Active Component Enlisted Applicants and Accessions
AC Applicants
AC Accessions

Chapter 2


The Services are one of the largest employers in the United States, enlisting more than 180,000 young men and women in the Active Components in FY 1998.  Recruiting a quality force is as important as ever, perhaps more important, given the smaller number of men and women in the military and the increasing sophistication of weapons and methods for fighting modern wars.  Service missions are changing to include peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, requiring additional skills from today's men and women in uniform.

Military recruiting is challenging in today's society.  The Youth Attitude Tracking Study (YATS), conducted annually, measures propensity to enlist.  About one-quarter (26 percent) of young men (16- to 21-year-olds) reported that they planned definitely or probably to enlist in the military in the next few years.(1)   Overall propensity, as measured by YATS, has not changed significantly since 1994. The significant drop in the propensity of 16- to 21-year-old Hispanic men, from 43 percent in 1996 to 37 percent in 1997, rebounded to 44 percent in 1998.  Also, propensity of 16- to 21-year-old women increased slightly from 12 percent in 1997 to 13 percent in 1998.(2)

The Monitoring the Future (MtF) project, a survey of high school students, also measures youth enlistment intentions.  Results from the most recent period—1991 to 1997—have shown the lowest propensity since the MtF project began collecting data in 1975.  This time period can be characterized by a large-scale military downsizing during an economic boom.  The percent reporting that they definitely will enlist in the Armed Forces, a stable measure across time and grade-level, dropped below 5 percent and at the same time the percent declaring that they definitely would not enlist climbed above 70 percent. (3)

As the United States experiences its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years,(4) employers—including the military—find recruiting qualified personnel very competitive.  The increasing proportion of high school graduates attending college limits the supply of high-quality applicants to the Services.  Most high school seniors report that they plan to go to college (77 percent right after high school and 15 percent a year or more after graduating). (5)  About 67 percent of today's high schoolers actually enroll in college in the Fall after graduation, compared to 65 percent last year and about half of high school graduates 15 years ago.(6) The increasing desire to participate in post-secondary education is important to monitor as propensity of college-bound youth is lower than for those not planning to attend college.(7)  In spite of relatively low propensity, record low unemployment rates, and increasing competition with colleges and universities, military recruiters were able to enlist a high-quality accession cohort in FY 1998.(8)  Recruiting is likely to continue to be a challenge as recruiting objectives increase amid a strong economy and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education. (9)  This chapter introduces the Active Component enlistment process, followed by demographic characteristics of enlisted applicants and recruits.

The Recruiting Process

Initial contacts between military recruiters and youth interested in military service are exploratory.  In most cases, youth seek information from recruiters in more than one Service.  Once they select a Service and take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), youth may wait before deciding to proceed with enlistment processing.

In addition to providing information to the prospective enlistee, recruiters determine an applicant's eligibility for military service. They ask questions regarding age, citizenship, education, involvement with the law, use of drugs, and physical and medical conditions that could preclude enlistment.  Most prospects take an aptitude screening test at a recruiting office.  Estimates are that 10 to 20 percent of prospects do not continue beyond this point.(10)

The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Prospects who meet initial qualifications take the ASVAB, the first formal step in the process of applying to enlist in the Armed Forces.  The ASVAB is a battery of tests used by DoD to determine enlistment eligibility and qualifications for military occupations.  It consists of 10 tests, four of which comprise the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT):  Arithmetic Reasoning, Mathematics Knowledge, Word Knowledge, and Paragraph Comprehension.  The AFQT, a general measure of trainability and a predictor of on-the-job performance, is the primary index of recruit aptitude.

AFQT scores, expressed on a percentile scale, reflect an applicant's standing relative to the national population of men and women 18–23 years of age.(11)  The scores are grouped into five categories based on the percentile score ranges shown in Table 2.1.  Persons who score in Categories I and II tend to be above average in trainability; those in Category III, average; those in Category IV, below average; and those in Category V, markedly below average.  By law, Category V applicants and those in Category IV who have not graduated from high school are not eligible for enlistment.  Over and above these legal restrictions, each Service prescribes its own aptitude and education criteria for eligibility.  Each Service uses combinations of ASVAB test scores to determine an applicant's aptitude and eligibility for different military occupations.

Table 2.1.  Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) Categories andCorresponding Percentile Score Ranges

 AFQT Category

 Percentile Score Range













Educational Credentials .  DoD implemented a three-tier classification of education credentials in 1987.  The three tiers are:

  • Tier 1—Regular high school graduates, adult diploma holders, and non-graduates with at least 15 hours of college credit.
  • Tier 2—Alternative credential holders, including those with a General Education Development (GED) certificate of high school equivalency.
  • Tier 3—Those with no education credentials.

