Military recruiters target [poorer] schools strategically

29 Nov. 2004 | Boston Globe

by Charlie Savage

POMFRET, Md. — Military recruiting saturates life at McDonough High, a working-class public school where recruiters chaperon dances, students in a junior ROTC class learn drills from a retired sergeant major in uniform, and every prospect gets called at least six times by the Army alone.

Recruiters distribute key chains, mugs, and military brochures at McDonough’s cafeteria. They are trained to target students at schools like McDonough across the country, using techniques such as identifying a popular student — whom they call a "center of influence" — and conspicuously talking to that student in front of others.

Meanwhile, at McLean High, a more affluent public school 37 miles away in Virginia, there is no military chaperoning and no ROTC class. Recruiters adhere to a strict quota of visits, lining up behind dozens of colleges. In the guidance office, military brochures are dwarfed by college pennants. Posters promote life amid ivy-covered walls, not in the cockpits of fighter jets.

Students from McDonough are as much as six times more likely than those from McLean to join the military, a disparity that is replicated elsewhere. A survey of the military’s recruitment system found that the Defense Department zeroes in on schools where students are perceived to be more likely to join up, while making far less effort at schools where students are steered toward college.

Now, as pressure mounts on recruiters to find 180,000 volunteers amid casualty counts from Iraq and Afghanistan that have surpassed 1,300 dead and 10,000 wounded, the fairness of the system by which the nation persuades young people to take on the burden of national defense is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The Globe inquiry found that recruiters target certain schools and students for heavy recruitment, and then won’t give up easily: Officers call the chosen students repeatedly, tracking their responses in a computer program the Army calls "the Blueprint." Eligible students are hit with a blitz of mailings and home visits. Recruiters go hunting wherever teens from a targeted area hang out, following them to sporting events, shopping malls, and convenience stores.

Officers are trained to analyze students and make a pitch according to what will strike a motivational chord — job training, college scholarships, adventure, signing bonuses, or service to country. A high-school recruiting manual describes the Army as "a product which can be sold."

The manual offers tips for recruiters to make themselves "indispensable" to schools; suggests tactics such as reading yearbooks to "mysteriously" know something about a prospect to spark the student’s curiosity; notes that "it is only natural for people to resist" and suggests ways to turn aside objections; and lists techniques for closing the deal, such as the "challenge close":

"This closing method works best with younger men," the manual reads. "You must be careful how you use this one. You must be on friendly terms with your prospect, or this may backfire. It works like this: When you find difficulty in closing, particularly when your prospect’s interest seems to be waning, challenge his ego by suggesting that basic training may be too difficult for him and he might not be able to pass it. Then, if he accepts your challenge, you will be a giant step closer to getting him to enlist."

Varying targets
The Defense Department spends $2.6 billion each year on recruiting, including signing bonuses, college funds, advertising, recruiter pay, and administering the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The military pitches the test to schools as a free career exploration program, but which its manual notes is also "specifically designed" to "provide the recruiter with concrete and personal information about the student."

Nearly all efforts are aimed at impending or recent high school graduates. But the marketing message is not targeted equally, acknowledged Kurt Gilroy, who directs recruiting policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Although the military strives to maintain a presence everywhere "to give everyone an opportunity to enlist if they so choose," he said, it concentrates on places most likely to "maximize return on the recruiting dollar [because] the advertising and marketing research people tell us to go where the low-hanging fruit is. In other words, we fish where the fish are."

But targeting some schools more than others raises questions about fairness. While some students at targeted schools are eager to join, others may be unduly manipulated into signing up.

David Walsh, a psychologist who has written a book about the impact of media on the adolescent brain, says teenage brains are not yet fully developed. Studies have shown that teens’ brain structures make them less independent of group opinion and less likely to consider long-term consequences than adults a few years older.

For the masses of teenagers who are not peer group leaders, Walsh said, an aggressive sales pitch can sway their decisions — especially if the recruiter knows how to get coaches, counselors, and popular students to endorse enlisting.

Indeed, the Army trains its recruiters to do exactly that.

"Some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist," the Army’s school recruiting handbook says. "More important is the fact that an informed student leader will respect the choice of enlistment."

Walsh says an approach like this is certain to persuade some teens at targeted schools to join up, while essentially identical teens at other schools will make other choices.

"What we end up doing is maintaining the gap between the haves and the have-nots, because they are the ones who are targeted to put their lives on the line and make sacrifices for the rest of us," Walsh said. "The kids with more options, we don’t bother with them."

Different paths
Principals and teachers play a role in determining whether military recruitment succeeds. In schools where educators are skeptical of the military, recruiters are shut out beyond the minimum required by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act: two visits a year per service, as well as a list with every student’s name, address, and phone number.

In other schools, the people who fill those same influential roles serve as advocates for the military.

At McDonough, guidance counselor Wanda Welch, who notes that her son recently completed four years in the Air Force, talks of the virtues of defending the country. Sitting near military posters and brochures, she says she appreciates the services recruiters give to the school and tells students that "if they don’t know what they want to do, enlisting can be a good choice."

At McLean, counselor Isobel Rahn, who notes that she came of age amid the Vietnam War protests, says the school requires recruiters to sign in like any other outsider because "we protect our kids."

Sitting near a poster announcing visits from 23 colleges in the coming two weeks, she says she tells students that the military offers benefits but that "the con in 2004 is that you can get killed."

Over the past year, as casualties in Iraq have filled the news, recruiting has become much more difficult. For the 2003-04 recruiting year, which ended in September, the Army’s active-duty and reserves recruiting effort narrowly met its quota, but the Army National Guard missed its goal of 56,000 soldiers by about 5,000 — its first shortfall in a decade.

"I think Iraq has hurt recruiting," said Sergeant Kevin Bidwell, who commands the Army recruiting station that includes McDonough High. "People automatically think that as soon as they join up, they’re going to go over there."

Bidwell said he tells prospects that such a fear is a "misperception,because objectively you don’t know for sure. The Army is a million strong, and if you look at statistics over there, there’s under 100,000 from all four branches." Actually, about 140,000 US troops are serving in Iraq.

The number of students who go from the halls of McDonough to boot camp is substantial: 15 of its 322 seniors last year had decided to enlist by graduation, according to a state website. Local recruiters say that number will rise as they continue to contact targeted McDonough students over the next two years.

Far fewer students enlist coming out of McLean. Precise statistics are not available, but Rahn said that each year between three and seven of her roughly 400 seniors join the military.

Marketing gap
Those familiar with military recruiting say lower family incomes make McDonough students more likely to enlist, but that marketing also plays a major role.

Richard I. Stark Jr., a retired Army officer who once worked on personnel issues for the secretary of defense, said he thinks the targeted hard sell draws in students who otherwise might not join, while failing to find potential recruits at other schools.

"It’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t influence the proclivities of those people to make a judgment for themselves about the military," Stark said. "Once you start [recruiting at a school heavily], it’s like a snowball. As more people from the school join the military, they go back on leave, walk around in their spiffy uniforms, brag about accomplishments. That generates interest by more recruits."

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.

Thanks to Serena Blaiz of the Oklahoma Committee for Conscientious Objectors for passing this article along. –BL

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