PLYMOUTH - Though he'd always considered military service, Patrick Logan firmly believed a bachelor's degree was his ticket to middle-class success. A friend enlisted in the Army after high school, Logan said, "because he felt like he didn't have anything else to do.'' Logan was determined to create a better choice for himself.
Then the economy collapsed in 2008, just months after Logan got his degree in criminal justice from Westfield State College.
"I applied for probably a couple hundred jobs with only about two or three interviews,'' said Logan, 23. "At first I thought I must be applying for the wrong jobs. But then I was applying for minimum-wage jobs and not even getting interviews. That kind of brought me back to the Army.''
Logan, who enlisted in November, is part of a growing trend of college-educated young men and women signing up for military service to jump-start their careers, serve their country - and avoid the unemployment line, even if there is a good chance they will end up in a war zone.
The number of new recruits who hold bachelor's degrees jumped by nearly 17 percent last year, from about 5,400 in 2008 to more than 6,400 for the armed services, Pentagon statistics show. The number of enlistees with associate's degrees from community colleges also increased, though more modestly, from roughly 2,380 to just over 2,570. The number of recruits with four- and two-year degrees represents 5.2 percent of the total 2009 military recruitment of 168,000.
They are part of a strong recruitment year fueled by high unemployment, particularly when compared with two years ago, when the Pentagon struggled to fill its ranks despite offering five-figure enlistment bonuses and granting waivers to recruits who failed to meet its standards.
"I call it a banner year for recruiting,'' said Dr. Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of recruiting policy.
Analysts point to several factors for the increase, including the US military's diminished role in Iraq that has resulted in fewer casualties there and a rise in positive attitudes toward public service. But most agree that the economy is perhaps the biggest reason for the bumper crop of recruits with college diplomas.
Beth Asch, a military analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan policy center based in Washington, said the military tends to benefit from a bad economy and rising unemployment. When the jobless rate nearly doubled, from about 5.8 percent in 2008 to just over 10 percent for 2009, enlistment in the military, and the quality of its volunteers, rose along with it.
"Because we've had such a large change over the last few years, you've seen a large change in enlistment,'' Asch said. "What we predict and what we're seeing right now is a big increase in the number of high-quality enlistments in the military.''
Though military service is a path working-class high school graduates take to advance, Asch said, enlisting with a college degree is actually a very good option in a down economy: Those who join can immediately begin building careers with benefits few private employers can match, including free medical care, housing, and college tuition.
Also, "it's a timing thing,'' Asch said. "If you have the ability to wait out a recession for a year or two, you might do so, but for people who don't have that option - they need something now, they have to pay their bills now - it might be their only option.''
What's noteworthy, she said, is that Logan and others are opting to join as noncommissioned officers, rather than seek an officer's rank - a more traditional path for college graduates. Logan, interviewed recently at an Army recruiting office in a strip mall just west of Route 3, said he participated in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps as a Westfield State undergraduate, but enlistment put him on a faster track: He will join the Army at a higher pay grade than someone who enlisted with a high school diploma.
"I wouldn't trade my college experience for anything. I know I made the right choice,'' Logan said, undeterred about the possibility he could be stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. "I know I'm making the right choice now because I have college under my belt and now I'm going into the Army. This is still something I want to do.''
Nicole Feeney, 19, an aspiring medical technician from Wilmington who graduated from Middlesex Community College with an associate's degree in 2008, said the staggering economy and long waiting lists for expensive medical schools were big factors in her decision to enlist. She previously worked at a Burlington Mall candy store that closed and will now be leaving her job at a tanning salon to join the military.
She said she knows several young people - including her boyfriend, an electrician - who have decided to serve their country rather than hold out hope for a quick economic turnaround.
"It's scary to think you could have a job one day and the next day you're looking for more work because you're not getting enough money or your business is closing, which actually happened to me when I was working at The Chocolate Factory at the Burlington Mall,'' Feeney said. "A lot of people are getting scared right now, and I think that the military is something to fall back on.''
Colin Fitzpatrick, a 2008 graduate of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., said he always considered himself a good match for military service. A former college hockey player who played semi-pro after college, Fitzpatrick admired the military's camraderie, its patriotism, and its dedication to national service, but his move to the Army was accelerated when he applied for law enforcement jobs and found himself on long waiting lists.
"I had a couple of options with the US Border Patrol and also with my local police, but it was tough,''said Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Westfield, Mass. He said he was going through the wait list process, and "it was something - a decision I really wasn't wholeheartedly into. The Army was always in the back of my mind.''
And, like Feeney and Logan, Fitzpatrick wasn't deterred by the likelihood he will spend time in a combat zone.
"One of my best friends, Kevin, was saying, ‘Colin, you're going to go to war.' I said, ‘I know that,' '' Fitzpatrick said. "I don't look at it as, I may get hurt. I don't look at it like that. I look at it as my job.''