MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The Army is attracting fewer high school graduates now than at any time in the last 25 years. That's the finding of a new study by the National Priorities Project, a group that studies military trends. But the Army insists it's still drawing some of the most talented young people in the country.
NPR's Guy Raz reports.
GUY RAZ: The Army can offer an 18-year-old something the civilian world can't. A socialist-style benefits package that might put people in Denmark or Sweden to shame. Listen to this Army commercial.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARMY AD)
RAZ: The benefits for my wife and child are health care assistance from the Army. Education, also, and child care. Everything is pretty much covered.
RAZ: If you add it up, starting pay plus benefits, and this is for an 18-year-old, now approaches $30,000 a year. And that doesn't include the opportunity to earn up to $40,000 more in signing bonuses. Combine it, and the money starts to rival the average national salary of a lawyer. And yet...
NORRIS: The kind of kids going into the Army are the ones with the fewest options.
RAZ: This is Anita Dancs, research director for the National Priorities Project. A couple of months ago, she petitioned the Pentagon to release raw data on the kinds of people who signed up to join the Army in 2007. Now, last year, the Army announced that not only did it meet its recruiting goals, it actually exceeded those goals. But Dancs was curious about who those new recruits are.
NORRIS: What we found is that there is a correlation between high recruiting rates and low educational attainment.
RAZ: According to her study last year, only about 70 percent of new Army recruits had high school diplomas. Now the Pentagon disputes this number. It says the number is closer to 80 percent. But both numbers are far lower than the Pentagon's own benchmark. The Defense Department wants 90 percent of new recruits to have a diploma. Recruits with diplomas are less likely to drop out of the Army, and they tend not to get into trouble. And the Pentagon acknowledges this.
NORRIS: True, we are taking a number of recruits that perhaps we wouldn't take three, four, five years ago.
RAZ: This is Curtis Gilroy. He is the director of recruiting at the Defense Department, and a career civil servant. He says the recruiting environment is difficult today for two reasons: one, the Iraq War; and two, low unemployment. But overall, he's not too worried about the drop in high school diplomas.
NORRIS: That high school credential itself, in it of itself, is not what's important. It's the behavior of a potential recruit that's important.
RAZ: Except critics of the Army's drive to fill the ranks rapidly argue the Pentagon isn't thinking about the long term. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn was part of the team that helped revive Army recruiting standards in the 1970s. Remember the Be all you can be ads? Well, Krohn was one of the guys behind it. And today, he's alarmed about dropping standards and what it will mean in the future.
NORRIS: Accepting subprime soldiers now is somewhat equivalent of subprime mortgages. You get a short-term gain, but ultimately, the issues have to be addressed.
RAZ: And they may be soon. With a possible recession looming, unemployment will go up, and it could, paradoxically, help the Army. Here's Curtis Gilroy.
NORRIS: Now, if there's an economic slowdown and unemployment rises, we can actually measure to some degree the effect on military recruiting.
RAZ: In other words, recession is actually good for the military.
NORRIS: Well, one could argue that.
RAZ: Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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