Cover: Understanding the Impact of Department of Defense Youth Programs on Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide

Understanding the Impact of Department of Defense Youth Programs on Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide

Published Feb 13, 2024

by Stephani L. Wrabel, Jennie W. Wenger, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Christopher Joseph Doss, Jenna W. Kramer


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Through its funding and implementation of youth programs, the Department of Defense (DoD) serves communities throughout the United States. The three predominant programs—STARBASE, National Guard Youth ChalleNGe, and Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps—serve more than half a million young people each year and have a shared commitment to providing service and positive outreach to communities. These programs have the potential to reach a substantial proportion of the U.S. population and may help bridge the civilian-military divide.

There is no existing approach to assessing how well the programs fulfill their outreach goals. The authors developed an analytic framework to help assess the channels that enable these programs to positively influence communities and society more broadly. The authors hypothesize that if DoD youth programs function as intended—improving the trajectories of young people who participate and providing communities with positive impressions of such programs—community member sentiment toward the military will be more favorable, and interest in the military as a potential career path will increase.

The authors surveyed school leaders for their awareness and perceptions of the DoD youth programs, examined one program's curricula, and estimated the extent to which these programs influence military recruitment and accessions. Although these are not comprehensive measures of the ways that DoD youth programs might bridge the civilian-military divide or support an all-volunteer force, they provide one indication of the programs' impact on the communities they serve.

Key Findings

  • School leaders, especially those in higher-poverty schools, cite challenges to providing civics education, such as pressures to focus on other academic subjects, not having staff with the necessary training, and not having necessary resources.
  • Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) is well recognized, while the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe is not as well known. School leaders with access to these programs had positive impressions of them. A majority of school communities are supportive of DoD youth programs in schools, though this support falls short of school community support for the military.
  • The services take a varied approach to providing students with the full JROTC course sequence and the extent to which the curricular materials are standardized for JROTC participants in classrooms across the country. This variation suggests that not all students are exposed to the full scope of materials provided in the JROTC textbooks.
  • Communities with DoD youth programs have higher numbers of applicants and accessions than otherwise similar communities. Without DoD youth programs, the services would have seen roughly 2.5–2.8 percent fewer applicants and around 3 percent fewer applicants from historically marginalized populations. The programs are also associated with higher levels of high-quality applicants.
  • DoD youth programs appear to operate best in communities with substantial military presence, which suggests that military presence and infrastructure may assist DoD youth programs in reaching their outreach goals.


  • Develop comprehensive and consistent communication plans for each DoD youth program, including information on program mission, eligibility criteria for participants, costs to communities, and examples of program benefit.
  • JROTC has the potential to help schools address a need by further emphasizing civics in the classroom portion of the program. Ensure that JROTC's curricular content is aligned with the program's mission and that classroom activities sufficiently cover such content.
  • Consider a community's existing military infrastructure when deciding where to locate new programs, because placing youth programs in areas with diverse populations and substantial military infrastructure has the potential to result in more successful outreach, a military that is more reflective of the U.S. population, and a narrowing of the civilian-military divide.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and conducted within the Personnel, Readiness, and Health Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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