The U.S. military is facing serious complications with recruiting. All six military branches reported struggles meeting recruiting goals for fiscal year 2022. Many of these struggles can be linked to systemic issues in the military’s recruiting strategy and the country’s opinion of the military.

A Gallup poll from July 2022 found Americans who trust the military a “great deal/quite a lot” has fallen from 69% to 64% in just one year. And according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, only 23% of Americans qualify for military service. The Department of Defense’s inability to locate and train quality service members is a dire concern for national security.

Leaders in the military have pointed to movies such as “Iron Man” and “Top Gun: Maverick” as potential saviors for the military’s low recruiting totals. Others have questioned the sustainability of an all-volunteer force. However, these notions and theories are often unaware of the tangible solutions already available in the military’s recruiting toolbox, including Military Junior Colleges, or MJCs.

Similar to senior military colleges, such as The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, MJCs offer a unique environment for prospective military leaders. Cadets are expected to follow rigorous schedules for academics and physical fitness while balancing leadership roles formed within the strict internal structures of the Corps of Cadets. These institutional standards are exacting and must be consistently upheld.

Unlike senior military colleges, however, MJCs are two-year associate degree programs. MJC cadets are expected to reach training standards established by Cadet Command within a two-year timeframe compared to the traditional four-year track at senior military colleges or other four-year universities. Upon completing training, MJC graduates are contractually bound to continue their education at a four-year institution to complete their baccalaureate degree. While continuing their studies, these officers are integrated into Army Reserve or National Guard units.

This widely unknown program is called the Early Commissioning Program, or ECP, the origins of which are rooted in the Vietnam War. By 1976, public trust in officials responsible for the military fell to 24%, and as this support dwindled, the Department of Defense faced difficulties recruiting officers. In 1978, the ECP as we know it today was introduced.

The potential pitfalls of the program are well documented by its critics. Tracking the educational progress of ECP officers proved difficult for university and military administrators. For example, ECP officers must finish their four-year degrees within an established period. Those MJC graduates who decided to pursue STEM disciplines generally took longer than the specified timeframe, as these fields can be more intensive. Additionally, rising university tuition costs resulted in many MJC graduates working through college to maintain financial stability, which postponed degree completion.

However, many fail to see the tremendous benefits ECP officers bring to the Army.

Generally, ECP officers gain experience faster than officers who enter a traditional four-year program. This is a result of the program structuring, not necessarily the quality of the candidate. After commissioning from this advanced track, ECP officers are quickly embedded into reserve components near their follow-on schools. As they complete their degrees, they actively gain practical military training and knowledge that cannot be taught in a classroom environment. This responsibility greatly benefits these officers as they acquire more experience in administrative and job specific tasks. These officers can aid and teach their colleagues by passing on their knowledge and increasing the proficiency of all junior officers and enlisted members.

Additionally, MJCs create an accessible option for a student who wants to attain a college degree.

The fear of student loan debt and an unstable job market frightens many Americans thinking about their future after high school. Like other ROTC programs, ECP offers its students financial aid and tuition assistance throughout their education. However, ECP officers can also access state and federal tuition assistance once stationed with their reserve component. This creates an opportunity for officers to continue their education while accruing job skills in the military, allowing these students to come out of college debt-free and with two years of leadership and military experience.

Finally, ECP graduates are versatile for Army staffing and personnel resourcing.

These newly commissioned officers come from MJCs ready to serve and lead. ECP officers can be a versatile tool for reserve units looking to free up the duties and schedules of other job-qualified officers. Although they do not have specific job qualifications, ECP officers can still complete many daily administrative tasks that often impede military organizations. They can act as a free resource for commanders. Once an ECP officer completes their four-year degree, they can work with their reserve component to fill whatever role the Army deems fit and necessary. This program helps fill positions effectively as more reserve components take on these ECP officers.

Currently, only four MJCs remain as most have shuttered due to financial constraints. The ECP offers a solution to the Army’s recruiting problem. Although there are other contributing factors to the Army’s low recruiting numbers, reintroducing the ECP would be a step in the right direction. This program offers legitimate incentives to cadets and makes a more compelling offer to those considering military service or college.

Expanding the ECP with increased oversight and funding would improve the military’s recruiting situation. The machine works. Given more energy, however, this program could be the recruiting powerhouse the Army needs.

Ian Whitfield is an Army officer and graduate student enrolled in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army.

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