Desperate Times

It might not be the Newport, Rhode Island-based schoolhouse that helps promising high school grads up their game for a shot at a successful stint at the U.S. Naval Academy, but these are desperate times, and the U.S. Army is looking to up its ranks.

In a page from “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the Army has opened a prep school at Fort Jackson, S.C., to help high school dropouts fast track it into the rank and file.

The senior service is minting its own GED-wielding killers. (We don’t necessarily mean that literally.)

In a move that could be described as brilliant, the Army is seeking greener pastures in its understandable struggle to find enough qualified high school grads and even GEDs to fill its slots.

The new school is a delayed-entry program of sorts that includes classroom work to prepare for the GED certificate and a fitness regimen to gear up for the “rigors” of boot camp. “Recruits” sign a two-to-four year enlistment contract. Once they have the GED certificate in hand (we we will assume it is legit), it’s off to boot camp they go (often just down the road at Fort Jackson). If they do not obtain the certificate after two tries, the Army will release them from their contract.

With only three in 10 of those ages 17 to 24 capable of joining the Army (for whatever reason) the Army decided to go to the mountain. Blessed with the curse of an additional 74,000 slots to fill by 2010, necessity begot invention. It beats the diploma mills of days past, but will it become a GED mill?

The Army has been struggling with the high school grad goal for several years. Though it looks to bring in 90 percent high school graduates, 1994 was the last year it succeeded, and 2007 saw that percentage plummet to 71 percent.

The program boasts it is selective; pre-recruits must score in the top half of the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. That’s pretty good: the Army’s only taking 3-As and above. But how long will the quality requirement last? Our guess is the 3-B crowd soon will creep in. But, if the Army can keep the quality, this path might show a higher rate of return than slugging it out on traditional, well-worn playing field. Sitting through the coursework are “deserving” young adults who, the Army says, have sort of fallen by the wayside in life. The stories are heartbreaking: one of nine children of a mill worker, dropping out of school to take care of a sick parent, leaving the ninth grade to work. Cliched? Well, only if you include the hooker with the heart of gold. Deserving? It seems so.

Social experiment? The Magic Eight Ball says, “Cannot predict now.” It would be interesting to see what type of soldiers this program breeds. Will they complete their first term of enlistment? What will retention be? How do they compare to traditional high school grads, GEDs, and — prison alum? 

“Cannot predict now.”

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