Military widens door for dropouts

NPP Pressroom

USA Today
Kimberly Hefling

So the National Guard ran her through a program it started this year in Pennsylvania for privates who drop out of high school after having joined the military. In an old barracks at Fort Indiantown Gap, the 18-year-old Cleveland woman and other dropouts spent three intensive weeks in class this summer to help them pass their GEDs — so they would meet the minimal educational requirement to remain in the Guard. Straining to fill its ranks with the Iraq war in its fifth year, the military is taking on an ever-bigger role providing basic education to new recruits. It's a strategy that is potentially risky for the military as it strives to maintain the quality of its force, but one that's clearly giving dropouts like Vojta a second chance. "Something happened in that soldier's life that was bad. ... We have the ability to stop another bad action from happening — them getting discharged from the military," said Sgt. 1st Class John Walton, 32, who started the Pennsylvania program and says it is not about filling quotas but helping the troops. In a wider initiative known as Education Plus, the Army and Army National Guard have also been reaching out to dropouts — some of them years out of school — with a promise of helping them get their GEDs if they enlist. So far, more than 13,000 recruits have earned GEDs through the program, started in 2005. The Army pays the cost of qualified recruits taking GED preparation classes and the actual test. The National Guard takes it another step and offers participants classes at an education center it runs in Arkansas. Pennsylvania's GED program is a retention tool aimed at soldiers who joined in high school while in good academic standing, then failed to graduate. The military allows those as young as 17 to join, but they must have permission from a parent. The three-week course, also open to recruits from other states, goes beyond the classroom. Privates get up at 4:45 a.m. daily for physical training, spend nine hours in classes, have a study hall in the evening and also learn boot camp-type skills like making a bed. It's not your typical high school classroom: As either a civilian or military teacher leads instruction, a drill sergeant is also present. "I never understood math ... for four years in high school I couldn't do it," said Vojta, a private first class with the Ohio National Guard who passed the GED test and hopes next to become a military police officer. "Come here for a couple of weeks and I got it down because they've actually taken the time to explain it." Class sizes are small — typically about 23 students. The program evolved from a tutoring effort in Pittsburgh staffed by a Guardsman's wife, a teacher, who volunteered her time to help 17- and 18-year-old recruits struggling in high school classes. Since the Guard-run classes began in March, more than 85 of the 120 privates who participated have gone on to pass the GED, about the same success rate for all GED test-takers nationwide. Eighteen-year-old Timothy Bower of the Pennsylvania National Guard said he slept through many high school classes. If he'd studied on his own for the GED, "I pretty much would have repeated my high school career," he said. He hopes next to enroll in the military's truck driving school. After that, Bower, who is from the town of Hamburg in southeast Pennsylvania, said he might like to work for his uncle's truck driving company. Bower said his family was more accepting of him joining the military when they learned he'd also get his GED. Teacher Carissa Krzak, 29, of Camp Hill, said she has received thank-you letters from her students. "They are given a second chance and they really want to take advantage of that, make the best of the situation," she said. Defense analyst Cindy Williams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., said the military could be hurting itself over the long term by recruiting dropouts. The Department of Defense's own studies over 40 years have shown that soldiers with a high school diploma are more likely than those with an equivalent degree to finish an enlistment term. "What the Army doesn't like is high turnover," Williams said. U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat representing the Philadelphia suburbs and a former Navy vice admiral, said some troops with only GEDs have gone on to make great soldiers. But he said he is worried about the recruitment trends. "What we have here is an erosion, a downward trend, in recruitment quality. Still great people, but if our future military is increasingly based on technical prowess, recruiting those of the highest quality we can is being significantly impacted," he said. In 2006, the number of traditional high school graduates recruited by the Army dropped to 73%, from 84% a year earlier, according to National Priorities Project, a research group that analyzes federal data. The military's goal is 90% high school graduates — a benchmark last met in 2004. The military hopes to manage attrition by screening out dropouts with qualities that suggest they may not stay around, but it's unknown whether that strategy will work, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the Rand Corp., a think tank specializing in defense manpower issues. Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told a congressional hearing Aug. 1 that the Army is now reviewing the impact of having fewer recruits with high school diplomas. However, he said field commanders are pleased with their recent recruits. The military has taken a number of other steps to keep up its ranks, including some viewed as a lowering of its standards. It has increased the number of waivers it issues for those who wouldn't otherwise qualify because of medical reasons or because of criminal convictions and raised the enlistment age to 42. Early figures appear to show the Army met its recruitment goals for July, but it failed to meet them in May and June. The Army has said it's on track to meet its target for the 2007 budget year, which ends Sept. 30. The slip in May was the first time in about two years that the Army did not meet its goals. The Army says it requires applicants for Education Plus to be out of high school for at least six months before they can participate. The provision is designed to discourage students from dropping out of high school knowing they can take a different route and pick up a GED with the military.