part of our weekly look at education, Making the Grade.

  • Kierra Howard:

    Headquarters 8, this is Headquarters 9 requesting a radio check. Over.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    After four years as a communication specialist in the Army, Kierra Howard has decided she wants to go to college.

  • Kierra Howard:

    I'm in the Army, but I also wanted, like, a formal education, too.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Howard believes a degree can help advance her military career.

  • Kierra Howard:

    I decided to take baby steps, and get my associate's, and then move onto bachelor's.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When she looked around to find a college last spring, she got lucky. Based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Howard enrolled at nearby Pikes Peak Community College.

    The campus is surrounded by military bases. Academic advisers here look for ways to translate military service to academic credits.

  • Paul DeCecco:

    We bring them in and we talk about all the resources here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Paul DeCecco is the director of Military and Veterans Programs at Pikes Peak.

    So, how do you evaluate how to get credit for those life experiences that they have had?

  • Paul DeCecco:

    The military issues a joint services transcript. And on there, it lists out the education courses that a service member attended, and also what we call their military occupational specialty, what they did in the military.

    So, if we're able to give them credit for their military experiences or their military education, we try and do that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pikes Peak awarded Kierra Howard 20 credits, moving her way ahead in her pursuit of a degree.

    You basically got enough credits to transfer that it shortened a year of your education here?

  • Kierra Howard:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This year, Colorado legislators embraced Pikes Peak's model by passing legislation to help all Colorado military and veteran students.

    Colorado's new law says any state-funded institution has to be able to evaluate the knowledge or skills that a student might have picked up in the military. And if that student can earn credit for it, those credits have to be transferable to every state institution.

    David Ortiz is a veteran advocate who helped craft the legislation.

  • David Ortiz:

    This is the right thing to do for service members and veterans. It makes them feel as if their training and service to this country not only mattered on the bigger sense, but in the particular level, that they're now getting civilian credit for what they have already demonstrated.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And Ortiz says it is a policy that works.

  • David Ortiz:

    Well, there's plenty of research that backs up that veterans that are awarded meaningful credit towards a degree are 33 percent more likely to take their degree to graduation, to fruition, and then be set up for success for a job in the civilian world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A former Army pilot, Ortiz was medically retired after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. He says a service member's experiences are creditworthy.

  • David Ortiz:

    You go from being responsible for multimillion-dollar equipment, being responsible for a dozen men and women, accomplishing a mission, high-intensity, with quick timelines coming up, where lives are on the line, and, obviously, the maturity and life experience that comes with it, but there's also professional experience that's already been gained.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But the transition from intense military experience can sometimes keep veterans from returning to the classroom, especially if they feel they are starting from scratch.

  • Paul DeCecco:

    They're walking in with the feeling of, I have had all of these experiences, both good and bad, I have had these life experiences, and now I got to sit in English 121, English composition, or basic English class with a bunch of folks who just got out of high school. So, it becomes a challenge.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    David Ortiz says awarding credits helps address that imbalance.

  • David Ortiz:

    Those that have served for five, 10, 20 years, some working in intelligence, some working in communications, don't start at the same footing as your 18-year-old graduating high school.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ty Upshaw retired from the Army after 21 years. He says the 15 credits he received for his military experience was a great motivator.

  • Ty Upshaw:

    That was a great boost morale. It made me feel like everything I had done was a success.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Upshaw is pursuing a bachelor's degree in business at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He was able to transfer skills learned from his position in the Army's Human Resources Department to necessary courses for business school.

  • Ty Upshaw:

    I was deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. As a human resource specialist, I received college credit for group communication, computer information science course, organizational communication, public speaking.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But will awarding course credit for military experience water down the integrity of a college degree? Is military experience really comparable to college experience?

  • State Sen. Owen Hill (R):

    Look, we're not here to give gifts.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Colorado State Senator Owen Hill, one of the bill's sponsors, says colleges will need to do rigorous assessments.

  • State Sen. Owen Hill (R):

    It shouldn't just be carte blanche. There needs to be a logical, well-documented, clear match. We want to make sure that we are giving credit for real work that has been done.

    If you give someone credit for it, and they don't really know it, and they're not qualified to move on with that, then we're also setting them up for failures.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Paul DeCecco says the law has opened up a needed conversation between the state's two-year and four-year colleges.

  • Paul DeCecco:

    What the law did, is it brought everyone to the table, so we could talk as equal partners, whereas, before, I don't know that there was motivation from the other major universities within Colorado to do that.

    Why do I want a community college telling me what I should or shouldn't accept? The law also told every university and college within Colorado that they must have this process.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For his part, Ty Upshaw has plans for how he will use his degree in business.

  • Ty Upshaw:

    I'm going back to school because I want to open a jazz club. I will be able to fine-tune my business plan for a target market for people we want to attract into our jazz club.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kierra Howard says she plans to stay in the Army.

  • Kierra Howard:

    College helps with getting promoted in the Army. So I really just want to take the credits and the courses to just be better at my job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Colorado joins 23 other states who have passed similar laws to give academic credit for military service.

    In Colorado Springs, I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the "PBS NewsHour."

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