Dropouts help military meet recruitment goals

Services search out `proven performers' without the diploma

April 06, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Faced with the toughest recruiting market in memory, the Navy is looking for a lot more sailors like Robert Meyerhoff.

Not long ago the high school dropout from Iowa might have been rejected by recruiters. But Meyerhoff's job history, references and score on a military aptitude test earned him a place in the fleet.

During the past year, the Navy doubled the number of high school dropouts it accepted -- from 5 percent to 10 percent -- in an effort to meet its recruiting goal. While some lawmakers worry that more dropouts will mean a lower-quality sea service, the Navy counters that it carefully screens for what it calls a "proven performer" like Meyerhoff.

Meyerhoff, who endlessly quarreled with his mother and dropped out of his violence-ridden high school eight years ago, serves aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. He said it makes sense to try and attract others like him, who are looking for a second chance.

"We realize we've made mistakes in our past," said Meyerhoff, 25, who now has a General Educational Development (GED) diploma and plans on taking college courses at sea. "And we're trying to make it different for ourselves."

The Army, the nation's largest military service, has taken in 10 percent of its recruits without a diploma --a quality-control ceiling recommended by the Pentagon -- for at least a decade. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, holds the line at 5 percent non-high school graduates and last year brought in about 3.8 percent. And the Air Force, with its more technically oriented jobs, requires 99 percent of its recruits to have a high school diploma.

Last year both the Air Force and Army fell short of their recruiting needs, while the Navy barely made its year-end goal. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, made or exceeded the number of recruits it needed in each of the past 56 months.

Navy officials say the effort to bring in more non-high-school graduates, which began in January 1999, is paying off. That group is helping the Navy exceed its recruiting goals at the midway point in the current fiscal year.

Since the "proven performer" program began, 7,062 non-high school graduates have been brought in out of 70,626 recruits.

"We think it's working well. They are people with the aptitude to succeed," said Rear Adm. Edward Hunter, commander of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, site of the Navy's nine-week boot camp.

Still, military officials are concerned that high school dropouts leave boot camp in greater numbers than their high school-graduate counterparts. That attrition can be costly, because it takes about $7,000 to train each recruit in boot camp.

Moreover, military sociologists say there is evidence that non-high school graduates have more disciplinary problems and leave the service earlier than those with diplomas.

Last year, the boot camp attrition rate for the Navy's non-high school graduates was 27 percent, compared with 16 percent for their counterparts with diplomas, according to Navy officials. As of January, the boot camp attrition rate dropped to 21 percent for school dropouts and 13 percent for graduates.

Hunter attributes that reduction to a week-long course unveiled last spring and required of all recruits who fail to finish high school.

The course, known as Academic Capacity or Enhancement (ACE), teaches study and personal skills and is taken by the recruits before they enter boot camp. At the end of the course, recruits can take the GED if they choose to. About 90 percent do and 80 percent pass, officials said.

"It was a worthwhile course," recalled Meyerhoff, who earned his GED five years before joining the Navy.

"It taught me how to study better, how to deal with people."

Navy officials say they are still not satisfied with the higher attrition rate for those who lack a high school diploma. "I would prefer it even lower," Navy Secretary Richard Danzig told a Senate hearing last month.

Still, Danzig said bringing in more non-high school graduates is worth continuing. "I think it's a step in the right direction but the results have not been dramatic one way or another," he said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said Danzig and other military leaders are heading in the wrong direction.

"Lowering personnel standards is risky business," she said. "We reversed the 1970s' military readiness crisis by raising standards, not lowering them. I hope the Navy and all the other military services examine its changes to boost recruiting."

The record for high school dropouts in the fleet is unclear because the Navy does not track their job performance, disciplinary record or attrition rate, said Lynette Williams, a spokeswoman for the Chief of Naval Personnel.

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