Texas Army veteran Ryan Rafols worked as a missile defense engineer during his time in the U.S. Army, operating military defense systems, calculating targets and maintaining computer systems.
But when Rafols came back to Texas and applied to the engineering school at the University of Texas at Austin earlier this year, he was told none of his experience would count toward his degree. That made no sense to him.
“Most veterans come out and can’t get a job in the field they worked in,” he said. “They have to go back to school and learn what they already knew.”
That didn't make much sense to state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, either. So in 2011, she filed and passed legislation that created the College Credit for Heroes pilot program, which helps veterans get college credit for their military service. She had hoped to make the program permanent during this year's legislative session, but the measure never reached the full House for consideration.
Despite the failure of the legislation this year, officials in higher education and Texas Workforce Commission say the program is valuable because it saves students money and helps get veterans into the workforce sooner. For now, funding for the program will continue as the Texas Workforce Commission spends $1.5 million in federal grants to expand the pilot program to in six new schools statewide, bringing the total number of participating schools to 11.
Proponents of the program said they are hopeful it will become permanent during the next legislative session and continue to receive funding.
“This program has been a priority for both the agency and the Legislature, so I’m hopeful there will be more funding,” said Apurva Naik, a project manager at the Texas Workforce Commission.
On average, veterans who have participated in the pilot program, which is run out of Killeen but available to veterans statewide, have received 34 hours of credit, or about a year's worth of credits, in academic and other credits based on their military experience, according to the commission.
There are about 1.7 million veterans in Texas. Of those, approximately 393,000 are between 17 and 44, the age group most likely to attend college, according to the commission.
In 2011, nearly 77,000 Texas veterans received financial aid in the form of a GI bill to attend college. That year, 30.2 percent of U.S. veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed, compared to 16.1 percent of the general population.
Officials with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the agency that oversees the state's higher education institutions, say the credit problem arises because Texas does not have a statewide system for evaluating college credit earned in the military, leaving colleges to decipher complex military transcripts listing skills, experience and education.
To address that problem, College Credit for Heroes coordinators meet with veterans to learn about their military life and service. Veterans often receive specialized training for their military jobs, including work in criminal justice, engineering and medical fields, that can be counted for college credit.
Veterans often receive a transcript of their credits two or three weeks after the evaluation, which they then can present to an institution. The program has been successful, but it has limitations, said program director Brigitte Flynt. For instance, since the program is not mandatory, colleges and four-year institutions can decide whether to accept the credits or not.
Officials in the program have also struggled to reach veterans.
“I really think the word is not getting out that this benefit is here for veterans,” Flynt said. “We’re trying to go to all the events we can.”
Van de Putte said she will analyze the program’s effectiveness in the interim and consider refiling legislation to make it permanent in 2015. She said she also would talk with trustees and regents from higher education institutions and ask them to give veterans credits for their service.
“It makes no sense to keep someone in a first-year nursing program when these medics have been putting in IVs with bullets flying on the battlefield,” Van de Putte said.
Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said the board supports the program because it saves students money and eliminates the notion that students have to spend a certain number of weeks studying a subject to obtain mastery.
Some students, such as veterans, come with prior knowledge and competency, Chavez said.
“It only makes sense that if we could turn those soldiers into students and very quickly turn them over to the workforce with a credential of any type that it’s a benefit to the state,” Chavez said.