8 Paths to Free College Credit in the Military – Stephen C. Semmelroth – Medium
By Stephen C. Semmelroth
I began writing what would eventually become this article in 2014 as a way to guide my former Soldiers towards degrees. Along the way, the concept evolved again and again and helped Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and even a couple Marines (while not busy eating crayons). Effectively, this is a compiled list of every way I know how to build college credits in the American Military without paying. Full transparency, I was in the Army and did my best to make this a Joint look covering the entire DoD but, like Marines, I am not perfect. Consider this more a lessons learned repository and less a how-to guide.
First, some administrative information to help frame the discussion. The Joint Service Transcript (JST) is a supposedly automated system that pulls data from all services into one location to build out a service member’s training profile. The JST automatically populates courses that have been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE) with recommended credit hours and corresponding credit level. For example, The US Army Airborne School populates with “Upon completion of the course, the student will be able to use the parachute as a means of combat deployment,” recommends three Semester Hours in Lower Baccalaureate education for “Physical Educational-Parachuting.” Most schoolhouses (like the Air Force University or the Army Infantry School) routinely bring in ACE to evaluate professional military education (PME) opportunities like Infantry Captain Career Course. I will not include those specific options because if you stay in long enough the military makes you go anyway!
Options listed below are, as far as I know, not only provided at no-cost to the service member, they also have no impact on GI Bill, they do not incur an additional duty service obligation (ADSO), do not consume tuition assistance (TA), and do not require letters from a commander or otherwise like some other programs that do exist. Most are literally just a click or two away and service members can work through at their own pace. The goal is to pick a “real” program, determine what credits transfer, complete the credits to the best of your ability, and then apply them towards a traditional or online degree program which dramatically cuts down on costs. This way you get to save eligibility to when you need it.
- SkillSoft also known as SkillPort or Army eLearning — This is probably the most understood option within the DoD as there are plenty of required courses provided on this platform. In total, last I checked, Service members with access to SkillSoft could complete over 60 college credits here alone. Additionally, people with access can complete prerequisites for some major industry certifications here as well such as CISCO’s CCNA, CompTia Security+, and ASQ’s Six Sigma. Some installations will pay for the certification exams after Service members complete prerequisites as well. For example, JBLM Soldiers can sit for some of the computer exams at Courage University and others at Stone Education Center.
- Army Correspondence Course Program (ACCP) courses available on ALMS. While most Soldiers have to take courses on ALMS, they do not realize ALMS also hosts the ACCP which has, again, ACE certified courses. When complete, they automatically populate to the JST. You have to register for each ACCP course on ATRRS and then take the classes through the ALMS platform. Classes often include MOS-specific courses such as the 12B Engineer Bridge course which counts as both technical credit and engineering credit. Interestingly enough, the 12B Engineer Bridge course is available to everyone, not just Army Engineers!
- Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is a web-based education system that focuses on project management, the acquisitions process, and logistics. There’s something like 80 “real” universities that accept DAU credits for transfer towards certificate programs, associates, bachelors, masters, and even doctorate degrees depending on the school! Most of the universities accept around nine credits max which usually saves students around $10,000. Most of the available degrees are MBA, supply chain, or systems related. DAU built partnerships with these “real” universities specifically to transfer credit. Courses here are rigorous and the just the first Introduction to Acquisitions course was surprisingly thorough, interesting, and applicable. Definitely at the collegiate level! DAU’s partnership is outlined in a Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with each specific university that describes their new Strategic Partnership (SP). Each MOU/SP are available through their portal.
- FEMA Training Organizations is hosted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Subordinate organizations offer free distance courses (some ACE-recommended) and certifications. These include FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI), National Training and Education Division (NTED), National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the National Fire Academy which offer ACE recommended credits as well. Open to anyone regardless of Federal branch. They also offer at least one fully accredited Masters degree for Officers who have reached O4 or higher. Many courses are online/remote but a few are in person and require a Federal organization to sponsor so read the fine print!
- The MG Robert M. Joyce Installation Management Academy School for Family and MWR is hosted by IMCOM and is focused on providing Military Spouses (and service members) ACE-recommended classes. Open to service members and family. Offerings are both online, in person, and blended and range from program management to executive leadership.
- Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment. This is technically for after service is complete but it is important to know. To qualify, service members need at least 20% disability from their particular service such as Army through a Medical Evaluation Board (VA percentages do not count). There is an application process. I have been told it is a great program that can be used in conjunction with or independently from the GI Bill for up to doctorate degrees.
- The Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) . At 100% total and permanent (service connected) from the VA, Veteran Spouses can receive educational monies through the VA. “If you began your program on August 1, 2018 or after, you have 36 months to use your benefits” at $1,224.00 per month.
- Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) Discharge. “A total and permanent disability (TPD) discharge relieves you from having to repay a William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program loan, a Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loan, and/or a Federal Perkins Loan or to complete a TEACH Grant service obligation.” Effectively at this level of “broken” a service member can have specific educational loans paid for (in full) by the Federal government at program completion.
There are some downsides to the JST and the ACE accreditation process. First, some one-off courses and Mobile Training Team (MTT) offerings such as Air Assault are often never evaluated even though the training blocks and time frames are equivalent. The equity that owns the course has to reach out to ACE for an evaluation and needs to do so every few years to maintain accreditation. This can be frustrating because courses can also call out of accreditation. For example, a specialized military education course for Officers fell out of accreditation in 2014 because the course owners did not request review. Unfortunately students who attended during the interim lost the equivalent of half a Masters degree worth of credits. Second, to even qualify for credit, courses must be at least 46 class hours which effectively courses must be two weeks in length (40 hours in a week). Third, not all courses get coded correctly or even inputted properly. JST does have a self-submit process for corrections but thankfully I never had to dive that deep into the process.
The American Council on Education is a very interesting organization. I recommend checking out their National Guide which outlines organizations they have reviewed. You might find you have more credits than you realized! For example, PADI scuba divers have many different options for credits up to and including instructors.