Increasing Numbers of U.S. Army Recruits Enlist Some Years After High School

For Release

April 23, 2014

More than half of all U.S. Army recruits are choosing to join later in life instead of immediately after high school graduation, but these older recruits tend to reenlist and be promoted at greater rates than their younger peers, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In 1992, older recruits made up only 35 percent of total Army enlistments. Since 2005, however, the majority of Army recruits have been people who did not enlist immediately after high school.

"We also found that the U.S. military has become a family business for many Americans," said Bernard Rostker, lead author of the study and a senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

In 2008 and 2009, RAND researchers surveyed 5,373 recruits at the Army's five basic training bases. Among those surveyed, 83 percent of the recruits had a close family member who served in the military and almost half had a close family member who had retired from the military.

In addition, 38 percent of the recruits had fathers and 6 percent had mothers who served in the military — much higher than among the U.S. population as a whole.

The RAND study found that older recruits tend to score higher on enlistment qualification tests than those who are still in high school, and about one-sixth have an associate's degree or higher. Older recruits also are more likely to be married.

While older recruits are more likely to leave military service during basic training, once in the service, these older recruits are more likely to reenlist and are more likely to be promoted.

The oldest recruits are much more likely to be promoted to a noncommissioned officer after four or six years of service, attaining the rank of E-5. At four years, the combined retention and promotion effect is 6 percentage points higher and at six years, the combined effect is 4 percentage points higher. For slightly younger recruits — those aged 25 to 27 — the differences are even larger: 9 percentage points at four years and 7 percentage points at six years.

Among those surveyed, 73 percent of the older recruits said they remembered recruiters visiting their high schools. Among the reasons given for why they did not enlist directly after high school, many said they went to college or vocational school or got jobs.

However, 38 percent said they just took time off. Of this group, one-quarter indicated that someone did not want them to enlist and nearly one quarter also indicated that they were concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they did enlist, they indicated that the views of others had become less important to their decision and they were less concerned about the wars, despite the fact that nearly all indicated that they expected to be deployed.

When asked why they decided to join the Army, about a third of those who joined later said there were "no jobs at home" and about half were of the view that the jobs that were available were "dead-end jobs."

When Rostker and his colleagues compared the older recruits to a nationally representative group of American youths who did not join the military, they found that the older recruits were significantly less likely to have attended college — a large proportion were high school dropouts who later passed the GED examination before enlisting in the Army. They also had less work experience than the comparison group.

"For these older recruits, the Army provided a second chance," Rostker said. "Joining the Army gave them an opportunity to leave home and start again — even though they understood that in doing so, they were likely to be deployed to a combat zone. But that didn't deter them. Our findings suggest that these older youths will continue to be a valuable source of future recruits for the military."

To better tap into this market and understand more about how these recruits perform over time, Rostker said the Army may want to invest some of its recruitment resources on targeting older youths who do not go to college.

The study, "Recruiting Older Youths: Insights from a New Survey of Army Recruits," can be found at Other authors of the study are Jacob Klerman and Megan Zander Cotugno.

Research for the study was sponsored by the director of accession policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and was conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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