The system was developed after research indicated a strong relationship between education credentials and successful completion of the first term of military service.(12)  Current research continues to show that education attainment of youth predicts first-term military attrition.(13) In conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences, the Defense Department developed a mathematical model that links recruit quality and recruiting resources to job performance.  The model was then used to establish the recruit quality benchmarks now specified in Defense Planning Guidance.  Service programs are required to ensure that a minimum of 90 percent of non-prior service (NPS) recruits are high school diploma graduates.  At least 60 percent of these recruits must be drawn from AFQT Categories I–IIIA; no more than 4 percent of the recruits can come from Category IV.  This DoD policy does not prohibit the Services from setting their own targets above these benchmarks. These benchmarks were set by examining the relationship between costs associated with recruiting, training, attrition, and retention using as a standard the performance level obtained by the reference cohort of 1990, the cohort that served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  Thus, these benchmarks reflect the recruit quality levels necessary to minimize personnel and training costs while maintaining Desert Shield/Desert Storm cohort performance.(14)

The Services have different standards for individuals in each tier.  Generally, Tier 3 applicants must have higher AFQT test scores than Tier 2 applicants, who must have higher test scores than Tier 1 individuals.  The Air Force and Marine Corps follow these differential standards, requiring different minimum test scores for each tier.  The other Services apply the standards slightly differently.  The Army and Navy require applicants with alternative credentials (Tier 2) and those with no credentials (Tier 3) to meet the same AFQT standards, which are more stringent than those for high school graduates (Tier 1).

With the proliferation of alternative credential programs, particularly home schooling, the Department of Defense initiated a pilot study in FY 1999—The Alternative Educational Credential Pilot Program.  The goals of the project are to assess the interest in enlistment of home school graduates and participants earning GED certificates through the National Guard ChalleNGe program and to evaluate the performance of the alternative credential holders in these programs who do enlist.  At the conclusion of the study, the results will be used to provide a recommendation on permanent tier status of home school graduates and ChalleNGe GED applicants.

Physical Examination.  If an applicant achieves qualifying ASVAB scores and wants to continue the application process, he or she is scheduled for a physical examination and background review at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS).  The examination assesses physical fitness for military service.  It includes measurement of blood pressure, pulse, visual acuity, and hearing; blood testing and urinalysis; drug and HIV testing; and medical history.  Some Services also require tests of strength and endurance.  If a correctable or temporary medical problem is detected, the applicant may be required to get treatment before proceeding.  Other applicants may require a Service waiver of some disqualifying medical conditions before being allowed to enlist.

Moral Character Standards.  Each applicant must meet rigorous moral character standards.  In addition to the initial screening by the recruiter, an interview covering each applicant's background is conducted at the MEPS.  For some individuals, a financial credit check and/or a computerized search for a criminal record is conducted.  Some types of criminal activity are clearly disqualifying; other cases require a waiver, wherein the Service examines the applicant's circumstances and makes an individual determination of qualification.  Moreover, applicants with existing financial problems are not likely to overcome those difficulties on junior enlisted pay.  Consequently, credit histories also may be considered as part of the enlistment decision.

Occupational Area Counseling.  If the applicant's ASVAB scores, educational credentials, physical fitness, and moral character qualify for entry, he or she meets with a Service classification counselor at the MEPS to discuss options for enlistment.  Up to this point, the applicant has made no commitment.  The counselor has the record of the applicant's qualifications and computerized information on available Service training/skill openings, schedules, and enlistment incentives.

A recruit can sign up for a specific skill or for a broad occupational area (such as the mechanical or electronics areas).  In the Army, all recruits enter for specific skill training.  Approximately 60 percent of Air Force recruits enter for a specific skill, while the rest sign up for an occupational area and are classified into a specific skill while in basic training.  In the Navy, approximately 70 percent of recruits enlist for a specific skill, while the rest go directly to the fleet after basic training, classified in airman, fireman, or seaman programs.  Approximately 85 percent of Marine Corps enlistees enter with a guaranteed occupational area and are assigned a specific skill within that area after recruit training; the rest enlist with either a specific job guarantee or assignment to a job after recruit training.

Normally an applicant will be shown a number of occupations.  In general, the higher the individual's test scores, the more choices he or she will have.  While the process differs by Service, specific skills and occupational groupings are arranged similarly to an airline reservation system, with the "seat" and time of travel (to recruit training) based upon either school or field unit position openings.  The counselor discusses the applicant's interests and explains what the Service has to offer.  The counselor may suggest incentives to encourage the applicant to choose hard-to-fill occupational specialties.  The applicant, however, is free to accept or reject the offer.

