The armed forces have an education problem

Recently, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service held its first meeting. Established by Congress in 2016, the Commission is tasked, among other things, with making recommendations by 2020 on how to increase Millennial participation in our armed forces.

The commission’s creation comes at an important time. After years of contracting, our military is being asked to expand to meet challenges around the world.

However, our armed forces are facing their own challenges in finding men and women who are either qualified to serve or want to stay in the military. In many cases, this revolves around our country’s education system.

In the case of new recruits, it is estimated that only about 25 percent of Americans aged 17-24 meet the current requirements to serve.

While a substantial number of these potential recruits are disqualified for other reasons – obesity, drug use, or criminal records – a significant number fail to meet the military’s educational requirements.

Earlier this decade, the Education Trust looked at the results of the Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the test the Army requires all recruits to take as a condition of enlistment. It found that more than one in five young people interested in enlisting “did not meet the minimum eligibility standard required by the Army.”

This is important because military careers have provided generations of Americans with pathways to successful adult lives. Unfortunately, too many high school graduates who seek the opportunity to serve don’t make the cut. For these young Americans, a high school diploma doesn’t qualify them to “be all that you can be.”

These numbers are even starker when broken down along racial demographics. According to the report, 16 percent of the white test takers scored below the minimum score required by the Army on the ASVAB. For Hispanic candidates, the ineligibility rate was 29 percent. And for African Americans, it was 39 percent.

While these numbers will present the Commission with a stark challenge, the issue of retaining current forces represents a different one.

After recruitment and an initial enlistment, many service members do what their civilian counterparts do – get married and have children. This changes their priorities. Their desire to move lessens dramatically.

But the average time on station for military personnel is 18 months to two years. That means a military family with a child will move six to nine times between the time the child starts kindergarten and graduates from high school.

These frequent moves take their toll in many ways. Many families would prefer spending more time on one station, especially if the schools are good.

Last year, Military Times, a publication targeted toward service members, surveyed its readers on education issues. The poll had two interesting findings. First, respondents reported they were worried about moving their child from a “good” school district to an underperforming one. Forty percent said they either have declined, or would decline, a career advancing job at a different base to remain at their current military facility “because of high performing schools.”

Moreover, more than one-third said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor in deciding whether to continue military service.”

The sad thing is that the military has known about these issues for years. The challenge is what to do about them. The new commission provides an opportunity to come up with new solutions.

As the commission tours the country, it should seek out solutions that assess these issues. A little brain power spent on them now could solve a lot of problems later.

Christi Ham is chairwoman on Military Families for High Standards.

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