When Sean Lunde enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 2005, he expected his four years of training and experience as an Army medic in Kosovo, Germany, and Iraq would earn him as much as 50 college credits, or about a year and a half of courses. He received none.
"I went to medic school for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for four months," he said. "None of that was accepted."
When recruiting, the military highlights its educational advantages, promising young men and women that service will give them a leg up toward a college degree and a better career. But many of the thousands of veterans who attend college after tours of duty are denied credit for military courses and specialized skills despite an accreditation system set up to award it, veterans' advocates and students say. That forces students to take more courses than they expected to, straining already thin GI Bill benefits.
In response to veterans' criticism, colleges say they are fairly evaluating military courses and that a good deal of service training does not match with academic subjects. But in the minds of veterans, the denial of credits casts doubt on the academic qualifications of their military training, coursework, and specialties. That leaves many feeling bitter and disillusioned.
"When I went into the military, they told us we would get credit for military experience," Lunde said. "But hardly anyone I know that served gets the credits they thought they deserved. So it hasn't worked out like I expected."
The issue is an increasing point of tension on campuses as waves of veterans return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and enroll in college, taking advantage of a range of public benefits and hoping to build on skills acquired during their service.
The military offers a wide range of educational opportunities to service members, and has created a comprehensive, if complicated, system that translates military courses, training, and occupations into potential college credit.
The American Council on Education, the chief coordinating body for higher education institutions, acts as a kind of accrediting agency for the armed forces. It assigns civilian academics to evaluate military courses and duties and make recommendations for how much credit should be awarded.
Veterans also contend that military training and jobs that correlate to academic subjects deserve as much credit as coursework, just as many college students receive course credits through internships. For example, veterans say a stint as an Army cook should earn credit for a culinary arts program; and a sergeant supervising 100 soldiers should receive credit in business management.
That evaluation process, which military officials describe as rigorous and fair, documents soldiers' skills and responsibilities and recommends how much college credit they should receive. While colleges widely recognize the transcripts, they are not bound to honor them, and those who work closely with veterans say many colleges award the credits arbitrarily.
"Many people handling transfers aren't aware of it and don't know how to do it, so they just don't accept it," said Louis Martini, director of military education at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey and president of the Council of College and Military Educators. "It's a problem that comes up a lot."
Such hurdles lead many veterans to attend colleges known to be "military friendly" to maximize their credits, military education specialists say. These colleges usually belong to Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a Washington, D.C., consortium of 1,800 schools dedicated to helping service members receive college degrees.
Surveys by the American Council on Education found that 14 percent of colleges and universities do not award any military credit, and 30 percent do not award credit for occupational experiences, just for coursework.
Colleges that do not award credit for military training contend that most service-related experience is incompatible with academic programs.
"We don't have a process for evaluating [military service] for credit," said Kathleen Teehan, vice chancellor for enrollment management at UMass-Boston. "I think that's fairly standard."
The school does consider giving former service members credit for academic classes taken while in the military that were offered through accredited colleges.
Jeffrey Cropsey, director of Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, which oversees education in the Department of Defense, said that while some veterans are frustrated by colleges' denials, overall they saved an estimated $141 million last year in tuition costs through credits earned during service.
"The devil is in getting the information out," he said. "Some academic advisers are fairly junior people who are not totally conversant with the system, especially if they aren't near a military base."
But Jack Mordente, director of veterans' affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, and a former president of the National Association of Veterans' Programs Administrators, criticized the military for exaggerating the amount of academic credit veterans will receive.
"Students have the expectation that they are going to walk into college and get all sorts of credit, and it just doesn't happen," he said. "I really think the problem is in what they are being told."
Mordente and other college administrators said a good deal of military training is too technical to transfer to a college program.
Bill Blanchard, 26, a Framingham State College business student, left for basic training just before his senior year at American University. While in the Army, he took intensive classes in Army psychological operations, which American later refused to accept for credit.
"A marketing student would be very jealous of our training, and yet I didn't get a single class. They told me I was misinformed."
Unwilling to continue at American, he transferred to Framingham State, which accepted most of his military classes toward his degree. Blanchard completed his degree and returned to active duty.
Donald Morrison, 28, an Army reservist from Brookline who worked in logistics during a 2004 tour in Iraq, said UMass-Boston rejected his request for transfer credit, although the American Council on Education contends that his training should count toward a management or business administration degree.
"Veterans assume they are going to get taken care of when they get back to school, and so does the general public," he said. "But they're not."
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org