Many applicants do not decide immediately, but take time to discuss options with family and friends; others decide not to enlist.  A review of the enlistment decision process indicates that the military continues to compete with civilian employment and educational opportunities even after the prospect has completed the application stage of the enlistment process.(15)

The Delayed Entry Program (DEP).  When the applicant accepts an offer, he or she signs an enlistment contract.  Only a small proportion of new enlistees is sent to a recruit training center from the MEPS within a month of their enlistment.  Most enter the delayed entry program (DEP), which allows up to a year before the individual reports for duty, with up to a 6-month extension upon approval by the respective Service Secretary.(16)  The DEP controls recruit flow into training "seats" at technical schools.  Average time in the DEP is about four months.

Qualified high school students may enlist in the DEP with a reporting date after graduation; their enlistment contract is contingent upon successfully completing high school.  Not all DEP enlistees actually enter active duty.  By Service, an average of 11 to 19 percent of individuals in the DEP changed their minds and asked to be released from their enlistment contracts in FY 1998. The Services consider enlistment in the DEP a serious commitment, but they do not require youth to enter military service against their will during peacetime.

  1. Enlistment propensity is measured with the Youth Attitude Tracking Study (YATS) conducted annually by the Department of Defense. (go back)
  2. Ibid.
  3. (go back)
  4. Segal, D.R., Bachman, J.G., Freedman-Doan, P., and O'Malley, P.M., "Propensity to Serve in the U.S. Military:  Temporal Trends and Subgroup Differences," Armed Forces & Society, 25 (1999), pp. 407–427.
  5. (go back)
  6. Labor force statistics extracted from the Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics.  (Seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 16-year-olds and older and 16- to 19-year-olds in the civilian labor force.).
  7. (go back)
  8. Lehnus, J. and Lancaster, A.,  "Declining Interest in Military Service:  Quantitative Observations," in Youth Attitudes Toward Military Service in the Post-Cold War Era:  Selected Papers Presented at the International Military Testing Association, San Antonio, Texas, 1996 (DMDC Report No. 97-001).
  9. (go back)
  10. U.S. Department of Education, The Digest of Education Statistics 1998 (NCES 1999-036) (Washington, DC:  National Center for Education Statistics, 1999), Table 183.
  11. (go back)
  12. Segal, D.R., Bachman, J.G., Freedman-Doan, P., and O'Malley, P.M., "Propensity to Serve in the U.S. Military:  Temporal Trends and Subgroup Differences," Armed Forces & Society, 25 (1999), pp. 407–427.
  13. (go back)
  14. Memorandum from F. M. Rush, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (Force Management Policy), Subject:  1998 Youth Attitude Tracking Study, January 5, 1999.
  15. (go back)
  16. Gilroy, C. and Sellman, W.S., Today's Recruiting Challenge and The Economic Implications of an All-Volunteer Force, paper presented as part of Panel on Recruitment in the All-Volunteer Era:  Theory, practice, and results at the 1999 Inter-University Seminar of Armed Forces and Society Biennial Conference, Baltimore, October 1999.
  17. (go back)
  18. Waters, B.K., Laurence, J.H., and Camara, W.J., Personnel Enlistment and Classification Procedures in the U.S. Military (Washington, DC:  National Academy Press, 1987), p. 12.
  19. (go back)
  20. The score scale is based on a 1980 study, the Profile of American Youth, conducted by DoD in cooperation with the Department of Labor (DoL).  Participants were drawn from a nationally representative sample of young men and women selected for an ongoing DoL study, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Labor Force Behavior.  An effort is currently underway to update the Profile of American Youth study.
  21. (go back)
  22. See Flyer, E.S., Factors Relating to Discharge for Unsuitability Among 1956 Airman Accessions to the Air Force (Lackland AFB, TX: Personnel Research Laboratory, December 1959); and Elster, R.E. and Flyer, E.S., A Study of the Relationship Between Educational Credentials and Military Performance Criteria (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, July 1981).
  23. (go back)
  24. For attrition by education credential, see Department of Defense, Educational Enlistment Standards:  Recruiting Equity for GED Certificates, Report to Congress (Washington, DC:  Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense [Force Management Policy], April 1996); and Laurence, J.H., Does Education Credential Still Predict Attrition?,   paper presented as part of Symposium,  Everything Old is New
  25. Again—Current Research Issues in Accession Policy, at the 105th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 1998. (go back)
  26. Sellman, W.S., Public Policy Implications for Military Entrance Standards, Keynote Address presented at the 39th Annual Conference of the International Military Testing Association, Sydney, Australia, October 1998.
  27. (go back)
  28. Orvis, B.R. and Gahart, M.T., Enlistment Among Applicants for Military Service:  Determinants and Incentives (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1990), p. vii.
  29. (go back)
  30. 10 U.S.C. 513, as amended December 1996.
  31. (go back)

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