The Army’s Number One Need For The Future: Smarter Recruits

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jim Cowen Director of Military Affairs, Collaborative for Student Success
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The U.S. Army is facing one of its greatest threats since it became an all-volunteer force back in 1973. The failure of our education systems to produce well-educated, high-school graduates is threatening its ability to protect our country.

Last month, the National Commission on the Future of the Army released its long-awaited report. It assessed the Army’s readiness to meet the threats and missions of the future. The report rightly heralds the “unmatched commitment” of today’s soldiers. It also flagged the troubling lack of academic preparedness within the pool of potential recruits. 

Traditionally, modernizing the force is viewed as a budgetary issue. This gap is more than dollars and cents, however. This is an educational concern.

The Commission concluded that “the All-Volunteer Force is nearing a fragile state.” It found less than half of the military age population is qualified for service, many because of an inability to pass the basic military entrance exam – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB.

This issue has hovered below the surface over the past several years because of the ongoing troop cuts that have been spread across the Army. After all the proposed cuts are completed in 2017, the Army will have cut 21 percent of the active duty force. This has allowed the shrinking recruiting pool to be largely ignored.

But the shrinking pool can be ignored no longer. Acknowledging we face rapidly changing threats, the Commission calls for a large increase in the number of specialty positions in the Army, such as in aviation and chemical weapons. It also sounds the alarm that the Army will need a significant infusion of cyberwarfare experts. 

Unfortunately, there is an even smaller pool of high school graduates that score well enough to be eligible for these much-needed specialties. According to the Education Trust, less than 45 percent of white recruits perform well enough on the ASVAB to qualify for these positions.

The numbers are even grimmer for students of color. Less than 25 percent of Hispanic and just 18 percent of African American recruits score high enough to meet the requirements.

Again, these are not high school dropouts. These recruits are high school graduates who aspire to serve their country and are otherwise fit to serve.

This alarming fact could be addressed in two different ways. First, the Army could lower the standards for who they allow to fill these specialties. It could then hope its world-class training programs would pick-up the slack.

Or, the Army could act like the business community. It could pressure our educational institutions to continue to raise academic standards so that students are graduating with the skills necessary to meet the requirements for these positions.

Because the first option would be strongly opposed and dangerous to national security preparedness, the latter should be the priority.

The Army, along with other branches of the armed forces, is in an unique position to push for better education standards in the communities it is located. It has both the economic leverage and the educational experience to speak on this topic.

It should come as no surprise that communities surrounding Army bases are deeply dependent on them for their economic well-being. According to a Stimson Center report, 19 Army bases were responsible for at least 15 percent of the income earned in their host counties in 2013. Ten of those 19 produced a third or more of local income, and four of the 19 exceeded 50 percent.

Moreover, the armed forces run their own network of schools for the children of our military families, though they educate only a small segment of military children. These so-called DoDEA schools are committed to higher standards. Like 43 other states, they adopted the Common Core State Standards back in 2012.

Members of the Army leadership have recently begun using their bully pulpit to push community leaders to improve education.

The most influential example so far came from former Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno. He told a gathering of Army families in late 2013 that “if [elected officials] want to keep the military in their communities, they better start paying attention to the schools that are outside and inside our installations. Because as we evaluate and as we make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria.”

Odierno’s blunt statement tying educational performance to base closings certainly opened eyes. The question is whether his underlings have repeated the message regularly. Perhaps more important, are local communities listening – and acting?

The Commission’s report concludes by stating the U.S. Army “will need to adopt policies to support effective recruiting of the best and brightest of those ready to serve while upholding the standards that make the U.S. All-Volunteer Force the envy of the world.”

Our military is committed to upholding the high standards it has in place. It is time for our education systems to do the same. 

Jim Cowen is director of military affairs for the Collaborative for Student Success, an Alexandria, Va.-based non-profit organization dedicated to raising education standards.