Cover: Population Benchmarking for the U.S. Department of the Air Force

Population Benchmarking for the U.S. Department of the Air Force

Impact of Eligibility Requirements and Propensity to Serve on Demographic Representation

Published Oct 17, 2023

by Tiffany Berglund, Louis T. Mariano, Christopher E. Maerzluft

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Research Questions

  1. Which demographic data are necessary to understand the dynamics of gender and racial and ethnic diversity in the DAF?
  2. How are benchmarks resourced and constructed to capture DAF eligibility requirements and propensity to serve in the military?
  3. How can these benchmarks be applied to improve talent management and build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive DAF workforce?

The Department of the Air Force (DAF) has prioritized growing and maintaining a diverse workforce across all pay grades. Because most positions are filled by promoting from within, having a diverse pool of candidates at the point of accession is critical to accomplishing the DAF's goal. However, a large segment of the U.S. population is not eligible to enlist as an airman or to be commissioned as an officer, and eligibility criteria affect women and racial and ethnic minority candidates differently than they affect White men. Understanding the population that meets the eligibility requirements to enlist in the military or to be admitted to the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) or the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Training School (OTS) is crucial to determining the potential demographic makeup of DAF accessions and, ultimately, all DAF personnel.

In this report, the authors create benchmarks for comparison with the DAF's accession cohorts by estimating the fraction of the eligible (and propensed) population, using ten mutually exclusive categories of gender and race and ethnicity. The benchmarks provide a measure of progress on diversity and inclusion in the force and a comparison to clearly identify whether a demographic's overrepresentation or underrepresentation can be attributed to specific eligibility standards or propensity to serve, or both.

Key Findings

  • Eligibility requirements limit racial and ethnic minority representation, but propensity to serve offsets barriers to eligibility for these minorities.
  • Eligibility requirements favor representation of women, but propensity to serve is a key barrier to accessions for women.
  • Body mass index, height, and education and aptitude requirements are the most important barriers to both enlisted and officer eligibility, but these requirements affect the eligibility of gender and racial and ethnic groups differently.
  • Considering gender and race and ethnicity jointly, no minority group meets the demographic benchmarks of the U.S. population that is both eligible and has a propensity to serve across the three accession sources (enlisted, the USAFA, and ROTC or OTS).
  • Examining DAF benchmarks by considering gender concurrently with race and ethnicity highlights important differences otherwise not observed when considering these groups separately.


  • Benchmark DAF accessions and consider gender and race and ethnicity jointly. Examining the intersection of gender and race and ethnicity allows for a more accurate view of the effects of eligibility requirements on demographic distributions by sifting out patterns that might otherwise be obscured by the large representation of White men and women.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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