New Database Will Standardize College Credit for Military Experience
Shaheed Soligne served as a signals intelligence analyst for the Army National Guard. When he was in the service, he was utterly dedicated to his work. Now that he is a veteran, he is pursuing a professional ambition that inspires even more passion: he’s about to graduate with a degree in international studies and French, which he hopes will lead to a career in the Foreign Service.
When Soligne arrived at UNC Wilmington, he understood that his extensive military experience would also count as academic credit toward his degree. These credit hours have put Soligne on the fast track toward his ultimate career goals.
“It’s helped me along in my degree—something that would’ve taken me three years has taken me two. I graduate in December, and that’s mainly because of the transfer of credits,” he said.
This fall, the UNC System is unveiling a cutting edge tool that will ensure that every student who transitions from the military into higher education lands on solid footing, just as Soligne did.
Historically, the distribution of course credits based on military training and experience has varied from institution to institution; sometimes the process has varied, even within the same institution, and the determination of course equivalencies has boiled down to unique circumstance.
Soon, the UNC System’s innovative Military Credit Equivalencies Database will do what’s never been done before: establish a comprehensive and uniform process for awarding credit for military training and experience across all 16 constituent universities and all 58 colleges in the North Carolina Community College System. Eventually, this information will be delivered on a digital platform that will give active service and veteran students worldwide access to this information with the touch of a finger.
When the rollout is complete, the database won’t just be new to North Carolina—its comprehensive scope will be unique across the entire higher education landscape. More importantly, the end result will provide veterans, active duty, National Guard, and Reserve students with a predictable transition into the higher education environment, and predictability will promote student success and enhance degree efficiency.
“The Military Credit Equivalencies Database reflects North Carolina’s long-term commitment to making sure our service men and women are able to plan their futures, even while they remain dedicated to protecting ours,” - UNC Board of Governors Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs Chair N. Leo Daughtry
From Reactive to Proactive: Long-Range Vision Promotes Student Success
Every veteran and military student comes to the university with a wealth of experience and formal training. Because much of this work duplicates material that would be covered in certain classes, the Department of Defense has partnered with the American Council on Education (ACE) to identify more than 22,000 potential course equivalencies, helping universities award academic credit for things they learned in military training. This work minimizes the chance that students will repeat course content that’s already been mastered.
Although the ACE course equivalency recommendations are fairly comprehensive, not all of the course titles match exactly with those offered in North Carolina’s community colleges and universities. In some cases, students might be able to earn general credits in a generalized subject area (for example, 6 hours of the humanities). But this information does little to help students whose program requirements call for specific courses. In these circumstances, students typically reach out to a transfer advisor or the registrar’s office at their institution to find out in more detail how military experience will be counted.
As UNC System Senior Director of Product Management and Technology Implementation Kevin Nathanson sees it, this is a reactive approach to problem solving.
“Dealing with student credit evaluations one at a time is a little bit like trying to quickly appraise the value of a used car on the spot. The end result is inconsistency; the evaluations may vary from institution to institution, and sometimes even from time to time at the same institution. What we’re doing with this new tool is changing to a proactive approach, which will eventually allow everyone access to a resource that will give them the precise worth of that car,” he explained
The reactive approach to advising can complicate academic careers in a number of ways.
“The military encourages those on active duty to explore higher ed, and service members will choose a school that understands their unique strengths and challenges, as well as a school that fits their schedule . When a service member departs from active duty, they usually have a better idea of what they want to study when they become full-time students and will often look to transfer in academic credit from schools they’ve attended in the past. But because military and veteran students are older, often family obligations might mean that even these plans get disrupted and will ultimately evolve over the course of their academic journey,” said Siobhan Norris, military liaison for the UNC System.
“In short, circumstances make military students more transient than traditional students. The fact that individual institutions across the state have handled credit differently has meant that our military and veteran students may not be getting the full extent of academic credits that they have earned via military training and education programs,” Norris added.
The UNC System’s Military Credit Equivalencies Database will archive the most current ACE course equivalencies as a starting point. Over time, this database will be populated with specific evaluations that link military experience to a comprehensive list of precise course titles from across 16 different UNC System institutions.
