MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In a number of places across the country, you'll be hearing a new radio commercial from the Army. It will offer young people $40,000 if they sign up for five years of active duty.
As NPR's John McChesney reports, the Army says the new program is not a sign of recruiting troubles.
JOHN McCHESNEY: One of the new commercials starts with a young man talking about his transient lifestyle and how the new program can help him settle down.
(Soundbite of Army Ad)
Unidentified Man: There's a new option for your future. The Army Advantage Fund, an exclusive Army program in which you can earn up to $40,000 to buy a home or start a small business. Army Advantage Fund because soldiers deserve more.
McCHESNEY: Another commercial stresses a young man's desire to start his own business.
Unidentified Man #2: Johnny's Computer Repair Stop. Got a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Army Advantage Fund, because soldiers deserve more.
McCHESNEY: The bonuses are scaled to the amount of time spent on active duty. You get $25,000 for three years, for example. And you don't get any money until you finish your commitment.
The Army has hired a high-powered advertising firm, McCann Erickson, to push the pilot program in five cities. One of those cities is San Antonio. Lieutenant Colonel Rene Brown is in charge of recruiting there, where the military is very strong.
Lieutenant Colonel RENE BROWN (U.S. Army): It's considered Military City USA but in all cities across the country, we are still struggling with the fact that we do have our sons and daughters that really are choosing not to serve.
McCHESNEY: In the midst of an unpopular war, the Army has to compete fiercely for recruits, especially those who've graduated from high school. James Martin, a retired Marine colonel, teaches at Bryn Mawr College.
Mr. JAMES MARTIN (Retired Marine Officer): 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.
McCHESNEY: Last year, over 20 percent of Army recruits had only a GED. That's an examination-based equivalent to a high school diploma. A private study by the National Priorities Project, which the Army disputes, suggests that number was even higher, nearly 30 percent. These GED recipients are essentially high school dropouts.
Lieutenant General Ben Freakley is in charge of Army recruitment.
Lieutenant General BEN FREAKLEY (U.S. Army): The Army realizes we have some issues nationally with education.
McCHESNEY: 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…
Lt. Gen. FREAKLEY: …who are traditional high school diploma graduates.
McCHESNEY: 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.
Lt. Gen. FREAKLEY: Where they score in the top 50 percent in the nation.
McCHESNEY: 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.
And to some observers, expensive bonus programs like the Advantage Fund indicate that the Army is in trouble. Not true, says General Freakley.
Lt. Gen. FREAKLEY: 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 and owning a home or a small business.
McCHESNEY: According to General Freakley, GED recipients perform on the battlefield as well as traditional high school graduates. But there's another difference that concerns the Army.
Lt. Gen. FREAKLEY: The difference is retention. Who actually stays longer? Is it the high school student tends to stay longer than the GED?
McCHESNEY: Bernard Rostker of the Rand Corporation, a former undersecretary of Defense for personnel, says the Army has known for some time that completion of high school was a good indicator of retention.
Mr. BERNARD ROSTKER (Rand Corporation; Former Under Secretary, Defense For Personnel): The diploma was not an indication of how smart or dumb you were. It was an indication of your ability to get through an institution. And it was a predictor of attrition.
McCHESNEY: And that's why the Army today is willing to spend a good chunk of its now $5-billion recruiting budget in an attempt to attract a shrinking pool of potential good soldiers.
John McChesney, NPR News.