Cover: Updating Personnel Vetting and Security Clearance Guidelines for Future Generations

Updating Personnel Vetting and Security Clearance Guidelines for Future Generations

Published Mar 11, 2021

by Marek N. Posard, Emily Ellinger, Jamie L. Ryan, Richard S. Girven

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Research Question

  1. What are the new or emerging areas of risk related to potential personnel vetting improvements?

The United States could face challenges in the near future with recruiting and retaining younger generations into both public trust positions and, specifically, sensitive positions that require more in-depth personnel vetting for the purposes of receiving a security clearance. For one, there is some evidence that expectations by younger adults for these positions — particularly in the government sector — may differ from those of older age groups. Furthermore, several factors that traditionally and historically have been used to gauge an individual's eligibility for a security clearance (e.g., lifestyle choices and behaviors, personal and professional associations, financial circumstances) no longer may be feasible or applicable to younger age cohorts in the same manner they were applied to earlier generations. The authors identified select trends, including age-based factors, among younger adults to understand broader social changes that may affect current security clearance adjudication guidelines for positions in the U.S. government.

Key Findings

Age-based trends among younger adults may serve as an early signal for broader social changes

  • There are more opportunities for people to interact with foreign nationals today than in the past.
  • Student loan debt and alternative financial instruments are potential risks.
  • Marijuana use is less of a concern, while nonmedical prescription drug use is a rising concern.
  • Digital personal conduct is seen as an emerging risk.


  • The criteria about risks should focus on the nature of contacts with foreign nationals and the risk levels of their home countries. Specifically, risk levels should be assigned for certain countries that are determined by regular assessments to be higher risk.
  • The federal government should consider the legality of marijuana at the state and local level as a mitigating factor. Such a mitigating factor would take into account the severity and frequency of use within states or locales where it is legal.
  • Student loan debts from accredited institutions of higher education should be weighted less than more risky forms of debt for applicants. Emphasizing the management of essential debts, instead of satisfying these debts, should be a risk factor.
  • New guidelines should broadly address the personal conduct that individuals may exhibit online. Guidelines should include the timing, frequency, and context of problematic conduct by clearance applicants. Regardless as to whether they are a standalone criterion or listed within existing criteria, they should be considered a ubiquitous factor for clearance adjudicators.
  • The federal government should continuously reassess risk factors based on trends from expert data sources.

This research was sponsored by the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council Program Management Office and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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