‘Prep course’ for low-performing recruits may expand: Army secretary

The Army is set to expand its pre-basic training course for applicants who don’t initially meet the service’s body fat or academic standards, and possibly add an at-home virtual academic option for future trainees, its top civilian official said Friday.

“I think we’re going to expand that program to other locations,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in an interview at the Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “We have more young Americans who want to do it than we can accommodate right now at Fort Jackson.”

The service began the Future Soldier Preparatory Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in August in an effort to bolster recruiting numbers amid one of its greatest volunteer shortfalls since the draft ended in 1973. The service missed its fiscal 2022 recruiting goal of 60,000 troops by 25%, only securing 45,000 new enlistments.

An Army Times reporter embedded at the course for two days, observing its efforts to help applicants who aren’t yet qualified to join the Army due to excess body fat or low test scores.

‘Prep course’ pilot breaks basic training norms — and just might work

At the South Carolina post, prospective soldiers are there receiving pay and benefits on 09M delayed entry contracts. They have up to 90 days to complete their designated training track — either academics- or fitness-focused — and reach Army entry standards. Those who succeed renegotiate their contracts and move on to basic training. Those who fail go home.

According to Wormuth, both the academic track and fitness track have seen “really good success” since the course began.

“We are seeing about 93% of kids [who come] into the academic part of the program raising their scores and being able to go on to basic training,” she said. “About 83 to 85% of the kids doing the physical fitness [track] are getting their body fat within...our standards to be able to go on to basic training.”

Officials have previously signaled that they intended to increase the course’s output, but Wormuth’s comments are the Army’s firmest commitment yet to expanding the experiment.

Army Center for Initial Military Training spokesperson Lt. Col. Randy Ready told Army Times that “no [formal] decision has been made yet on expanding the Future Soldier Preparatory Course.”

The command is, “still assessing the initial results of the pilot and the need to expand the program to meet the increased demand,” said Ready. He added that the decision to expand, “will take into account the resources needed to ensure” participants are set up for success.

An Army official speaking on background in order to discuss pre-decisional plans indicated that a version of the academic track is likely to start at Fort Benning, Georgia, and officials at Fort Jackson will increase capacity for its academic track.

Wormuth also posed a different expansion model in her remarks: taking the prep course’s academic track online.

“There may be parents who don’t want to send their kids all the way to Fort Jackson [for the prep course],” she said. “Recruiters have been saying, ‘Hey...on the academic side, maybe there’s a way to do the tutoring in a virtual way.’”

The secretary suggested that the proposition “is something we have to look into,” though she noted more study was needed on the idea’s feasibility.

The stakes are high as the service strives for 65,000 regular Army recruits in fiscal 2023.

“If we could find a way to do that kind of tutoring without having to bring the people physically to one of our installations, that might helps us open the aperture [to more recruits],” Wormuth said.