Army, Navy look to dropouts to fill ranks; Some lawmakers fear a lowering of standards


WASHINGTON -- The Army and Navy are looking for a few good high school dropouts.

With the nation's full-employment economy proving to be a tough rival in the quest for America's prime youth, the services are turning to those without high school diplomas to fill their thinning ranks.

Last week, Army Secretary Louis Caldera said he would look into increasing -- from the current 10 percent -- the number of men and women it recruits with high-school equivalency certificates. And yesterday, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig defended his recent decision to bring in more sailors who lack a high school education.

"The high school diploma is not the be-all and end-all. There are some other ways in which people can exhibit special qualities of the kind we want," Danzig told reporters. "Can you find some other indicators, stick-to-itiveness that you find persuasive the way a high school diploma is persuasive? To me that's employment history."

There are grumblings on Capitol Hill about what some lawmakers see as lower standards. When Danzig announced last month that he would increase the number of non-high school graduates who are recruited from 5 percent to 10 percent, Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who heads the military personnel subcommittee, was concerned by the move.

"They're lowering standards at their own risk," said Buyer, an officer in the Army Reserve, saying his committee will try to devise long-term solutions to recruiting and retention problems in the military.

The Army and the Navy are the largest of the military services and have struggled for the past several years to come up with enough soldiers and sailors. Besides a plentiful job market, the Pentagon faces decidedly low interest in military careers among youth, according to surveys.

Since the defense drawdown in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Pentagon has maintained a 10 percent ceiling on the number of non-high school graduates the services can enlist in order to maintain a level of quality.

Danzig and other officials concede those recruits who lack high school diplomas tend to quit or get thrown out of basic training at higher rates than graduates. But once they get past that hurdle, Navy officials said, they have higher retention rates and perform as well as, if not better than, those who completed four years of high school.

That view is contradicted by David Segal, a sociologist and director of the Center for Research in Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

"There's lots of data that show GED holders do not do as well in the service as high school diploma holders in terms of retention. And they're more likely to be discipline problems," Segal said.

Still, there is a "wide range" of equivalency certificate holders, Segal noted. While some potential recruits are kicked out of high school for disciplinary problems, others are forced to leave school because of a family emergency.

"The services may find there are some who are better than others," said Segal. Faced with a tight recruiting market and a military that is generally well trained and educated, Segal said searching for high-quality recruits without a high school degree makes sense.

"Maybe we can afford to let up a degree or two in the interest of learning to do it better," he said.

Caldera, the Army secretary, said it's time the Pentagon lifted the 10 percent restriction so the Army can search for these high-performing GED holders.

"This notion that quality is defined by being a high school diploma graduate has put us in a box that is really hurting our ability to recruit," said the Army secretary, noting that many soldiers with high school equivalency degrees are successful.

Caldera has created an Army task force that will study recruits with GEDs and determine ways those with "high potential" can be identified.

The officials will try to isolate attributes, qualifications and skills that will identify potential recruits with GEDs. Experiences such as jobs, scouting and volunteer work may be taken into account, Caldera said.

Danzig wants to recruit 2,600 non-high school graduates this year with work experience, good references and above-average military test scores.

"From my standpoint, it's foolish to turn away those people, especially if I'm having some vacancies," Danzig said, although unlike Caldera he is not willing to go above the 10 percent limit imposed by the Pentagon. "I think the Navy can and will make its recruiting goals within these limits," he predicted.

Army recruiters, who must recruit 74,500 this year, are about 3,600 recruits short of where they should be for the end of February, said Doug Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

The Navy, which was 7,000 short last year, is so far exceeding its monthly goals for the first quarter, said Lt. Steve Zip of the Navy Recruiting Command. The Navy must bring in 53,224 sailors by year's end to maintain its force.

The Marines, which take in 95 percent high school graduates, have met their recruiting goals for the past several years. The Air Force, which requires 99 percent of its recruits to be high school graduates, is close to meeting its goal this year.

Buyer, the Indiana congressman, is worried about standards and recalls traveling to Norfolk, Va., this week for a House Armed Services Committee field hearing.

A chief petty officer, the congressman said, complained about the "decrease in the quality" of new sailors, saying he would prefer a smaller number of stellar recruits than a full complement of less desirable ones.

"Some of those stones are a little too rough," Buyer said.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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