To find out how many college credits you've earned just by serving in the military, you must fill out the Coast Guard Institute's "Application for Transcript" form (CGI-1561) and submit it to the Institute.
The Coast Guard Institute will assess all your Coast Guard training and experience and create a composite transcript showing how many college credits they might be worth toward a college degree. The Institute will also include on this transcript credits earned through credit-by-exam programs (CLEP, DSST, ECE, etc.).
A degree plan, essentially, is a roadmap to the degree of your choice. It shows you where you are now (how many credits you have toward that degree at a specific school), how many credits you still need to earn, and what courses you still need to take to earn those remaining credits.
The degree plan is more important than the transcript. By itself, the transcript tells you nothing, since every school decides for itself which and how many credits it will accept toward its degrees. Only colleges and universities can provide degree plans, since the Coast Guard Institute no longer provides them.
Your first step should be to request an assessment of your education and experience from the Coast Guard Institute. Read the information on the Getting Started page of this web site.
At the same time you request an education assessment, so you can get a transcript of Coast Guard-earned credits.
You should also try to decide on a major (the field of study you're interested in) and what degree level you want to pursue. To get an idea of what majors and degrees relate to what career fields, go to a great web site created by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
For help with the assessment request form make an appointment with your ESO.
An organization called SOC – Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges – was created in 1972 to deal with just this problem: providing educational opportunities to servicemembers, who, because they frequently moved from place to place, had trouble completing college degrees.
Today, SOC is a association of more than 1,800 colleges and universities that provide educational opportunities for servicemembers and their families. Hundreds of thousands of servicemembers and their family members enroll annually in programs offered by SOC member universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical institutes. Military students may enroll in associate, bachelor, and graduate-level degree programs on school campuses and military installations within the United States and overseas.
SOC coordinates associate and bachelor's degrees in a variety of curriculum areas for Coast Guard through SOCCOAST. These degree programs are offered by colleges and universities on or accessible to Coast Guard installations worldwide. Within each curriculum or degree network, member colleges agree to accept each other's credits in transfer. Servicemembers and their family members in isolated locations can take courses through such "distance learning" methods as the Internet, correspondence, computer, or video.
Once you've applied for admission at a college, you'll need to have transcripts from every other college you've attended and a transcript of credit you earned in the Coast Guard sent directly to your new college. To get a transcript of your Coast Guard credit sent to the school, you'll first have to request an assessment of your Coast Guard service from the Coast Guard Institute. See "How do I find out how many college credits I've earned through military service?" above.
Once that's done, you send an "Application for Transcript" form to the Institute. (You can send this to the Institute at the same time you send your assessment request.) Here's what the transcript sent to your school will look like.
SOCCOAST has a program – called SOCCOAST Afloat – set up especially for you. Make an appointment with your ESO to find out more about it.
In addition to attending courses in a classroom or via distance learning, you can also earn credit through credit-by-exam programs. You may have heard of CLEP (the College Level Examination Program), through which you can earn credit in 34 subjects. In addition to CLEP, however, there is the DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Test) program, which has tests for 42 subjects, and the Excelsior College Examination (ECE) program, with another 42 subjects. The Thomas Edison College Examination Program (TECEP) is a fourth test program; it has exams on about 50 subjects. Unlike the tests from the other three programs, you have to pay for TECEP tests. There is very little overlap in the subjects covered by these four programs.
Although hundreds of schools accept credit earned through these programs toward degrees they offer, not all accept credit from all these tests. So before taking any of these tests, it's probably a good idea to take this into consideration. The degree plans prepared for you by the Coast Guard Institute will include only schools that accept credit earned through these programs, if you've already passed one or more CLEP test, DSSTs, or ECEs.
In addition to credit-by-exam programs, some colleges also allow you to challenge their final exams, i.e. take the final exam without having taken the course. If you pass the test, that college will then award you the same number of credits earned by the students who went to class.
Finally, your military training and experience also earns you college credit. The American Council on Education (ACE) periodically evaluates all courses taught on a servicewide basis in all five of the armed forces. (Locally-produced courses are seldom evaluated.) At the end of the evaluation process, ACE certifies that if XYZ course had been offered by an accredited college or university, you would have earned a certain number of credits in specified fields.
The Coast Guard Institute also takes into account your military training and experience when assessing your educational attainments and preparing degree plans to show you how much of the credit you've already earned will be accepted by various schools and how close you are to finishing a degree from those same schools.
The short answer is, yes – with conditions.
The Coast Guard has a policy that allows you to do this is called Temporary Separation, and is laid out in article 12.F. of the Personnel Manual. Here's an overview of the policy:
1. The Temporary Separation policy allows Coast Guard members to temporarily separate and pursue growth or other opportunities outside the service, while providing a mechanism for their return to active duty. The long-term intent of this program is to retain the valuable experience and training our members possess that might otherwise be lost. Under this policy, career oriented officers and enlisted members are allowed a onetime separation from Active Duty for up to two years to either:
a. Discharge parental responsibilities to care for newborn children (CNC), or
b. Allow members to pursue personal interests that are restricted by continuing on active duty, e.g. education.
2. Personnel who already have an approved separation date may request, prior to that date, to be separated under this policy.
3. Personnel who have previously separated from the Service under this policy are not eligible for a second separation under this policy. This prohibition also applies to personnel who previously separated under the Care for Newborn Children (CNC) policy.
4. Members who are approved for separation under this policy are eligible to affiliate with the Reserve during the separation. This is a great opportunity if you'd like to go to school full-time to finish a degree (whether for personal or professional reasons).
Since you wouldn't be considered to be on active duty while temporarily separated, you could use the GI Bill as it's intended to be used.
See article 12.F. of the Personnel Manual for details.