WASHINGTON - For the third year in a row, the Army fell
significantly short of its goal for recruiting high school graduates.
It was the latest sign that the military's largest branch is lowering
education standards to meet quotas, possibly at the expense of the
long-term health of the force.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, fewer than 83 percent of new
active-duty soldiers were high school graduates, according to Army
statistics provided to the Globe.
The share was slightly higher than last year - leading some
officials to say they have stemmed the drop - but still far below the
Army's stated goal of having more than 90 percent earn their diplomas
before joining the ranks.
In another worrisome trend, the percentage of active-duty recruits
who scored in the bottom category on the Army's entrance exam remained
among the highest of the decade, according to the figures compiled by
the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
The eroding standards come as the Army attempts to increase its
ranks by 74,200 soldiers by 2012, through a combination of stepped-up
recruiting and persuading greater numbers of current soldiers to
The expansion, to cover active-duty soldiers, Army Reserve, and Army
National Guard, marks the largest since the end of the Cold War. Many
of the new recruits are likely to remain in uniform for a decade or
"Even if the recent negative trends in recruiting and retention were
to be completely reversed over the next few years, it would likely be
years, perhaps a decade or even longer, before the Army fully recovered
from some of those trends," said Steven Kosiak, vice president of the
independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in
Washington and author of a new report on military manpower.
Over past few years, the Army has failed to meet several key goals
on recruit quality. Education levels have dropped, entrance exam scores
have slid, and more recruits have entered the service after receiving
special waivers for problems that would otherwise have made them
ineligible: medical reasons, past drug use, or criminal histories.
At the same time, many specialists believe the war in Iraq has
driven away potential recruits and led parents, teachers, and others
who influence youths to steer them to other professions. As a result,
the Army has fallen considerably short of recruits that possess a high
The military considers a high school diploma to be the strongest
indicator of stick-to-itiveness. Numerous government and independent
studies have shown that soldiers who finish high school are far more
likely to complete their term of service without disciplinary problems.
Indeed, the Army considers a diploma so important that earlier this
year it opened its own preparatory school at Fort Jackson in
Mississippi, where soldiers can earn their high school equivalency
before entering basic training.
"People who do not have a high school diploma leave the service in
the first term at a considerably higher rate," said Bruce Orvis,
director of the manpower and training program at the Rand Corporation,
a government funded think tank. The Pentagon sets the education bar so
high, he said, "to maximize return on investment."
"Their long-term goal is to have 90 percent plus of their recruits
to have high school degrees," Kosiak added. "They managed to achieve
that level until 2006, when it fell to 81 percent, which was the lowest
it had been in 25 years. In 2007 it got a little bit worse; it went
down to 79 percent. That is one of the most significant areas that
people have expressed concern about."
Still, top Pentagon officials are confident that the worst of the Army's recruiting problems of recent years may be over.
"The Army has improved its high school diploma content," David Chu,
the undersecretary of defense for personnel, told reporters at the
Pentagon recently before the figures were made public.
"We're showing improvement in that area and we're doing the kinds of
things we need to," added Major General Thomas Bostick, commander of
the Army Recruiting Command. Bostick also pointed out that Army
recruits have a high school graduation rate that is higher than the
national average of about 75 percent. But in other areas of recruit
quality, as measured against the service's own standards, the Army is
also falling short.
The Army Reserve, the part-time force that augments the active duty
force, nearly achieved the 90 percent high school graduation goal last
year, but it failed to meet its goal in the number of volunteers who
scored above average on the entrance exam, according to the new figures.
The Army wants at least 60 percent of its new recruits to score in
the highest category on the entrance exam. Yet last year, a little more
than 58 percent in Army Reserve did so, according to the recruiting
Meanwhile, the share of active-duty recruits who scored in the
lowest acceptable category on the exam remained at nearly 4 percent, as
it has for each of the last three years. That is far higher than the
previous five years, according to the data.
In fiscal year 2008, more than 3.5 percent of the 80,000 new
recruits scored between the 10th and 30th percentile on the exam, the
lowest category acceptable for entering the service. That is slightly
lower than in the last few years, but still higher than 1.2 percent
average between 2000 and 2004.
Orvis, the Rand specialist, said the exam scores are another key
measure of recruit quality, saying that soldiers with higher scores
"train better and perform better."
Complete data on how many waivers were granted last year has not yet
been compiled, according to S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army
Recruiting Command. However, in at least one category, for felony
convictions, the situation has improved. Last year, a total of 372
recruits had a felony conviction on their record, compared with 511 the
previous fiscal year.