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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. [Footnote 8]

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 (or 11 tests if taking the computer-adaptive test at a MEPS), 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 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. The scores are grouped into five categories based on the percentile score ranges shown in Table 2.2. 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 2.2. Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) Categories and Corresponding 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 credential.

The system was developed after research indicated a strong relationship between education credentials and successful completion of the first term of military service. [Footnote 9] Research shows that education attainment of youth predicts first-term military attrition. [Footnote 10] 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. [Footnote 11] The model was then used to establish the recruit quality benchmarks now in effect. 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 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. [Footnote 12]

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).

There has been a proliferation of alternative credential programs, particularly home schooling, in recent years. According to the latest estimate, in 2003 an estimated 1.1 million students were being home schooled, up from 850,000 in 1999. Home-schooled students represent approximately 2.2 percent of the school-age population, up from 1.7 percent in 1999. [Footnote 13] To address such programs, the Department of Defense initiated a pilot study in FY 1999—The Alternative Educational Credential Pilot Program. [Footnote 14] The goals of the project were: (1) to assess the interest in enlistment of home school graduates and participants earning GED certificates through the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, and (2) to evaluate the performance of the alternative credential holders in these programs who do enlist. At the conclusion of the study, the results were used to permanently place home school graduates and ChalleNGe GED applicants in tier 2 and provided a refined set of education credential definitions by tier. [Footnote 15]

Physical Examinations. 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 one of the 65 Military Entrance Processing Stations (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 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, most recruits (95 percent) entered for specific skill training; the others were placed in a military occupational specialty during basic training. Approximately 76 percent of Air Force recruits entered for a specific skill, while the rest signed up for an occupational area and were classified into a specific skill while in basic training. In the Navy, approximately 69 percent of recruits enlisted for a specific skill, while the rest went directly to the fleet after basic training, 29 percent classified in airman, fireman, or seaman programs and 1 percent entered school 12-18 months later. Approximately 88 percent of Marine Corps enlistees entered with a guaranteed occupational area and were assigned a specific skill within that area after recruit training; the rest enlisted 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.

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 enlistment. Most enter the delayed entry program (DEP), which allows up to a year before the individual reports for duty, with up to a 365-day extension upon approval by the respective Service Secretary. [Footnote 16] The DEP controls recruit flow into training "seats" at technical schools. The Services also use the DEP to prepare enlistees for basic training, providing them with supervised exercise programs, if needed. The DEP acclimates recruits to the military and enhances training performance, which decreases attrition. [Footnote 17] Average time in the DEP is between three and five 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 13 to 44 percent—compared to FY 2003’s 13 to 21 percent—of individuals in the DEP changed their minds and asked to be released from their enlistment contracts in FY 2002. 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.

[Footnote 8] 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. [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 9] 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). [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 10] 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 Again—Current Research Issues in Accession Policy, at the 105th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 1997. [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 11] Department of Defense, Review of Minimum Active Enlisted Recruit Quality Benchmarks: Do They Remain Valid? Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense [Force Management Policy], March 2000). [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 12] 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. [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 13] U.S. Department of Education, Brief: 1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003 (NCES 2004-115) (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 14] Department of Defense. Enlistment Eligibility Priorities for Home School and National Guard Youth ChalleNGe GED Credentials: Evaluation of a Pilot Program, Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense [Personnel and Readiness], 2004). [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 15] Memorandum from Curtis L. Gilroy, Director, Accession Policy (Military Personnel Policy), Subject: Education Credentials – Definitions, Tier Placement, and Enlistment Prioritization, September 21, 2004.[back to paragraph]

[Footnote 16] 10 U.S.C. 513, as amended October 1999. [back to paragraph]

[Footnote 17] Gilmore, G., Recruit Attrition Rates Fall Across the Services (Washington, DC: American Forces Press Service, August 13, 2001). [back to paragraph]

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