MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) -- The Community College of the Air Force serves as a lighthouse for enlisted Airmen searching for a path to receive college credits for their military service while on the road to getting their associate degrees.
Established April 1, 1972, the CCAF is the world's only degree granting institution for enlisted personnel and is regionally accredited through Air University by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
"(The) CCAF evolved when senior leadership recognized the need to enhance the development of NCOs as managers of Air Force resources," said Chief Master Sgt. Andrew T. Hollis, the CCAF vice commandant.
An education study revealed that Air Force technical training often exceeded standards set by civilian institutions. This was followed by a series of conferences that laid out the framework to translate the rigorous technical training into regionally accredited college credit. After the college was approved by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Ryan in 1971, the secretary of the Air Force endorsed the CCAF in 1972, paving the way to later be approved by Congress and President Gerald Ford.
"This is noteworthy because (the) CCAF is the only institution in the world solely dedicated to grant regionally accredited degrees to the enlisted force," Hollis said.
Having a degree backed by regional accreditation is vital to Airmen's ability to continue to pursue bachelors or masters degrees because the accreditation is widely recognized and makes credits easily transferable.
"It is the gold standard in accreditation because of more strict admission standards and rigorous faculty qualifications," Hollis said. "We share accreditation with some of the best and most well-known colleges in the nation.
"When CCAF program managers apply this credit to a degree, Air Force tuition assistance is saved since Airmen do not have to duplicate these classes in civilian colleges," Hollis said. "In 2013, we saved $357 million in tuition assistance, representing roughly the production cost of an F-22 (Raptor)."
Parallel to most civilian institutions, the associate in applied science awarded by the CCAF is a 64 semester-hour program composed of technical education, general education, leadership and management studies. Students may acquire credits during basic military training, technical school, professional military education courses and taking college classes after arriving at their first duty station. These steps can catapult Airmen toward completion of other degrees, opening doors of possibilities and assisting in molding well-rounded service members.
"The Air University Associate-to-Baccalaureate Cooperative establishes partnerships between the Air Force and civilian institutions to provide CCAF graduates advanced education opportunities at the baccalaureate level," Hollis said.
Enlisted Airmen are automatically enrolled in the CCAF on enlistment. They will maintain student status, providing them an opportunity to earn a diploma, as long as they are in the military. Only those who are wounded warriors may continue to pursue their certificate post separation.
"Prior to my 2003 deployment to Iraq, I had completed all of the necessary courses to graduate, but for some reason one of my classes wasn't being reflected as completed," said retired Staff Sgt. Jason Ellis, the first wounded warrior to earn a CCAF degree after separation. "A short time after I had gotten injured and returned home, I was no longer fit for duty and got medically discharged."
Shortly after the decision was made to allow wounded veterans to continue to pursue their degrees, Ellis was notified of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act and how it allowed combat wounded, injured or ill Airmen, who were enrolled into the CCAF program prior to being honorably discharged, the opportunity to fulfill the requirements to graduate.
Like Ellis, many Airmen value finishing what they started, and the father of six explained his desire for receiving his CCAF diploma, even though he has his bachelor's degree from elsewhere and is no longer serving in the Air Force.
"Growing up, my dad had instilled in me that you must finish what you start, even if along the way you decide it's not what you thought it was going to be," Ellis said. "To me, finishing what you start helps build character. I also wanted to teach my kids the importance of this to make sure to set the example."
To date, six wounded warriors have finished their journey in earning their degree from the CCAF after returning to civilian life.
"The legislative change that allows wounded warriors to continue pursuing their CCAF degree even after separation or retirement provides those who have given so much of themselves to our Air Force a valuable tool in their transition to civilian life," said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Leo, the superintendent of enrollment management at the CCAF. "This opportunity was earned through their blood, sweat and tears during war time situations, and we are proud to offer this opportunity to all wounded warriors."
Now, over 40-years old, the CCAF is steadily increasing its graduate numbers, further distancing itself from most competitive institutions. In 2013, the school recorded its largest graduation number with 20,661 students receiving diplomas.
"We are the world's greatest Air Force, powered by Airmen and fueled by innovation," said Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, the 42nd Air Base Wing command chief. "This vision could not happen without confident, well-trained, critical thinking enlisted Airmen of which the CCAF program is the foundation. The CCAF is an invaluable enabling program with significant return on investment for both the Air Force and the member. I am a better Airman because of it."
As the number of enlisted Airmen with degrees increases, the CCAF is expanding and taking opportunities further by instituting the Air Force Credentialing Opportunities On-Line, or COOL, program.
"The (Air Force) COOL Program will institutionalize Air Force credentialing programs and allow Airmen to go to a single location and see the various certifications applicable to their career fields," Hollis said. "Professional certifications formally enumerate an Airmen's education, training and skill. When coupled with an associate degree from CCAF, an Airman is well-postured for future employment because they demonstrate a high degree of technical competence in addition to a well-rounded battery of knowledge and qualifications. The degree and certifications officially capture and quantify this. "