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N.J. community college gets serious about credit for veterans

Credit for Service
April 11, 2013

Thousands of veterans of the U.S. military receive credit recommendations for the training and experience they acquire in the service. But colleges often do not accept those credit recommendations, sometimes only granting three to six credits for physical education courses for a transcript of 20 or more credits, according to veterans and college officials.

Warren County Community College has gotten serious about this challenge. The college, which is located in New Jersey, last year teamed with Thomas Edison State College to create a new associate degree track in technical studies that’s aimed at veterans. Students can earn up to 34 credits for their military training, or even more if college courses line up directly with that knowledge.

Two top officials also decided to get a taste of what military training is like. So last month, as the Community College Times recently reported, they spent a week at Parris Island, the famed U.S. Marine Corps installation for new recruits.

Will Austin, Warren County’s president, and Robert Sintich, a professor of social science and history, spent those days in under the tutelage of legit drill instructors in Marine-style training. As participants in a special boot camp program for educators, they tackled obstacle courses, received martial arts instruction and learned about weapon safety -- even firing M-16 rifles on the range.

“We were treated as boot camp trainees, part of the time,” said Sintich, who is the college’s former provost. That meant a 4:30 a.m. wakeup -- but at a hotel, not the barracks.

Sintich, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a reserve officer, said he particularly enjoyed an exercise in which the two rappelled down a three-and-a-half-story tower.

The trip gave both men a firsthand look at how military credits are awarded. Since shortly after World War II, the American Council on Education has reviewed military and corporate training for credit recommendations. The council, which is the umbrella group for the academy, issues its credit transcripts in a standardized manner -- meaning that students qualify if they have completed the training. But individual colleges decide whether to honor ACE's recommendations.

Basic training at Parris Island is worth eight ACE credit recommendations. Sintich said he was impressed at the amount of thought that appeared to have gone into the training exercises, which he said were designed to cover specific learning outcomes. The training also had built-in flexibility for individual recruits, allowing them to learn in different ways and at different speeds.

Austin, who is not a veteran, agreed.

 “It was very high-tech,” he said. “Their curriculum at Parris Island would make any of us envious.”

Building Bridges

Austin said he hopes the college’s partnership with Thomas Edison can be a model for other institutions as they seek to serve more veterans, who are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thomas Edison is among a handful of public institutions that cater to adult students and emphasize prior learning assessment and online education. Others that have helped pioneer this growing field include Charter Oak State College, Empire State College and Excelsior College.

Like ACE, Thomas Edison reviews corporate and military training for its own credits. The college has faculty teams assess the learning in those programs to see if it matches up with course offerings from Thomas Edison.

Warren County worked with the college to determine which courses veterans could essentially place out of in the new degree track. An bonus is that students can simultaneously enroll at Thomas Edison, which means they can take online courses that count toward both an associate degree at Warren County and a bachelor's degree at the four-year college.

Sintich said that the two colleges have created a smooth transfer pathway, and that Thomas Edison would accept up to 80 credits that a student earned at the community college. Warren County offers in-state tuition to veterans for its online programs, whether they live in New Jersey or not, and also waives the $25 application fee.

Dubbed the Veteran in Pursuit of Educational Readiness (VIPER) program, the new degree path at Warren County is aimed at veterans of post-9/11 conflicts.

The technical studies degree that veterans can earn through the program is an associate in applied science. It offers concentrations in automotive technology, business, computer science, criminal justice, fire science, and food and beverage management.

Online classes are available for many of the courses. And college officials said qualifying veterans could earn an associate degree in one semester under the program, depending how many credits from military training they bring to the table. The cap of 34 credits can be extended to 45 credits, but only for courses “directly correlated” to the degree’s program of study.

Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s national economic division, said too many colleges refuse to accept ACE’s military credit recommendations. But he likes the approach taken by Warren County, which attempts to tie credit directly to college courses and specific learning objectives.

“They’re not just saying, ‘We’re going to give you credit for anything,’ ” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want to see the standards of higher education decreased or diminished.”

Sintich said he has heard of many veterans who have not received an appropriate number credits for their military training, including students who briefly attended Warren County before transferring to four-year institutions. He said he hopes the VIPER program can make a dent in the broader problem across the academy.

“We’re starting to move in the right direction,” said Sintich. “But we’re not there yet.”

Gonzalez, who is a former Marine, applauded Sintich's and Austin’s attempt to see firsthand what goes into military credit recommendations. And he said their experience at Parris Island probably also gave the two a better feel for veterans’ perspective.

“The military is a society within a society,” said Gonzalez.

Austin said colleges need to do more to understand the needs of student veterans. The 2 million veterans who are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill are a “huge market share that needs to be served,” he said.

Warren County enrolls about 60 student veterans. But the college hopes to substantially boost that number. And doing that right means learning what works best for veterans, said Austin.

“We in higher education don’t often understand or have preconceived notions about the military,” he said. “We don’t change so often.”

 

 

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