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The Strategy To Get More Military Service Members A College Degree

A passing score on a 90-minute exam makes a path to a diploma

Every year, over half a million military service members and veterans enroll in undergraduate institutions. Only about half leave with a certificate or degree.


Getting a college degree can help graduates get jobs and earn higher wages, but veterans and active military service members may face obstacles on their way to degree completion. Along with their studies, they often commit time to family, work, and military service.

As a scholar who works with the College Board and studies barriers and solutions to college completion, I have seen at least one promising way to get military personnel across the college finish line—a short exam that offers college credits toward a degree.

Additional challenges for service members

Students of all backgrounds face uncertainty about whether they will complete college, but military personnel and veterans can face additional challenges.

The Millions Records Project tracked the enrollment patterns of nearly one million active military personnel and veterans who used Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010. These service members do not fit the “traditional”—and perhaps old-fashioned—profile of a college student. Relative to nonmilitary students, service members and veterans are, on average, older, more likely to work and support families, and can have delayed or interrupted enrollment due to service obligations.

On top of all of that, many veterans have service-related disabilities that can make college completion difficult.

These challenges, in addition to those faced by many students in higher education, contribute to veteran and active military students leaving college with no degree.

Credit for prior learning

Along with my colleagues who study economics and higher education, I recently completed a study looking at the effectiveness of one particular tool that may help military students complete their college degrees.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The Department of Defense pays the $80 CLEP exam fee for active duty military and offers the exams on some military bases.[/quote]

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is a 90- to 120-minute exam administered by the College Board that offers credits in lieu of completing college coursework. Nearly 3,000 colleges offer credit for 33 different CLEP exams in topics including literature, mathematics, world languages, social and hard sciences, and business.

Students can take a CLEP exam whenever they choose—before enrolling in college or as they near graduation. Depending on the college campus and CLEP exam, students with high enough scores (typically a 50 on a scale of 20 to 80) are eligible for college credit.

The Department of Defense has an agency dedicated to improving the educational experiences and outcomes for veteran and active military students: Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES), which pays the $80 CLEP exam fee for active duty military and offers the exams on some military bases.

Eighty dollars and travel to a testing center may not seem like something to stand in the way of enrolling in or graduating from college. But these types of small barriers prevent students’ success in other contexts, like taking the SAT or ACT and enrolling in college. For active military, at least, DANTES has removed some of these obstacles.

CLEP success

Why might CLEP help military servicemen and servicewomen complete college?

For one, getting credit for introductory and lower-level courses improves college completion, as seen with Advanced Placement courses and exams. Additionally, these credits can allow students to bypass some lower level courses that might have content or less academically prepared classmates that discourage students from continuing with their education.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Those who start at two-year colleges and receive credit for CLEP exam scores are 18 percent more likely to attain an associate’s degree.[/quote]

Using approximately 200,000 military-affiliated CLEP examinees, we found that those who start at two-year colleges and receive college credit for CLEP exam scores are 18 percent more likely to attain an associate’s degree than those who did not receive such credits. Similarly, military personnel who start at four-year colleges and earn credit through CLEP are 11 percent more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree.

With this evidence, we can think about what might happen if we got more military personnel to pass CLEP exams—either through increased participation or improved scores.

In a world of countless college completion efforts and policies, an 18 or even 11 percent increase is noteworthy. More successful interventions are rare and can be costly.

Colleges, policymakers, and researchers should continue trying new paths to get military members college degrees, but my research suggests that CLEP is a viable one. Earning college credit through exams is a cheap and unusually effective way to improve the completion rates for any student, but perhaps especially so for military personnel who face challenges and outside commitments. Not to mention, the exam is fully subsidized.

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