When 19-year-old Douglas Cook graduated from the online Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School last February, he decided to join the Marines. “He went through enlisting and going through everything,” Cook’s mom told the Patriot-News. “They didn’t seem to think there was going to be any kind of problem.”
But when the time came for the young man to leave for basic training, he was stopped in his tracks. The Marines told Cook that he had Tier 2 status because of his non-traditional diploma, and they weren’t accepting any Tier 2 applicants. Cook tried to enlist in the Army instead, but they rejected him too. “He just wanted to go in and serve his country, and they totally destroyed his dream,” his mom said.
Policies that discriminate against alternatively educated students are nothing new. For instance, home-schooled students were denied access to federal financial aid and faced barriers to college admission until a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act ended that. But it still came as a shock to Cook and his family when they realized that in the eyes of the military, all high school diplomas are not seen as equal.
The Army and the National Guard limit the number of recruits they accept each year from non-traditional schools to 10 percent, the Navy and the Marine Corps won’t exceed 5 percent, and the Air Force limit is set at 1 percent.
According to Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, these limits were established for good reason: to manage attrition rates. Thirty-nine percent of recruits with alternative diplomas (including cyber and home-schooled students, and those with GEDs) leave the military before completing three years of service. The attrition rate is significantly lower (28 percent) for graduates from traditional high schools.
Jenny Bradmon, executive director of Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyberschools, told the Patriot-News that military families who chose online schools for their children were particularly angered by the limits set on recruitment. “A lot of our students come from military families,” she explained, “and it was a huge slap in the face to their families because it’s basically saying your parents are good enough [to serve] but their children are not.”
In December 2011, the military gave would-be recruits like Cook reason to celebrate. The 2012 defense budget bill included a stipulation stating that non-traditional diplomas should be treated just like those from traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. The bill awaits President Obama’s signature, which the administration said will likely be forthcoming.
TakePart contacted Constance Gillette at the Department of Defense Education Activity’s (DoDEA) Office of Communications for their take on the bill.
“As a rule, we don’t comment on pending legislation,” was the official DoDEA response.
Gillette shared with TakePart that while the DoDEA doesn’t keep statistics on the percentage of military children who are home-schooled or enrolled in online learning programs, the department recently opened its own fully accredited DoDEA Virtual High School (DVHS). As of January 2012, it enrolled 1,079 students in 1,121 courses.
“The program offers flexibility for students to meet their academic and career goals through enrollment in Advanced Placement and core curriculum courses in areas such as English language arts, fine arts, career technology education, mathematics, science and foreign language,” Gillette explained.
But despite greater cyber-learning opportunities for military students attending DoDEA schools, Gillette added that in the foreseeable future, “online learning will not replace the traditional brick and mortar learning environment.”
Still, for cyber graduates like Douglas Cook, dreams of a future in the military will no longer be dashed, thanks to the pending legislation.