By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The percentage of new recruits entering the Army with a high school diploma dropped to a new low in 2007, according to a study released yesterday, and Army officials confirmed that they have lowered their standards to meet high recruiting goals in the middle of two ongoing wars.
The study by the National Priorities Project concluded that slightly more than 70 percent of new recruits joining the active-duty Army last year had a high school diploma, nearly 20 percentage points lower than the Army's goal of at least 90 percent.
The National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts-based research group that examines the impact of federal budget policies and has been outspoken against the Iraq war, said the number of high school graduates among new recruits fell from 83.5 percent in 2005 to 70.7 percent last year.
"The trend is clear," said Anita Dancs, the project's research director, who based the report on Defense Department data released via the Freedom of Information Act. "They're missing their benchmarks, and I think it's strongly linked to the impact [of] the Iraq war."
The study also found that the number of "high quality" recruits -- those with both a high school diploma and a score in the upper half on the military's qualification test -- has dropped more than 15 percent from 2004 to 2007. After linking the recruiting data to Zip codes and median incomes, it found that low- and middle-income families are supplying far more Army recruits than families with incomes greater than $60,000 a year.
"Once again, we're staring at the painful story of young people with fewer options bearing the greatest burden," said Greg Speeter, the project's executive director.
The Army previously acknowledged that it has not met the 90 percent mark since 2004, and yesterday officials at U.S. Army Recruiting Command disputed the group's numbers but not the trend. They said that 79.1 percent of its active-duty recruits in 2007 had a high school diploma, down from 87 percent in 2005.
"It's really an indication of the difficult recruiting environment we're in, both with the impact of the ongoing wars, an economy competing for high school graduates, and a decline in the percentage of students who graduate from high school," said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the recruiting command. "But we're not putting anyone in the Army that we don't feel is qualified to serve as a soldier."
The independent study's data were based on more than 66,000 new recruits and did not include roughly 14,000 recruits who had prior military service and most of whom would have high school diplomas. It was unclear yesterday if the recruiting command's higher numbers included new recruits only or covered all recruits in 2007.
Both groups agree that the Army has met its high recruitment goals for the past two years by lowering acceptance standards, offering signing bonuses and loosening age restrictions.
The National Priorities Project said that Defense Department studies have shown that a high school diploma is an indicator of future success in the military, with about 80 percent of those with high school diplomas finishing the first term of enlistment and about half of the others making it that far. When recruits are unsuccessful in the Army, the service loses on its investment in training and has to recruit again.
Edwin Dorn, a professor at the University of Texas and former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness under President Bill Clinton, said such lapses are not of short-term concern but could be a long-term problem. "There is a relationship between high school graduation and how trainable people are, and more importantly there is a relationship between the likelihood that you'll stay on active duty," Dorn said.