Today’s college student population differs dramatically from that of 20 years ago and resembles the diverse nature of America’s military with wide-ranging differences across demographic and economic lines. Nationally, adult learners now comprise more than 50 percent of all part-time enrollment and more than 33 percent of total enrollment in higher education.  Adult and military students are typically over 24 years old, have families, work part time or full time, are self-supporting and mature, have a limited involvement with activities on campus, and desire to earn degrees to further their career and life goals.

The post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which offers the two million service members who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan tuition and educational expenses assistance, has prompted a growth in student veteran enrollment that has not been seen since the original G.I. Bill was enacted in 1944. Colleges and universities are scrambling to adapt to the influx of veteran and active duty students and design services specifically for this population. To ensure these federal education benefits are used efficiently, higher education institutions should provide meaningful information about program options and cost to service members and veterans.

For many students transitioning from military to civilian life, the process of pursuing an undergraduate and/or graduate degree can be both attractive and stressful at the same time. The opportunity to follow a new career path comes with the challenges of navigating the uncharted territory of higher education. One of the most significant challenges for veterans is translating their military experience into terms that civilian employers will understand and value.

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), offered by some college programs, has great potential for helping military members achieve their higher education goals while transitioning new civilian lives. PLA is a process through which institutions can evaluate college-level knowledge, skills, and abilities gained outside the confines of the classroom for academic credit. Portfolio Development for military and veteran learners has become a practice in many institutions for identifying college-level and credit-worthy learning that can count towards their degree and boost their progress toward graduation.

Students who complete the portfolio report feelings of satisfaction, pride, and accomplishment, as well as appreciation for time and money saved. In addition to gaining momentum toward graduation in their selected majors, military students who finish the process can make substantive connections to the academic community and gain confidence in their ability to successfully transition from military service member to high performing adult student.

To meet the needs of a changing global economy, it’s essential that this population of transitioning and active service men and women have effective and efficient pathways to degrees. As the workforce continues to require higher levels of educational attainment, it is especially important for institutions of higher education to understand the unique characteristics and needs of this growing student population in order to recruit, retain, and graduate more of them. Incorporation of PLA into college curriculum can provide an acknowledgement of credit-worthy learning that will lead to higher graduation rates and an accelerated path to graduation for active military and veteran students.