Navy Personnel Chief Sees Low Risk in Recruiting Sailors Without High School Diplomas

February 7, 2024 7:06 PM
U.S. Navy Recruit Training Command’s Pass-in-Review in Great Lakes, Illinois, Feb., 1, 2024. US Navy Photo

Faced with a shortfall of more than 7,000 sailors, the head of Navy personnel is tapping into a new population of potential recruits: those who haven’t finished high school.

Since 2000, the Navy has not permitted anyone who did not have a high school or GED diploma to enlist in the sea service. But on Jan. 26, the service opened bootcamp to these Americans with some caveats, the Navy announced.

Vice Adm. Richard Cheeseman is aiming to enlist at least 500 people who did not finish high school or earn a GED diploma, he told USNI News this week. As of 2021, there were 2 million Americans ages 16-24 who fit that category, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Any American between 18 and 41 can now enlist in the Navy, as long as they score at least a 50 on the Armed Forces Qualification Test and meet other requirements outside of education, according to the Navy’s policy released.

There is already interest, Cheeseman said. Last year, 2,442 people without high school diplomas walked into recruiting offices.

“Thousands of folks have walked in the door and we had to turn them away, and I’m certain there’s untapped talent in that group of people, and I’m looking to capitalize on that,” he said.

Allowing people who had not finished high school or earned a GED diploma into the Navy is not new. It extends back to the Department of Defense Authorization Act of 1982, which allowed Americans to enlist in the military without graduating from high school if they earned at least a 31 on entrance exams, although those without high school diplomas had been accepted before the 1982 act. Previous laws allowed people without high school diplomas but had capped the amount. While allowing those without high school diplomas in the military was allowed for in the U.S. Code, since 2000 the U.S. Navy has not allowed those without a high school or GED diplomas to join the service. The law allows for, rather than demands, the military accept those without diplomas unless manpower strength requires it.

Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman responds to a sailor’s question during an all-hands call with the crew of the guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin (CG-65) at Naval Station Everett in 2023. US Navy Photo

By requiring an AFQT score of 50, instead of 31 as required by the law, the Navy is lowering some of the risk in taking on those without educational certificates, Chief of Naval Personnel spokesperson Capt. Jodie Cornell told USNI News.

The lack of a high school or GED diploma does carry risk of attrition, Cornell said. But by looking at the recruits that have already gone through boot camp, attrition seems to be connected to AFQT scores too, she said.

For example, recruits with a high school diploma who scored in the highest category of AFQT scores – between 93 and 99 – attrited at a 6.3 percent rate. Those with a GED diploma who also scored in the top category attrited at 11.9 percent.

Those with a high school diploma who scored in the lowest category – scores 30 and below – attrited at 11.3 percent. Those with a GED diploma with the same scores attrited at 19.6 percent. These recruits would be in lower AFQT categories than those without a high school or GED diploma, since the Navy policy will require them to score at least 50 percent.

By not allowing those without any high school education certification to enlist with scores lower than 50, the Navy might be able to lower potential attrition rates, Cornell said. Overall, attrition is also lower across all groups at boot camp because of other factors, like different modules being offered that focus on personal development at Great Lakes, Ill., she said.

While non-high school education certification recruits come with risk, it’s one the Navy is willing to take on, Cheeseman told USNI News.

“But given that we have empty seats at boot camp right now, I see this as minimal risk because nobody in this education credential category is going to be taking the place of somebody with a high school diploma or a GED,” Cheeseman said. “I have open spots, so I’m willing to take the risk.”

This is not the first time the Navy has looked at the number of high school dropouts as a potential recruiting target.

In Fiscal Year 1999, the Navy raised its cap on the number of people without a high school diploma as one way to solve its recruiting woes. Like the current Navy, the Navy of FY 1999 had missed its recruiting goals by 7,000 sailors, almost 12 percent of its goal. It’s not clear if the cap was for those with a GED diploma or no high school education credential. The secretary of the Navy at the time, Richard Danzig, raised the cap on those without high school diplomas from 5 percent to 10 percent as one solution.

But the attrition rate of people without high school diplomas is higher than that of those who do finish high school, with one report from 1993 suggesting that those without a high school diploma attrite at double the rate. Those with GED diplomas attrite less than high school dropouts.

When the Navy raised the cap in Fiscal Year 1999, it implemented a screening tool — the High Performance Predictor Profile — with the idea that the highest quality recruits attrited less even if they did not have a high school diploma, according to Department of Defense studies from 2001 and 2002.

Sailors work out at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill on March 7, 2023. US Navy Photo

It’s not clear from the studies whether this measured those who had a GED diploma or those who dropped out of high school. While the Navy has continued to enlist those with GED diplomas, the sea service has not enlisted someone without an educational certificate – either a high school or GED diploma – since 2000.

While those with GED diplomas or no high school education certification are likely to attrite at a higher rate than those with a high school diploma, they are also likely to be promoted at a higher rate, a 2009 study found.

The new policy will need leadership behind it at the command level, in addition to the CNP, said Paul Kingsbury, a retired master chief petty officer.

Commands must put in the work with the sailors, especially those who are looking to take advantage of the Navy’s assistance in getting a GED diploma, Kingsbury said.

For Kingsbury, the lack of educational certification raises some flags about a sailor’s ability to follow instructions or turn assignments in on time. He sees the policy as one that must be handled on an individual level instead of with a broad stroke.

But his biggest concern is what roles the new recruits would fill.

The Navy is limiting the roles that these recruits can enter, and like everyone else, what billet they fill will be determined by their scores. The Navy already has roles that do not require a high school or GED diploma, Cornell said in an email.

Cheeseman sees the new policy as more than a way to get bodies into bootcamp, which the Navy needs since it missed its Fiscal Year 2023 recruiting goal. The Navy failed to meet its enlisted recruiting goal by 7,464 sailors, USNI News reported. It wants to bring in 40,600 enlisted sailors in Fiscal Year 2024, a higher goal than in FY 2023.

The Navy will not be able to retain itself out of the recruiting problem, Cheeseman told USNI News. Those without high school diplomas were an untapped population that the Navy could access because laws already exist that allow them to enlist, he said.

This policy is one way the Navy is investing in Americans, Cheeseman said. It’s also just one of the levers the Navy is pulling to widen the recruiting pool. In addition to bringing on older recruits and recruits who scored in the lower percentages of entrance exams, the Navy also increased the cap on people with GED diplomas from 5 percent to 10 percent, Cheeseman said.

“It’s about opportunities for all Americans, regardless of their education credential,” Cheeseman told USNI News. “The Navy is a place where any American can succeed.”

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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