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Army recruits with diplomas hit 25-year low

The Army signed up 67,398 new soldiers last year, according to the report. The study shows that at least 7 out of 10 did not graduate from high school.

By Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON - The share of Army recruits with a high school diploma - which has shown to be a key indicator of future success in the military - dropped more than 12 percent between 2005 and 2007, reaching a 25-year low, according to an analysis of government data published yesterday.

The percentage of Army enlistees who joined the service with a high school diploma went from almost 84 percent in 2005 to less than 71 percent last year, according to the analysis by the nonprofit National Priorities Project.

The data also revealed a steep decline in what the Army considers "high-quality" recruits, an assessment based on a combination of their education levels and scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test; in fiscal year 2005, for example, 56 percent of enlistees were designated by the Army as high quality, while last year 45 percent were, the analysis found.

The findings were based on raw data that the Army Recruiting Command compiles on each new recruit, including hometown, income level, race, education, and test scores. The National Priorities Project obtained the information through the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed it, according to Anita Dancs, the organization's research director.

The drop in the enlistment of high school graduates is the latest sign that the widely unpopular Iraq war is harming the recruiting efforts of the largest branch of the armed forces, according to specialists. They say the war has led large numbers of volunteers to bypass the Army - which is handling the bulk of combat operations in Iraq - for the Navy, the Air Force, and other branches less central to the war effort.

In turn, the plunge in the number of volunteers has forced the Army to lower many recruiting standards to meet quotas. For example, since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Army has granted a rising number of waivers to recruits who would ordinarily not qualify for military service, including applicants with criminal histories and significant medical conditions. According to the latest data, nearly 1 in 5 recruits it recently enlisted has required such a waiver.

Yet the Army is under pressure to keep its ranks filled. Besides fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it faces strains as Congress recently approved an expansion of the force by 65,000 troops and young officers are leaving the force at an alarming rate, raising questions about the long-term health of Army leadership.

"It is the erosion of the all- volunteer Army," Larry Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said in an interview yesterday. "Mothers and ministers are turning people against joining the Army."

Douglas Smith, a spokesman for Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press yesterday that the Army continues to face recruiting challenges, but he insisted that "every soldier that we put in the Army is qualified."

After the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon replaced the draft with an all-volunteer military, it also established a goal to create a strong foundation of professionals: At least 90 percent of its recruits must have high school diplomas. Whether a recruit had the determination to graduate from high school was considered an essential factor in predicting his or her success in a military career.

A 2004 Pentagon report supported that idea: It found that as many as half of the recruits who did not finish high school also dropped out of the military during their first enlistment term.

"At the end of the 1970s and '80s, we had a lot of problems with recruit quality," said Korb, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. "The data shows that if you have a high school diploma you are not going to quit when the going gets rough. That's why the Army, up until 2003, was getting more than 90 percent" high school graduates.

The study released yesterday said that in fiscal year 2007 "the Army failed to meet its 90 percent benchmark" for new recruits "by nearly 20 percentage points, with a rate of 70.7 percent."

The Army signed up 67,398 new soldiers last year, according to the report. The study shows that at least 7 out of 10 did not graduate from high school.

Dancs, the research director, said the National Priorities Project requested recruiting data from other military branches, but has encountered "mixed results" in obtaining a complete demographic picture of the armed forces.

— Bryan Bender
Boston Globe
2008-01-23


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