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Military students working at a table using pen and paper.

North Carolina has the fourth largest military presence in the country, with approximately 21,000 of those individuals enrolled at UNC institutions.

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A new credit transfer tool for military service members enrolling in the University of North Carolina System is helping a target group of adult learners translate their technical on-the-job experience into college-level academic credit.

Launched in late February, the UNC System Military Equivalency System builds on a pre-existing guide from the American Council on Education (ACE) to provide a user-friendly database that spans all 16 of the system’s institutions and could aid their more than 21,000 military-affiliated students.

For years, prospective military learners have faced the lengthy, complicated—and often overwhelming—process of contacting individual universities one-by-one to determine what military experiences equate to what credits at that particular institution. But with the introduction of this new tool, individuals will be able to simultaneously compare campuses, creating a faster, more efficient way to determine the most cost-effective pathway for them.

Lawmakers, as well as military and higher education experts, believe the equivalency tool will help boost degree attainment and meet mounting workforce demand in two of the nation’s fastest growing cities, Raleigh and Charlotte.

“We’re the fourth largest state in military presence, but our research indicated that we weren’t the first choice for pursuit of bachelor’s degrees by our military-affiliated students,” said Thomas Walker, the system’s senior adviser for economic development and military affairs. “That had to change.”

“If we’re not only going to keep attracting business to our state, but also sustaining the existing ones, we’ll need a workforce that is capable and ready … We see the military as already embedded with a lot of the intrinsic skills that will be needed to be successful,” he added.

‘An Elegant Technical Solution’

According to a recent report from the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission, the state is home to approximately 675,000 veterans, 20,000 National Guard reservists, and 100,000 active duty service members. Approximately 13,000 to 22,000 will separate from the armed forces and return to civilian life each year.

Many will walk away having been trained for critical roles in high-demand industries such as health care, information technology and cybersecurity, but the state has long struggled to help them navigate into related careers.

For example, while about 3,800 of the North Carolinian service members working in military health care are expected to return to civilian life in the next four years, the state is still projected to face a shortage of nearly 12,500 nurses by 2033.

“Some of these folks come out with incredible skill sets but they don’t have a quick, easy way to see how it aligns toward a higher education pathway, and they end up changing tires,” said Kathie Sidner, director of defense and military partnerships for the UNC system. “That’s not common, but it does happen, and we just can’t have that.”

The equivalency tool was first discussed as a means to turn the tide and help more veterans land in high-demand careers following the passage of a related state Senate bill in 2014, and, several years later, following a series of reports and faculty-advising sessions, the university started to build a beta version. But just as that test model was about to be launched in 2020, the pandemic hit and attention was redirected to online learning. Now, 10 years after it all began, Sidner and Walker are excited to finally see a version put into action, although it is “by no means a final or polished product.”

The ever-evolving product, which university officials describe as “an elegant technical solution,” functions by taking an original framework from ACE and combining it with each university’s course catalog. On the back side, this creates a robust, live and automated database, but on the front side, it essentially serves as a search engine.

It provides students with a simple, one-stop shop to discover what credits they can and should qualify for simply by entering their military occupation titles. The system currently includes close to 7,000 course matches, but developers project that will be up to 10,000 as soon as July.

Jenifer Kautzman, associate director of operations at ACE, described the UNC system as an “elevated” version of existing guides, allowing for new, “cutting edge” levels of support. When military learners exit the armed forces it’s often already a very involved transition, Kautzman said. They’re already looking to buy a home, registering their kids for school and readjusting to civilian culture; picking a higher education institution shouldn’t have to add to that burden.

“We want military learners to be able to navigate higher education smoothly. The only way that they’re able to do that is with information that’s available live and in real time, and that’s what the UNC system really provides,” Kautzman said.

Leaps and Bounds, Room to Grow

Although individual institutions have tried similar approaches in the past, Kautzman noted that the combination of data was almost always done manually, requiring regular updates; rarely, if ever, has something like this been done across a whole system.

But interest has grown in recent years as demographic cliffs loom and colleges begin to realize that veterans possess the diversity, discipline, reliability and teamwork admissions officers are looking for.

Jared Shank, senior director of military and apprenticeship initiatives at the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said that other states—particularly in the Midwest—have long been investing in similar concepts.

“Numerous states and state systems have developed some type of a landing page with some type of a search engine in it, to allow them to look for military equivalencies,” he said, including Ohio. “Now, it sort of becomes a question of what all are they including in the system? Is it just going to be coursework? Is it going to be some type of portfolio option?”

Administrators at UNC institutions are working to get the word out about this new system. Cierra Griffin, executive director for adult learners, transfer and military students at Fayetteville State University, said that making credit transfer easier for military students from the nearby Fort Liberty helps students and institutions alike.

“When you take care of people, they in turn will take care of you,” she said. “If we make sure that students are able to understand and navigate our systems without stress, then they’re going to tell somebody else about the process … That should help us in the long run.”

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