The Army will soon run radio ads that trumpet a new recruiting program that offers $40,000 for five years of active duty.
The program — called the Army Advantage Fund — is described in the commercials as a way to buy a home or start a small business. The bonuses are scaled to the amount of time spent on active duty. For example, the Army offers $25,000 for three years. And you don't get the money until you finish your commitment.
High-powered advertising firm McCann Erickson has been hired by the Army to push the pilot program in five cities.
In the midst of an unpopular war, the Army has to compete fiercely for recruits, especially those who have graduated from high school, according to James Martin, a retired Marine Colonel, who teaches at Bryn Mawr College.
"When you take out the large number of adolescents going on to college and increasingly to community colleges, the Army is recruiting in a very, very small pool," Martin says.
Last year, more than 20 percent of Army recruits had only a GED, an examination-based equivalent to a high school diploma. A private study by the National Priorities Project, which the Army disputes, suggests that the number was nearly 30 percent.
"The Army realizes that we have some issues nationally with education," says Lt. General Ben Freakley, who is in charge of Army recruitment.
So the new program is not aimed at just any young person who comes through the recruiting office door. It's aimed at a particular group: traditional high school diploma graduates.
And that's not the only high bar these bonus-eligible recruits have to surmount. They also have to do well on the Army's entrance exam.
Young people who have a high school diploma and also score in the top 50 percent on the qualifying tests are known as "high-quality" recruits. But today, less than half of the Army's recruits fall into that category.
'Not Desperation at All'
Expensive bonus programs like the Advantage fund do not indicate that the Army is in trouble, Freakley says.
"It's not desperation at all. It's recognition, and it's also encouragement to stay in high school, finish the course, and come and have an opportunity in the Army at owning a home or having a small business," Freakley says.
According to Freakley, GED recipients perform on the battlefield as well as traditional high school graduates. But when it comes to retention, high school graduates stay longer than GED recipients.
Bernard Rostker of the Rand Corporation, former under secretary of defense for personnel, says the Army has known for some time that completion of high school was a good indicator of retention.
"The diploma was not an indication of how smart or dumb you were but an indication of your ability to get through an institution. And it was a predictor of attrition," Rostker said.
And that's why the Army today is willing to spend a good chunk of its $5 billion dollar recruiting budget in an attempt to attract a shrinking pool of potential good soldiers.