Justin Merrill had wanted to join the military for as long as he could remember.
“Everyone on my mom’s side of the family was a Marine, and everyone on my dad’s side was in the Army,” explained Mr. Merrill, 18, of Danville, Pa. “I wanted to do something to help my country.”
But his plan was jeopardized last year, when he learned that the Army did not approve of the high school diploma he was on track to earn from Agora Cyber Charter School.
“When I told my recruiter, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I’m not sure you can join the military because you’re not going to a brick-and-mortar school,’ ” Mr. Merrill recalled.
As enrollment in Pennsylvania’s 11 cyber charter schools swelled to about 25,000 students statewide last year, Justin Merrill and others who hope to enlist in the military after graduation are finding their plans derailed by an obscure U.S. Department of Defense policy.
Cyber school diplomas are categorized for recruiting purposes as “Tier 2,” a classification that includes the General Educational Development credential, or GED, and is seen as less desirable than “Tier 1,” which includes a traditional high school diploma. Each branch of the military limits the number of Tier 2 recruits that it will accept each year.
For the Army and National Guard, the limit is 10 percent; for the Navy, 5 percent; for the Air Force, just 1 percent.
An informal survey of cyber school officials showed that about 10 percent of graduates had tried to join the military and run into the policy, said Jenny Bradmon, the executive director of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools. However, she added, “some of them have found ways to get around it,” such as enrollment in a military academy.
Pentagon Policy Review?
Mr. Merrill eventually was able to enlist in the Army Reserve as a Tier 2 candidate, and he planned to start basic training this month. Because of his Tier 2 status, he was not allowed to pursue a special-forces career, however.
“If our Department of Education recognizes these diplomas as just like a regular diploma, why doesn’t the Department of Defense agree with that?” Mr. Merrill said.
“What we’re looking at is attrition rates, the stick-to-it-iveness, as opposed to a student who dropped out and moved to a cyber school,” said Tony Castillo, an education services specialist with the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
While Mr. Castillo said that recruiters are given leeway when evaluating a potential enlistee’s education, when a student takes all classes online, the student is automatically categorized as Tier 2. The policy, which applies to “correspondence schools,” dates to 1987, when most distance learning was paper-based. At that time, statistics showed that graduates of such programs were more likely to drop out of the military.
“We’re currently still looking at online credentials because it’s very new,” Mr. Castillo said.
He said that an interbranch committee in charge of setting educational standards may begin a study to see how recruits with cyber school diplomas do in the military. If they are found to be as successful as students with diplomas from brick-and-mortar schools, he said, the policy might be changed.
Pennsylvania is one of 27 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have cyber charter schools. Like the brick-and-mortar charter schools that have become common in major cities, cyber charter schools are publicly funded and are required to stick to the same curriculum as traditional public schools.
“It’s really not fair for these students, who have to fulfill every requirement of a brick-and-mortar school, to be treated like a student who has chosen to get a GED,” said Ms. Bradmon, of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools.
Ms. Bradmon’s organization has been lobbying legislators since last summer to address the military-recruiting disparity.
As advocates try to get the policy changed, cyber school officials often work with students and recent graduates to find ways around it.
“Our people advise them during the enrollment process that this could be an issue,” said Fred Miller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based in Midland.
Mr. Miller said that school officials sometimes suggest that students return to a brick-and-mortar school for senior year. Students can be counted as Tier 1 if they have at least 15 college credits, and the cyber school encourages dual enrollment in college-level courses during high school.
Samantha Malik, of Salem Township, Pa., planned to join the National Guard after she graduated from the Chester County-based 21st Century Cyber Charter School in 2009.
“It was always something I wanted to do,” said Ms. Malik, 19.
When her recruiter told her there were no slots for Tier 2 enlistees, Ms. Malik signed up for classes at Westmoreland County Community College. But she was worried that by the time she had the necessary credits to earn Tier 1 status, she would have lost her nerve.
Luckily, Ms. Malik said, the Guard recruiter was able to enlist her with a Tier 2 diploma after all. She has since graduated from basic training and a course on helicopter repair.
Though her cyber school education made enlisting more difficult,Ms. Malik said she does not regret it. “This is the 21st century,” she said. “You have to grow with the technology and grow with the times. Everything’s on computers now.”
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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Cyber Students Facing Barriers to Enlistment in Military Services