Under the pilot programme, as many as 6,000 high-school drop-outs will be allowed to join the army, which previously required a high-school degree as a prerequisite. To qualify, candidates must pass an aptitude test.
In addition to expanding the pool of potential recruits, the army hopes to increase the number of Hispanics in uniform. There are large numbers of Hispanics of military age but their high-school dropout rate is about 50 per cent, making many of them ineligible for service in the armed forces.
Recruiters have already begun special Spanish-language advertising in such cities as Los Angeles.
Hispanics have "the ork ethic, the drive and the discipline we're looking for", Army Secretary Louis Caldera told a Pentagon news conference.
The army already pays for the university education of recruits with high school diplomas. Under the new scheme, it will arrange for drop-outs to earn their general equivalency degree, which certifies that they have completed the equivalent of a high-school education.
The army previously required all but a handful of its recruits to complete high school because of research that showed that drop-outs were more likely to leave before completing their term of service. But now there's a need for 80,000 new troops per year.
"There are young people out there who deserve a second chance," said General Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War.