The U.S. Army has announced a pilot program for the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, expanding eligibility by lowering the minimum score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT). This is another attempt by the Army to close the gap in its recruiting shortfall by accepting more recruits who would otherwise not qualify to serve. However, expanding academic eligibility does not solve the problems that the Army is facing with recruiting. The Army would be better served by eliminating its academic minimums altogether and increasing its presence out in the community, to include schools, as a way to better promote military service.
The Future Soldier Preparatory Course
The Future Soldier Preparatory Course launched in August 2022 amid a recruiting struggle across all services. The course is designed to take would-be soldiers who were not qualified — either academically or physically — and put them through an intense course to meet those minimum standards of service. Nearly 6,100 have graduated and subsequently passed basic training (this number also includes recruits in the physical fitness track, who previously failed to pass physical, rather than academic, standards). While physical fitness can surely be improved over a short period of time and instill lasting change, questions remain regarding the academic program which is focused solely on passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), part of which is the AFQT.
Currently, the minimum AFQT score for enlistment is 31. While the Future Soldier Preparatory Course previously accepted recruits with scores between 21 and 30 into the program, the Army recently announced that a new pilot cohort would accept recruits who score between 16 and 20. The Army claims that this is due to there being fewer enrolled soldiers than the course is designed to have, and this pilot cohort is to fill the remaining seats.
Does the program actually work?
The Army has been touting the success of the Future Soldier Preparatory Course since its launch last year. In January, less than six months after its debut, the program was expanded after its trial period saw more than 90% of its 3,200 initial recruits pass the course and basic training. In March, the Navy launched its own variant, the Future Sailor Preparatory Course, on the same model as the Army.
Despite the early successes the Army is seeing, it may in fact just be the honeymoon phase of a program designed to overcome a shortfall in recruiting. There were some who argued that these programs would lead to better soldiers almost from the start. However, there is no proof that these programs will translate into long-term success in the services; it is simply far too early to tell. The initial cohort is still in its training phase, with most of the graduates still in, or barely out of, Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
There is no data that tracks their performance through basic training, their performance through AIT, and certainly not through an entire career. In other words, there is currently no definitive proof that the Future Soldier Preparatory Course makes better soldiers, it just makes more soldiers. The Army would be well-served to track the progress of the graduates throughout their military careers to see if the program does, in fact, make a difference.
Eliminate the minimum
With the Army once again accepting recruits who do not meet their self-prescribed minimum score, it must be asked why there is a minimum acceptable score to begin with. I have previously written about why the ASVAB is already an outdated and inaccurate tool to measure a recruit’s ability to serve. While there is no expectation to overhaul or remove the requirement for the ASVAB in the near term, the continual acceptance of lower scores suggests that the Army might not value its scores as a measure of potential success. This is not limited only to the Army, as the Navy also announced lowering minimum AFQT scores, accepting some as low as 10, provided that the sailor meets the individual scores for a particular rating.
Instead of continually waiving the minimum, and now lowering the minimum waivable scores, the Army should consider abandoning a minimum altogether. Recruits who meet the score of 31 on the AFQT are eligible to proceed directly to basic training. Those who score 30 or below must attend the Future Soldier Prep Course. With an average improvement of 17 points following the Future Soldier Preparatory Course, there is a possibility that even the lowest scorers would improve their test above the minimum for service. The nearly one in four who fail to meet the minimum score will no longer be ineligible for service, but would instead have to undergo the same remediation as those currently in the program, although those scoring below a 15 would have a much greater hurdle to climb.
A Band-Aid for the problem
Expanding the Future Soldier Preparatory Course is a one-pronged solution designed to lessen the recruiting shortfalls that the Army, and most of the military services, are facing. The Future Soldier Preparatory Course is an attempt to expand the 23% of Americans eligible to serve by removing one entry barrier. However, academic performance is not a major disqualifier, as aptitude only accounts for approximately 1% of disqualifications.
The expansion of the Future Soldier Preparatory Course is not a solution to the problem, it is only a narrowly focused fix that addresses a fairly insignificant fraction of the recruiting gap. The Army is adjusting its minimum standards in order to provide a fraction of those who want to serve the opportunity to do so.
At the same time, leadership recognizes that the bigger issue is the low percentage of young Americans who are even interested in military service, just 9%. The lack of military presence in communities and schools has contributed to a lack of understanding among communities, students, and parents regarding what the military has to offer prospective recruits. The Military Service Promotion Act of 2023 is a recent Congressional attempt to expand the services’ presence at schools and job fairs. The act removes a legal barrier to participation at these locations, but public attitudes may still oppose the presence of the military at these locations, due to political leanings, misconceptions about the military, or a distrust of the services. (It should be noted that the act also includes a requirement to review the Future Soldier Preparatory Course for expansion and for each of the services to have their own version of the program). Involvement with military recruiters should not be viewed as a negative interaction or an attempt at “indoctrination,” but rather an opportunity to increase awareness of a post-high school option for employment and an opportunity to serve the country.
It can be argued that low AFQT scores are indicative of flaws in the broader education system rather than the test itself, and that the priority should be on reforming education. However, that is outside of the purview of the Department of Defense, as it is not its responsibility to set academic curricula or standards. Additionally, while a better-educated youth would expand the eligibility from the aforementioned 23%, it is still not enough to address the larger issues causing the recruiting shortfall.
While the Future Soldier Preparatory Course is an innovative attempt to boost the Army’s recruiting numbers, it is a solution to the wrong problem. The course allows those with a propensity to serve an opportunity if they are not academically qualified, but a better solution would be to focus on finding those with a desire to serve and fostering that interest, not just getting recruits to pass an exam.
Lt. Cmdr. Stewart Latwin is the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
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