Bar Drop

If you ever were on the fence about joining the Army and your educational background is a little weak, now is the time to pounce. For years, the Army has required a high school diploma or GED to be accepted into the service. One of the finest soldiers I know, a man who rose through the enlisted ranks to become Command Sergeant Major of a Special Forces Group, is fond of telling people how he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to join the Army. Of course, this was in 1970, times were different back then, and it’s not something he recommends…but he did it.

“What’s that? They’re offering a $50,000 sign-up bonus now? Damn! I got in too soon.”  Image Credit: Sgt. Effie Mahugh

Last week, the US Army announced that they no longer require a high school diploma or GED to enlist in the service. This is one of the most significant recruiting changes in recent years. It’s right up there with the $50K sign-on bonus.

Why the sudden change? The Army has achieved only 40% of its recruitment goals this year. To say they are struggling to meet their numbers would be an understatement. Things are so bad that the Department of Defense plans to reduce the total force size because its original predictions were unrealistic. I wrote about this in April when I noted that current recruiting difficulties would shrink the US Army to Pre-WWII size. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that unemployment rates are low, the civilian job market is hot, and it seems wages keep rising, even for entry-level jobs.

The Applicant Pool Has Been Shrinking for Years

It’s not just education that has kept potential recruits out of uniform. Every year, fewer and fewer potential applicants qualify for military service. Obesity, criminal records, and mental health issues cull the pool of potential warfighters. In 1973 the draft law expired in the United States, and Congress refused to extend it. Since then, we’ve had an all-volunteer military and rely on a constant stream of recruits each year.

In 2017, the Pentagon conducted an extensive study of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 and found that 71% were ineligible to serve in the United States armed forces because they failed to meet minimum standards or have other disqualifiers. Unfortunately, the situation has only gotten worse since then. More than 24 million of the 34 million young people in the cohort noted above could not join the armed forces if they wanted to, which most of them do not.

Here is the problem; only 29% of our young people are qualified to serve. This workforce shortage presents a real compromise to our national security. There are only so many ways to deepen the applicant pool; one is to drop educational requirements.

What’s the Catch?

As with every contract, one has to sign in life. First, there is the fine print. You can enlist without meeting the previously required educational standards if you ship to basic training before October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Recruits must be 18 years old and score at least 50 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). Previously, if a potential recruit had a high school diploma, they only needed a score of 31 to be welcomed into the service.

Fifty isn’t by any means a stellar score, but it’s still a hell of a lot higher than 31. It means that 50% of the people who took the test did worse on it than you did. I could understand if they required recruits to have the equivalent score of a high school grad but 19 points higher? Does the Army want to have its cake and eat it too? What is their rationale? Will this change make much difference now that we are almost to July and 60% of their recruiting goal remains unmet?