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The Reality of College Credit for Military Service

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This series of articles focuses on the lessons I learned that will help you get the very most from your military and veteran education benefits.

Lessons Learned: The Reality of College Credit for Military Service

Using ACE credits can save you a lot of time and a ton of money, but you really have to know the limitations. If you are like me, you have been told since your first visit to the recruiter that you will be granted college credit for military service for nearly everything you do.  This would include graduating boot camp to being advanced or promoted to E-6. While this is not untrue, it is a bit oversold.

In my previous Lessons Learned article I briefly explained how my expectations for my military college credits did not match up with reality. As an E-6, I had more than 60 credits, the first school I applied to would not accept any of my credits. But, let’s put a pin in that for now.

Reality Check #1

Not All Military Training Is Worth College Credit

While it is true that there is a process for getting credit for the formalized training and education you get in the military, and it’s true that you may get increasingly more credits based on your rank or pay grade, it is not true that every course you take is worth credit or that every MOS/Rating/AFSC gets the same college credits.

So, before I go any further, let me explain in greater detail how the system works. It all starts with the American Council on Education (a.k.a. ACE).

ACE is a private non-profit organization that evaluates both military and private sector education, training, and experience and makes a recommendation on how many college credits a given course or job experience should be granted. In addition, ACE charges the military to evaluate course curriculums, so ACE only evaluates the military courses and training curriculum that each of the service branches asks them to.

In most cases a course must reach a certain number of classroom or lab hours to qualify for evaluation and those hours often reflect the number of recommended credits.

Reality Check #2:

Not All ACE Credits Are The Same and not all schools recognize or accept ACE credits.

ACE credits are not the same, vary by school and not all schools recognize or accept ACE credits.

ACE credits are normally accepted at most colleges and universities. But – here goes another but – colleges and universities are NOT required to accept ACE credits and they normally have a limit to how many credits they will accept.

Realty Check #3

Having “Enough” Credits, Is Not Enough

Another misconception that I had was that having more than 60 ACE credits and passing my CLEP exams for the liberal arts requirements for my associate degree (Math, English, Humanities, Social Science and History, and Natural Science) meant that I could go to the local on-base college and start out as a Junior.

WRONG – Although it was true that I had enough credits, and I had even been granted an Associate’s Degree by the University of State of New York, I learned that I didn’t have the “right” credits. In hindsight I should have known this, but at this point, I did not truly understand how higher education worked.

Four Quick Lessons Learned:

  • All schools have transfer credit policies. It is rare that a school allows a student to come in at the junior level, except in the case of schools which have standing transfer agreements or are part of a state college system.
  • Colleges guard their reputation. Schools must have some assurance that the quality and qualification of an incoming student’s education meets the prerequisites for their degree program. In other words, they must ensure you are academically ready, because your failure reflects on them.
  • Each school limits the non-tradition (ACE) credits. Colleges cap the number of ACE credits that can apply toward their degree programs. In many cases the limits are set either by board of trustee’s policy or state law.
  • Most ACE credits are for lower level. ACE credits are nearly always applied to Associates Level free elective credits, meaning they can apply to cover the required free-elective courses, but they are seldom applied toward specific degree requirements.

NOTE: ACE does recommend some Upper Level credits, but those recommendations are relatively rare.

The Big Lesson Learned

Manage your expectations and adjust accordingly.

My first attempt to use my mixed bag of ACE and CLEP credits resulted in a big fat zero. I made the mistake of letting the reality put me off my goals. It was 5 years before I learned that not all schools have the same requirements. The truth is you need to shop around, not all schools have the same limitations on ACE or other college credit transfers.

You should choose a school according to the following criteria:

  1. Quality of the Education: The school must provide a quality education and have a reputation that will ensure you are getting a quality education and future career opportunities.
  2. Degree Offerings: The degrees offered must advance your career or put you on the path to your dream job.
  3. College Credit for Military Training Experience: If you want to fully leverage your ACE credits and other non-traditional education, you will have to be very selective about your school options. There are thousands of schools that are liberal with granting ACE credits, it is up to you to decide if they meet all three criteria.

One of the best ways to get started is to use the College Recon school finder to do your homework and find the school that fits your specific needs.

Stay tuned for more Lessons Learned…

These lessons learned come from my years as a Coast Guard Career Development Advisor, working directly with Education Services Officers, and while using education benefits while on active-duty and as a veteran.







About the author

Terry Howell is a retired Coast Guard veteran, where he served for 20 years.

He is currently the Executive Director for Veterans' Legacies, a non-profit that works to preserve veterans personal stories to help educate our youth.

Terry is also the author of The Military Advantage, an annually updated guide to military and veteran benefits.