A year after falling about 6,500 people short of its recruiting goal, the Army expects to meet its target for 2019, senior Army officials said Tuesday, citing programs that help with student debt as one factor.

The Army enlisted more than 68,000 new active-duty soldiers, exceeding its goal for the year. The service attributed the improvement to an overhauled recruiting effort that included more recruiters, a shift to primarily online advertising and an emphasis on 22 cities that were outside of the Army’s traditional strongholds in southern and southeastern states.

“We made some pretty dramatic changes in this process,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon. The service, he said, “had to do some soul-searching” after falling so far short in 2018.

The boost in recruiting comes as the Army prepares to grow gradually in coming years, said Gen. James McConville, the service’s top general. The service intended to have about 478,000 soldiers at the end of fiscal year that closes in September and will instead have between 481,000 and 483,000.

The recruiting bump also comes despite nationwide unemployment of about 3.7 percent. The service traditionally is able to recruit more people when the economy is weaker.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the commanding officer of Army Recruiting Command, cited rising college debt as a part of the equation. The average student has $31,000 in loans, he said, a figure that several studies show to be about accurate.

McCarthy said the Army presents not only a way to pay tuition but positions in “one of the most extraordinary organizations on Earth.”

“That entire package together is a great opportunity,” he said.

McCarthy said he would turn to an economist to assess whether anything will be done to bring down student debt in the next few years but predicted “it’s probably going to be a very hard trend to change.”

“The cost of education in America continues to rise,” he said.

But a change in strategy also paid dividends.

Muth and McCarthy said the service saw large improvements in recruiting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, among the 22 cities it emphasized. Overall, the cities averaged a 15 percent increase in enlistment, though some, such as Seattle, fell short.

The efforts in those cities included visits by senior Army leaders, who met with local officials and school administrators and sought to build better relationships.

“More so than anything, we have to do the right thing and go in there and introduce ourselves,” McCarthy said. “They’ve got a tight window every day where they’ve got the kids in the classroom, and they’ve got to get them through the curriculum. A lot of times, it’s just, ‘What is the right venue for us to insert ourselves and come introduce the high school students to the Army?'”

The Army has reoriented to focus heavily on generating recruiting leads from e-sports, online competitions centered on video games. It also established 44 “virtual recruiting stations” in which recruiters reach out to potential soldiers through text messages and social media. The Army gained about 3,000 enlistments from the effort.

Muth left open the possibility that the Army could emphasize specific cities in the future and said he would make recommendations to more senior Army officials within weeks.

“It just gives freedom of action and also quickly adjust, potentially,” he said. “Now, that is in a very early discussion phase. We’re not there yet. But, what we owe is where did we do really well, where do we need help in and where do we want to adjust?”

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