ARLINGTON, Va. — High-school dropouts never have had a future in the all-volunteer Army — until now.

On Sept. 20, the active Army, Reserve, and National Guard began a nationwide program, “Army Education Plus,” that will pay the costs of getting a General Equivalency Diploma, or GED, for non-high school graduates who want to join the service.

Individuals interested in the new program must first have withdrawn from high school at least six months prior, according to Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. The program was launched to help with recruiting, which has lagged for the Army and its Reserve components.

“We would not want to do anything to encourage anyone to drop out of school,” Smith said.

Applicants also must pass a physical exam and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and then enlist for the Army’s delayed entry program, before they are eligible for help getting a GED, Smith said.

The new GED program will not lower enlistment standards for the Army, because the service has not changed its 10 percent “cap” on the number of GED-holding recruits it will accept, Smith said.

“The point of the program is to help [recruits] get their GED,” he said. “If they don’t make it (through the program), they won’t ship” to basic training.

In fiscal 2004, 7.6 percent of active Army enlistees had GEDs, while the other 92.4 percent were high-school graduates, Smith said.

He did not have similar statistics at hand for the Reserve and Army National Guard.

Army Education Plus is the service’s latest effort to shore up its lagging recruiting program, which has suffered from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what the recruiters say is an improving national economic picture, Smith said.

Despite improvements in recruiting over the summer months, senior Army leaders have said that when the government’s fiscal 2005 ends on Friday, all three components of the Army will have missed their annual recruiting goals.

To counter the reluctance of young Americans to put on Army green, the service has taken a number of steps, such as adding 1,200 new recruiters to its rosters, increasing signing bonuses from an average of $6,000 per new recruit to as much as $20,000, and raising the eligible age for the Army National Guard or the Reserve recruits from 35 to 39.

The service also launched a multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign that focuses on patriotism and is directed at deployment-wary parents and teachers.

Army recruiting officials are calculating that it will cost $50 to $100 to send a potential recruit to a GED course, Smith said.

Compared with other recruiting costs, such as $20,000 signing bonuses, “that’s not much,” Smith said.

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