The military provided you with top-notch training and unequaled learning experiences, and now, through prior learning assessment (PLA), that knowledge can translate into college credit. Prior learning describes the learning you gain outside of school—such as the learning you’ve gained through formalized military training and other life experiences (including employment, travel, hobbies, civic activities and volunteer service). PLA takes that knowledge and determines whether it can be converted it into college credit so you can earn your degree faster and with less expense. For example: a research study showed earning 15 credits from PLA can save $1,605 to $6,000 on tuition costs! If you’re working toward a bachelor’s degree, those PLA credits could save you a semester or two—sometimes more!

PLA isn’t just one method or tool. To help familiarize you with how PLA works, we’ll walk through the following types of PLA:


Transfer Guides for Military Training and Transcripts

Many schools have transfer guides that detail how your military training will transfer to their institutions. To determine transfer eligibility, you’ll first need to provide the institution with an official transcript of your formal military training, known as the Joint Services Transcript (JST) for the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard; or, for members of the Air Force, the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) transcript.

Because CCAF is an accredited institution, CCAF transcripts are often treated like academic transcripts from other institutions. You can obtain your CCAF transcript at the CCAF website.

For training in other branches of the military, many institutions rely on recommendations developed by the American Council of Education (ACE) to determine which military training/occupations have learning outcomes equivalent to college-level courses and can transfer to their institution for credit. The ACE Military Guide is a terrific resource for finding out (1) which military occupations and training courses should equate to postsecondary credit and (2) how many credits should be awarded for each. You can find ACE recommendations on your JST, or you can search for recommendations on the ACE website.

Important: When your institution transcribes your JST, it is important that they only award credits that will count toward your program requirements. Due to the financial aid eligibility requirements called Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), the transcription of too many unused credits can lead to financial aid ineligibility for the student in question. Many—but not all—schools have policies in place to prevent this outcome; if you have an extensive military training history, you are advised to confirm with your school that excess credits will not be automatically posted to your transcript.

Action Steps:

Portfolio Assessments

A portfolio is a written document you prepare that describes the knowledge and experiences you want assessed for college credit. Portfolios can be particularly useful to veterans and service members when there are no recommendations or standardized tests available. Some schools offer portfolio assessment themselves, while others outsource this service. CAEL’s PLA service is LearningCounts.org, an easy-to-use online service that helps you develop your PLA portfolio. The GI Bill® will reimburse you for portfolio assessments facilitated through LearningCounts.org, although it is important to note that the cost will be rounded up to one month’s worth of entitlement.

Action steps:
  • To start figuring out the areas of your knowledge and expertise that may align with college courses and could be evaluated for college credit, visit LearningCounts.org and check if your institution offers the LearningCounts portfolio assessment service.
  • If your institution does not offer LearningCounts, ask your advisor if other portfolio assessment options are available.

Program Evaluations

If you already have licenses or certifications, or if you’ve completed non-collegiate instructional programs that are occupational specific, you can request an evaluation of the associated coursework and career activities for academic credit. Even if you are pursuing education in a different field, those experiences and credentials could count toward your education and be very important to your future career.

Transferology.com is a useful tool that can help you determine how your military learning experiences will be handled at any institution that’s part of the Transferology system. Simply create an account and search for the type of training you received in the “Military Credits” section of the “Will My Courses Transfer” page. You can then “Search for Matches” to see which colleges and universities offer credit for your training, as well as the specific courses for which credit is granted.

Veterans who received specialized training in the military are sometimes disappointed to find that, to perform the same job in the civilian sector, they must first obtain additional licensure or certification—sometimes, even a postsecondary degree. That’s why program evaluations are crucial for veterans. Ask if your school has an accelerated or bridge program based on these evaluations. Such programs reduce the amount of time necessary to obtain a credential by recognizing and providing credit for military training and experience.

Action steps:
  • To find more information about the state of Illinois’ ongoing process of certification review, and possible outcomes for your military specialty, please visit: http://www.illinois.gov/veterans/Pages/Licenses.aspx.
  • To verify your military certifications, look on the Verification of Military Experience and Training (VMET) DD2586, which was provided to you at time of your separation (https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/tgps/).

Customized Exams and Standardized Testing

Some schools offer customized exams to verify college-level learning achievement. These may be final exams of current courses, or “challenge exams.” Challenge exams are designed by school faculty to determine whether an incoming student with prior learning can meet learning objectives of a specific course.

Standardized testing is also an option. Many of such tests are approved “national tests” under the GI Bill®, and certain testing fees can be reimbursed. You will need to check with your school to determine which tests they accept. Some examples of commonly accepted standardized exams include:

If you receive benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill®, you should consider the impact on your overall entitlements. For tests that are inexpensive, it may not be worth using your benefits, as the cost is rounded up to one month’s worth of entitlement.

Action Step:

A Note About PLA Credits

Schools do not determine PLA credits using the same methods or standards. Even if your top choices in schools offer the same types of PLA, their policies and procedures for awarding college credit for prior learning may be very different. Each school also has its own regulations and restrictions. For example, schools may limit the amount of institutional credit you can get from PLA, PLA options may be limited to specific degree programs or credit may be restricted for use toward programs elections only. Some schools will only review transcripts for credit after you have enrolled, or even after you have successfully completed one full term of study.

You should take time to understand the policies in place at your school of choice and how they impact your educational path. The more you know and understand about PLA and your school’s policies on PLA, the better equipped you will be to maximize your military training and skills.

A Note About GI Bill® Eligibility

To certify college courses for the GI Bill® funding, schools must ensure that a student veteran does not already have that course on their official transcripts. In addition, the VA will only pay for courses that are required to complete your degree so that you maintain GI Bill® entitlement and eligibility.

Here is a PLA checklist to help you make an informed decision.

  • Consult your school’s registrar’s office or assessment and testing office about available PLA methods, and obtain a list of the school’s required action steps to receive credit.
  • Order your records to be delivered to your new school.
  • Schedule an appointment and meet with your academic advisor. Bring copies of all of your prior learning records, including your JST or CCAF transcript, so your advisor can help you determine the degree or program of study and course schedule that corresponds with your desired career path.
  • Take ownership of your academic path. Remember to review the school’s degree plan and course descriptions as well as your previous learning records. Request that the institution help you get academic credit for your previous learning.