As of now, the technology is complete. When more data is loaded and the system is fully operational, students will be able to present their joint service transcript (JST, the military equivalent of an academic transcript) to an advisor at any North Carolina college or university, and they will get complete and precise details about the credits they will receive. Critically, this information will be consistent across every public, postsecondary institution in North Carolina.
Advisors and committees won’t be put in the position of having to make hurried decisions on a case-by-case basis. This platform will give registrars, advisors, and students all the information they need to know in advance as they chart academic pathways. Students will no longer risk getting to the end of their college careers, only to realize after the fact that they should have received more credit for their military experience. Military students and veterans enrolled in one institution will no longer learn that peers enrolled at another institution have received differing academic credit for completing the same military training.
In short, by taking a proactive approach to assigning credit for military experience, the UNC and NC Community College Systems will circumvent the possibility that faulty or scarce information could lead some students to spend more time, more money, and more redundant labor earning a degree.
The Challenge of Deploying Innovation
The origin of the new Military Credit Equivalencies Database can be traced back to the 2014 NC Senate Bill 761, which directs the UNC System and the NC Community College System to “ensure that college credits are uniformly granted to students with military training.”
The Fall 2019 semester unveiling of the technology marks the first major milestone in an ongoing effort. With its completion, now advisors have access to a “sandbox” that they can explore as they familiarize themselves with the interface. Meanwhile, from this point onward, System Office staff will be busy coordinating efforts to populate the database with information.
It is no easy feat to design a single system that distills information from 17 different course catalogs (one from each university plus the joint course catalog across North Carolina’s community colleges) and delivers this information to users across 74 institutions.
The second milestone will be achieved in summer of 2020, when registrars, advisors, and articulators start using the database as they advise military transfer students. At this point, the technology will be ready, but fully populating the database with course equivalencies will take time and continued faculty involvement.
This work will require regular convening of several subject matter panels comprised of university and community college faculty. These panels must painstakingly measure the outcomes identified in specific military training and skills acquired through military experience against the learning outcomes for university courses. Once a match is found, the database then leverages any existing course equivalencies—a list that grows every time a student transfers course credit among the 74 institutions—to look for courses under a different title that would also be a suitable equivalency. The process is by no means linear; each panel is essentially building a complex and multi-dimensional web of connections, joining parallel courses, training, and experience.
The ultimate vision is to then make the database accessible to the students themselves, so any active-duty service member can plan and pursue an education, no matter where she or he is stationed.
“This technology will allow individual institutions to tell students how many courses they need to complete to earn a degree and to advise on alternative majors that would make more efficient use of course equivalencies,” mused UNC System Director for Competency Based Education and Assessment Michelle Solér. “It will make students much more savvy planners as they plot their academic pathways.”
In addition to helping students, the implementation of an automated and systematic process will free up faculty, staff, and administrators, who will no longer be burdened with having to reevaluate a JST every time a student walks through the door.
“Currently, not every program accepts credit automatically. When they don’t, typically anytime a student presents a JST to the registrar, the registrar has to send it to the department chair for review, and this review then gets sent back to the registrar’s office. The process keeps students waiting for important information, and it bogs the administration down in redundant work,” said UNC System Executive Director for Operations and Administration (Academic Affairs) Rondall Rice. “The database streamlines this process significantly by alerting the registrar when a case has already been adjudicated.”
Even when this long-term vision is achieved, the work of maintaining the database will remain perpetually ‘in-progress.’
“Something’s always moving. Military training evolves. Our catalogs are changing constantly. Accreditation requires equivalencies to be renewed. Keeping this tool up and running will require ongoing work and extensive support,” explained Kevin Nathanson.
A Long-Term Investment In and For Those Who Have Served
“The Military Credit Equivalencies Database reflects North Carolina’s long-term commitment to making sure our service men and women are able to plan their futures, even while they remain dedicated to protecting ours,” said UNC Board of Governors Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs Chair N. Leo Daughtry.
Every U.S. Soldier, Marine, Sailor, and Airman understands that a successful campaign begins with a plan.
Military personnel are trained to improvise; the capacity to make split-second decisions is essential to the success of any maneuver. But military personnel don’t enter a theater without having accumulated as much intelligence as possible about the terrain ahead.
The Military Credit Equivalencies Database reflects the UNC System’s recognition that veterans, active duty, Reserve, and National Guard students should have just as much information when they prepare to enter higher education.