Army Recruiting More Dropouts

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Win McNamee / Getty

New army recruits are sworn in at a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., in October.

Even as the U.S. Army seems to be enjoying increasing success in Iraq, the war itself seems to be driving down the quality of the fresh recruits the U.S. military needs to continue the campaign. A new analysis of Pentagon data shows that only 71% of Army recruits in 2007 earned high-school diplomas, extending a downward trend that began in 2004, the first full year of the Iraq war, and well below the Army's goal of 90%.

The slide continues despite hefty signing bonuses being paid out to enlistees. The situation is likely to only grow worse as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and as the Army presses on with its plan to add 65,000 troops by 2010 to a total of 547,000. The figures are part of an analysis released by the National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts-based research group that assesses federal spending. The NPP, which is opposed to the war, generated the data from material it obtained from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The report says that there is not just a qualitative factor involved in the educational level of the recruits but consequences in terms of cost and expense. While all recruits must have a high-school diploma or a general equivalency degree (GED), Army studies show that about 80% of those with diplomas complete their first term of enlistment — usually three years — compared to only half of those with a GED. The higher dropout rate means those missing soldiers must be replaced, which drives up military spending because of the need to spend money recruiting, outfitting and training new troops; the cost of getting a new recruit — before he or she even arrives at basic training — has risen from $15,000 to $21,000 over the past five years. The share of new recruits — those without military prior service — with high-school diplomas was 83.5% in 2005 and 73.1% in 2006.

The share of new recruits labeled "high quality" by the Army — those with at least a high-school diploma and who rank in the top half of the military's qualification test — has also dropped markedly since the Iraq war began, from 56.2% in 2005 to 44.6% last year. Recruits from families with annual incomes below $60,000 are over-represented in uniform, the study says, while those from families earning more are under-represented. The higher-income, better-educated recruits are especially prized by the Army because they have the skills needed to master the increasingly complex equipment that now accompanies a military force onto the battlefield. Army officials have acknowledged the steady slide in recruit quality, but insist that no unqualified soldiers are being sent into combat.