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The quality and number of American youths drawn to military service should climb soon because of enhanced education benefits to be provided under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, say Pentagon recruiting experts.

"It is a very attractive incentive package, there’s no question about that. So individuals will be very interested in enlisting for education benefits," predicted Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the Department of Defense.

"But we will see a spike in the quality of our enlisted cohort as well," Gilroy added, because that heavier flow of prospective recruits "primarily will have college in mind."

Defense manpower officials had warned Congress against passing a new GI Bill that was too generous, saying it could put at risk the all-volunteer force if too many recruits left after three years to attend school full time.

Congress passed a very generous GI Bill anyway, even enhancing the plan conceived by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., with a provision from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., that offers the brightest post-9/11 veterans virtually a cost-free education at any college or university in the country.

But in deference to Pentagon worries about decimating force retention, lawmakers added a transferability feature. It will entice members to serve at least four more years in return for the privilege of transferring unused GI Bill benefits on to their spouses or to children.

"If transferability does not completely mitigate the adverse effects that we anticipate on retention," said Gilroy, "the services can use additional selective reenlistment bonuses to further enhance retention among the people that they want to keep."

Nervousness in the Pentagon over Webb’s original GI Bill has given way to excitement over expected gains in number and quality of recruits.

"We have a sea of change with this new GI Bill," said Bob Clark, Gilroy’s assistant director of recruiting policy, when asked to predict the program’s impact. "It’s unlike anything that any one of us is familiar with."

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which takes effect Aug. 1, 2009, will be available to any veteran who has served at least 90 consecutive days on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. The full benefit, earned for three years’ active duty since 9/11, covers tuition and fees up to whatever the most expensive state-run school charges. It also will pay a monthly living allowance, based on local rental costs, and a $1,000-a-year stipend for books and supplies.

Private colleges and universities who agree to waive half of what they charge above the highest-priced state school will see the VA pick up the other half. This "yellow ribbon" provision raises the value of the GI Bill enormously for veterans who can qualify academically for top schools.

The transferability provision only applies to members on active duty or in reserve drill status as of Aug. 1, 2009. Also, they must have at least six years in service and must agree to serve at least four more years.

Gilroy said the services have been making their numerical recruiting goals. But quality has slipped for the active duty Army as measured by entrance test scores and numbers of recruits with high school diplomas.

Since year 2000, the percentage of high school graduates entering Army boot camp has fallen from 91 percent to 83 percent, and that 83 percent includes several thousand who left high school early but also have scored well on behavioral tests that measure their commitment to service.

Entrance test scores also have slipped, and the Army in recent years has brushed up against a DOD ceiling that bars accepting more than 4 percent of recruits from the lowest allowable mental aptitude category.

Recruiting challenges have been aggravated by a healthy job market and the unpopularity of the Iraq war. Six months into the war, 16 percent of youth ages 17 to 24 said they would definitely or probably enter service. That figure fell to 9 percent by June 2007 and remained through December.

The proportion of parents, clergy, teachers and coaches who recommend military service has fallen by a third during the Iraq war.

Bonuses too tell the story. Since 2000, the Army has more than tripled spending on enlistment bonuses, from $202 million to $639 million last year. The average bonus jumped from $7900 to $16,500.

The Marine Corps didn’t use enlistment bonuses in 2000. By last year it offered bonuses to four of every 10 recruits. The average was $3900. The Navy too, despite a force drawdown, has relied more heavily on bonuses.

Gilroy said the department can’t predict yet how recruit quality will rise as measured by test scores and other factors, or even how retention rates might fall now that transferability is part of the package.

Clark said he expects the services to continue to have robust tuition assistance programs for members to earn degrees while on active duty. When paired with GI Bill transferability, tuition assistance makes for a powerful retention tool, Clark suggested. As more members see their own education goals achievable while in service, they are more likely to stay for full careers and to transfer unused GI Bill to family members.

It’s not clear yet how the services will handle transferability, and the additional four-year commitment, for servicemembers nearing the high-year tenure ceiling for their skill and pay grade, Clark said.

"There’s a lot of work to be done on how we implement it," Gilroy said. "But it is particularly exciting at this time."

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