This article by Rachel S. Cohen originally appeared on Military Times, the nation's largest independent newsroom dedicated to covering the military and veteran community.
The U.S. military could soon start offering community college students a new path to enlistment, thanks to a legislative provision making its way through the Senate.
If signed into law as part of the annual defense policy bill, it could be one tool to help reverse a historic recruiting crisis that threatens to hollow the armed forces for years to come.
The proposed Enlisted Training Corps would mirror the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps units that have existed for more than 100 years at four-year colleges and universities across the country.
Just as ROTC provides students one option for commissioning as officers once they earn a bachelor’s degree, the Enlisted Training Corps would prepare students to join the enlisted force without sending them to boot camp.
[RELATED: Inside the Military Recruiting Crisis]
ROTC isn’t completely off-limits to those pursuing an associate’s degree: For instance, 125 community and junior colleges have agreements with nearby universities that allow their students to participate in the local Air Force ROTC chapter. That can give people a head start on the full ROTC program if they transfer to a four-year school.
But community and junior colleges don’t have their own pipeline to military service — a gap that some in the Senate want to change.
“The military must provide new opportunities to expose Americans to military service,” the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement accompanying the draft bill. “While high school students have the option of joining a Junior [ROTC] unit, and four-year college students have long been able to enroll in the Senior [ROTC], there are no formal programs that introduce community and junior college students to the prospect of military service.”
Under the proposal, the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps would each receive $5 million to jumpstart the program at a community college or junior college. Students who take part in the Enlisted Training Corps and agree to join the military could qualify for financial assistance, lawmakers said.
Though not defined in the legislation, the program could include much of the same drills, leadership courses and basic-level military training as ROTC.
Once the new corps is up and running, the defense secretary would report back to Congress each year on the program’s progress.
The idea may still end up on the cutting room floor.
To become law, the provision must make it into the House and Senate’s joint version of the defense policy bill, passed by both chambers of Congress and enacted by President Joe Biden, and funded by an appropriations package.
The House version of the bill, which narrowly passed July 14, does not include its own provision for an Enlisted Training Corps.
The idea is one of several provisions in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s draft aimed at shoring up military recruitment.
Army, Air Force and Navy officials have all said they expect to fall thousands of enlisted troops short of their fiscal 2023 active duty recruiting goals due to a combination of a healthy private sector, a cumbersome medical processing system, a lack of interest in the military among today’s youth and a dwindling population of qualified young adults.
The smaller Marine Corps and Space Force believe they will hit their own targets by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
In response, the Senate Armed Services Committee is encouraging the Air Force and Navy to aim for smaller workforces in fiscal 2024, rather than staff up with subpar recruits.
Its draft bill allows for 320,000 active duty airmen — 4,700 fewer than the Air Force requested — and 342,000 sailors, or 5,000 fewer than the Navy wanted.
“Legislating unreachable end strength numbers would set the military services up for failure by guaranteeing continued recruiting shortfalls, putting undue strain on recruiting forces, and ultimately compromising readiness by encouraging quantity over quality in recruiting,” the Senate Armed Services Committee said. “The committee believes that the United States military is best served by bringing in high numbers of high-quality recruits.”
Lawmakers are offering the services nearly $400 million more for recruiting activities and advertising.
They also suggest tweaking the rules around the Armed Forces Qualification Test, and tell the services that if more than 10% of recruits score lower than a 31 on that test, to create preparatory courses to improve their scores and ultimately put them in uniform.
The bill further proposes requiring secondary schools to admit military recruiters to career fairs when asked to join, and to penalize universities and colleges that don’t provide information on students to recruiters within 60 days of their request.
A briefing on the Pentagon’s approach to regional recruitment is due to Congress by March 1, 2024, as well as a briefing on its outreach to diverse student populations by Feb. 29, 2024.
And the committee requests a deeper look at the military’s recruiting waiver system, the medical standards Americans must meet to join up, and ways to change those requirements without putting the military or the recruit at risk.
Other suggestions to make the military an attractive employer include overhauling the outdated pay schedule and, potentially, covering the cost of freezing the eggs, sperm and embryos of active duty troops.
“The current economic environment and the effects of high cost inflation require a careful review of the rates of military basic pay to ensure competitiveness with the private sector, which ultimately will help address current recruiting challenges,” the committee said.
Other articles by Military Times:
Support The MOAA Foundation
Donate to help address emerging needs among currently serving and former uniformed servicemembers, retirees, and their families.