WASHINGTON -- The percent of Army recruits with a high school diploma dropped last year, continuing a trend that has worsened since the start of the Iraq war, according to a report released Tuesday.
National Priorities Project, a research group that analyzes federal data, found that nearly 71 percent of Army recruits graduated from high school in the 2007 budget year. It based its findings on data it obtained from the Defense Department through a Freedom of Information Act request.
All troops must have a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. The military prefers that they have a high school diploma because its studies have shown they are more likely to finish an enlistment term. Still, the Army has paid for some recruits to take GED preparation classes and take the test.
The Army's goal is 90 percent high school graduates, which it hasn't met since 2004. Each year since, the number of recruits with at least a high school diploma has steadily declined.
Douglas Smith, spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., acknowledged it has been a difficult recruiting environment. He said overall high school graduation rates are declining, which could be a factor.
Strained in part by military operations in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the military has had to increase the number of waivers and raise enlistment bonuses to fill its ranks.
"Every soldier that we put in the Army is qualified," Smith said. "We don't put unqualified people in the Army, but it's something we're watching."
The National Priorities Project said the percent of "high-quality" recruits -- those with a high school diploma who scored in the top half on the military's qualification test -- declined from budget years 2004 to 2007. In that period, the number of high-quality recruits fell from about 61 percent to nearly 45 percent, the group said.
It also found that in the 2007 budget year, upper middle- and high-income neighborhoods were underrepresented by an even larger margin than three years earlier.
The Army has been under growing pressure to strengthen recruiting as part of an ongoing effort to increase its size.
Plans are to raise the number of active-duty Army, Army Guard and Army Reserve by 74,000 overall, with the active-duty force rising by 65,000 to a total of 547,000. In October, top Army leaders said they planned to move faster to expand the force by adding the full 74,000 soldiers by 2010, two years earlier than originally planned.
In September, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters he'd like the see the percent of recruits with a high school diploma increase. He said he was reluctant to accelerate an expansion of the force that would lead to a lowering of recruitment standards.
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said recruitment has been strong in the first four months of this budget year.