It's often true what they say: You can't take it with you — at least when it comes to college credits.
Sure, you can carry over a few credits when transferring schools, but typically not all of them. On average, students lose 13 credits the first time they transfer, according to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
Of those who transferred or "co-enrolled" in another college, about 39 percent transferred no credits, 28 percent transferred some and about a third transferred all their existing credits, the study found.
Students work hard to earn those credits — especially when they're wearing the uniform by day and studying by night or bringing in those credits through rigorous military training classes. When it's time to transfer to another institution, you want to keep as many credits as you can.
Apples to apples
One way to transfer the maximum number of credits is to choose an academic program that fits your prior experience.
Former Petty Officer 2nd Class Caleb Neel of Columbia, Maryland, knows what it's like. He had a two-year degree going into the Navy and picked up another through the Defense Language Institute before leaving the service in 2015. When he enrolled in Boyce College online, he took almost no credits with him.
It came down to a matter of aligning interests. Neel is working toward a degree in biblical and theological studies, and his prior coursework wasn't relevant. He bears no ill will. "It wasn't a wasted experience," he says. "The degrees taught me how to learn, and I have always wanted to pursue a language, so studying in the military got that itch scratched."
To transfer maximum credits, it helps to find a program that lines up with the work you've already done.
Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jenna Linsley studied basic medical care in the military and even took two years of college-level biology classes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
But when she began looking into nursing school, she couldn't find one willing to apply those course credits. She suspects a simple economic motive: Schools make money when students take courses.
Military friends had warned her this might happen. "But I thought some of my experience would count for something," she says.
Linsley found her fix through Herzing University's Vet2RN program. The school is more than just military-friendly; it actively courts veterans through programs such as this one, which helps military medics join the nursing industry.
Want to keep those credits? It's worth looking around for a school that values your service.
ACE your transcripts
Not sure how your military experiences will look in the eyes of an admissions officer? This is where you turn to ACE — the American Council on Education. Working under a contract with the Defense Department that's administered by Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, ACE manages the review process of military courses and occupations.
ACE evaluations are led by faculty from diverse disciplines at a range of colleges and universities. They determine the credit worthiness of military experience, thus guiding the credit-transfer decisions of some 2,000 schools.
An ACE-reviewed transcript can simplify efforts to determine which credits ought to transfer for any given program. Students can find details about the transcript review process and learn about the process for transferring ACE-reviewed training at the ACE website.
Share the load
How much do you really know about transferring college credits? About as much as that admissions officer knows about how to direct artillery fire. So why struggle through this alone? Better to get help from those who will be making the decisions.
Some schools offer a template that shows exactly where certain credits fall within a particular degree track. Jump on that, says Charles Young, director of military recruitment at Post University. "Then if the soldier or the sailor wants to take a look, they can see exactly where those transfer credits will actually transfer."
Schools should be able to drill down into the details. A complete disclosure will show, for example, not just how many credits will be accepted, but whether those credits will actually move the student forward in a specific program. "If I accept 75 of your credits, but only 30 of those actually apply to the degree, you're not going to be happy, especially if you've already paid your tuition," Young says.
The admissions officers know this stuff, and they should be well-prepared to share it with you in detail.
Get your ducks in a row
There can be a lot of reasons why people don't succeed in transferring credits. Maybe the experience doesn't line up with the ambition, or maybe the school doesn't recognize the content of the prior coursework as being sufficient. But sometimes it's the students' fault — they don't get the credit because they don't ask for it.
"Not everything you've ever done will count, but you never know until you send it over," Young says. In addition to a formal transcript (part of DD Form 214), a service member may have training certificates or other course credentials.
"They may assume that because they took a college class 10 years ago, that class is no longer valid, but in many cases it still will be," Young says. Schools may be willing to give credence to a lot of previous experience, "but we need to have enough information to go on."
When in doubt, put it in the package for schools to consider.
More to keep in mind
In addition to the tips above, it helps to follow some other procedures:
Transfer agreements. Schools sometimes share these with other colleges. If your school has one, find it and follow it. Transfers will go more smoothly and help ensure you get all the credit you should.
Call ahead. Forewarned is forearmed. Talk to an admissions officer early in the applications process. Admissions officers can help you through the transfer process, advise you as to what courses will or won't carry over, and generally fill in a lot of the blanks before you are in too deep.
Look at the big picture. Think about the degree you're pursuing and your broader career goals. Of course you want to transfer all the credits you can, but that's not the end game here. If the perfect school or the ideal program won't accept every course you've ever taken, it still may be worth the sacrifice to get to your desired goal.