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George Monk, a retired Army sergeant major, taught a junior ROTC class at McDonough High in Pomfret, Md.
George Monk, a retired Army sergeant major, taught a junior ROTC class at McDonough High in Pomfret, Md. (Globe Photo / Chris Maddaloni)

Military recruiters target schools strategically

Page 4 of 4 -- Stark said the recruiting marketing gap is a problem only insofar as it deprives the military of qualified students from a full range of high schools and all walks of life. But the recruiting system has drawn more aggressive critics.

Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, says society places what should be a shared burden of defense only on those poor enough to be induced to risk their lives for a chance at college or a signing bonus. Those who sign up with the infantry for five years get $12,000 in cash or a smaller bonus, as well as up to $70,000 in college aid.

"These young people are not 'volunteers,' " Rangel said. "They're not there, because they're patriotic. They're there they need the money."

Sergeant Isaac Horton, McDonough's Army recruiter, sees it differently. For him, enlisting is a way to improve the lives of young people with few options. In his pitches to recruits, he uses his life as an example, talking of returning home to find many of his high school friends either dead or in jail.

"If I had to do it over again, I would do it," Horton said. "Look at the crime rate in D.C. -- I'll take my chances in the military."

To show his displeasure with military recruiting, Rangel filed a bill in early 2003, before the Iraq invasion, proposing to revive the national draft. Congress killed the measure.

A class issue
Rangel's critique also has a strong sense of racial grievance, but data suggest that the military is not putting its energy into high schools attended by poor minority students. Instead of race, the clearest indicator of how hard a sell a student will receive is class. Generally, recruiters focus on the lower middle class in places with little economic opportunity.

The Defense Department does not track the socioeconomic background of its recruits, although Rangel has commissioned a Government Accountability Office study of the matter. The military also does not collect data for how many recruits it gets from which high schools; that information gets no higher than local recruiting commands.

But in 1999, the RAND Corp. conducted a study seeking patterns among qualified high school seniors.

"It turned out that kids who were of upper income were more likely to go to college, but it also turned out that kids from lower incomes had better chances of getting need-based financial aid to college," said Beth Asch, a RAND military personnel analyst. "So when you look at who goes to the military, you tend to get those in the middle."

Local recruiters use a computer system that combines socioeconomic data from the census, high school recruiting data for all four services, ZIP codes with high numbers of young adults, and other information to identify the likeliest candidates.

The obvious school districts that get screened out are those affluent enough that most of their students are probably college-bound. But recruiters also put less energy into underclass high schools, because they do not want prospects who might be ineligible because they drop out of school, have criminal records, or do not score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.

Every three months, each service hands recruiting station commanders a quota to meet. The Army pegs its signing bonuses to the specific jobs with the greatest openings. Highly qualified recruits are much more coveted than low-scoring prospects, who can do only basic tasks.

But this year, the Army is relaxing its rules to help fill its quotas. The number of high school dropouts allowed to enlist will rise 25 percent -- accounting for 10 percent of recruits this year, compared with 8 percent last year. The percentage allowed to enlist despite borderline scores on a service aptitude test will rise by 33 percent -- from 1.5 percent last year to 2 percent this year.

For recruiters on the ground such as Bidwell, it will be a tough year. So focusing on schools and ZIP codes that have had the highest rates of enlistment is good business sense.

"They have a higher propensity to enlist, so why not concentrate your efforts there?" Bidwell said. 

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At McLean High in Virginia, Isobel Rahn says she tells students that the military offers benefits, but warns ‘‘you can get killed.’’
At McLean High in Virginia, Isobel Rahn says she tells students that the military offers benefits, but warns ‘‘you can get killed.’’ (Globe Photo / Chris Maddaloni)
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