In a few weeks, a rite of passage will take place in towns across America: High school students will be receiving much-anticipated decisions on whether they’ve been accepted to their colleges of choice.
The admissions process has never been played on an entirely equal playing field, whether because of the vicissitudes of schooling, the realities of economics, or outright fraud.
The convictions in the Varsity Blues scandal have exposed even more details about elaborate schemes, wherein wealthy parents paid a shadowy middleman a six-figure fee to “backdoor” their children into their universities of choice.
As much as we shake our heads at such unethical practices and may feel these parents should be punished, these are ultimately isolated cases that have relatively little effect on society at large.
This, however, cannot be said about the admissions chicanery that has been going on for decades at the U.S. military academies. Their admissions fabrications have instilled in the minds of Americans an overconfidence in the military that has had dire consequences: a belief that America is more ready for war than it is and a reduction in military preparedness.
First, let me pre-empt: The men and women who attend the academies and go on to serve the country should be recognized for their service; the performance of many is extraordinary.
But, as a teacher at West Point for the past 20 years, I have seen a line from dishonesty in the military to deficiencies in officers’ preparation, to the failures in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In their 2015 study for the Army War College, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” retired Army colonels Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras write, “The end result is a profession whose members often hold and propagate a false sense of integrity that prevents the profession from addressing—or even acknowledging—the duplicity and deceit throughout the formation.”
A civilian English professor at the Naval Academy, Bruce Fleming, was first to describe that Academy’s false reporting of admissions statistics after serving on its admissions board. “Our military academies aren’t filled with the best and the brightest,” Fleming wrote in 2015. “They are a boondoggle, on your dime, and serve no one.”
The military academies today are simply not the selective institutions they pretend to be. They claim falsely some of the lowest college acceptance rates in the nation, from 9 to 11 percent in 2018, when the real acceptance rate is apparently over 50 percent each year.
The Naval Academy once claimed 20,000 applicants in one year, when the actual number was under 5,000. The Academy inflated its acceptance rate by counting “all 7,500 applicants to a week-long summer program for 11th graders . . . as well as anybody who fills out enough information to create a candidate number,” Fleming found.
This sleight of hand is achieved through a system that the academies have long used, despite no other colleges employing it. They count as an applicant anyone on whom they’ve created a “candidate number” (Navy) or “started a file” (West Point)—a pool of tens of thousands of high school students.
Any teenager who has requested a packet of information, completed a form expressing interest, or attended a summer camp at one of the three academies can be counted as an applicant, creating a wildly inaccurate percentage of students who are ultimately accepted.
All colleges, including the academies, are required to use the definition of an applicant provided by the Department of Education to report their admissions statistics: an applicant is “an individual who has fulfilled the institution’s requirements to be considered for admission . . . and who has been notified of one of the following actions: admission, nonadmission, placement on waiting list, or application withdrawn by applicant or institution.”
In 2015, I was on a small committee of instructors charged with looking into the admissions process at West Point. When I brought the false statistics to the attention of the military administration, specifically the ludicrous “files started” metric, I was equal parts mocked and ignored. Since the publication of my book, The Cost of Loyalty, some commentators have expressed disbelief about the admissions misdeeds.
They have pointed out that most students (about 75 percent) at the academies are nominated by members of Congress. While this is true, it is also irrelevant and misleading. A congressional nominee is not an applicant; he or she is a high school student whose name, possibly as a political favor, is forwarded to an academy.
Even if nominees could be “legally” counted as applicants—and they cannot—the academies’ fabrications can be observed simply by counting the 535 voting members of Congress, each of whom, under law, may nominate up to ten high schoolers each year to each academy. But, for 2018, the academies reported to the Department of Education more than 38,700 applicants, which is 22,600 more than the maximum possible number of congressional nominees.
Most significantly, a “file started” is unrelated to someone who becomes an applicant. West Point’s director of admissions conceded this to me and the other members of the committee when the director told us that “the acceptance rate should not be tied to files opened since that really is a meaningless number—the number fully qualified is a better metric” (emphasis mine). (Some students are disqualified because of a medical or physical condition.)
According West Point’s own statistics, the actual acceptance rate ranged from 56 to 70 percent for “nominated and fully qualified” students—who number from about 2,200 to 2,400 each year—for six classes graduating from 2008 to 2018. During that period, West Point claimed publicly acceptance rates ranging from 9 to 16 percent.
The misrepresentation alone is alarming, but at the same time the academies have lowered their standards. In a 2017 study for the Army War College, three social scientists at West Point, including two former officers, found that “the rigor of intellectual screening mechanisms to control entry into the officer corps is low—and continues to decline.”
They went on to note that the Army’s entry “standards have never been lower, at least in peacetime,” since after World War II. The nadir at West Point was 2006, they found, “when about 25 percent of its [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test takers fell below the minimum OCS [officer candidate school] mark.”
West Point accepted students “who scored in the Category IV range on the test, the lowest allowable qualifying score.” At a time when “cognitive ability emerged as the strongest predictor of academic and military grades….”according to a 2019 study, for which West Point supplied the data, the all-military administration decided to reduce the value of “mental ability or achievement (SAT scores and high school GPA) . . . [which] dropped from 60 to 55 percent while the weight attached to physical measures rose from 10 to 15 percent,” according to the scientists.
All three academies operate government-funded prep schools offering a year of remediation for low-performing high school students. With the worthy goal of increasing diversity, and the less worthy goal of recruiting athletes, the prep schools supply 25 to 30 percent of all academy students and a majority of the players on many athletic teams.
Retired brigadier general Lance Betros, who headed West Point’s history department, found that “candidates who enter West Point [via the prep school] displace an equal number of candidates who, on average, have far greater potential.”
Betros showed that the SAT scores of athletes on some teams are more than 120 points below the average SAT score of regularly-admitted cadets, where a difference of 60 points indicates a true difference in ability.
Recognizing the academies’ fabrications does not come close to rectifying the shadiness of the admissions system they employ. A 2014 investigation by USA Today found that U.S. “representatives and senators . . . accepted more than $171,000 in campaign contributions from the families of students they’ve nominated to military service academies over the past two years.” Military officers will sometimes have two or three children attending or having graduated from an academy.
The fabrications are not just PR or marketing; they are serious business. By covering up their deficiencies, the academies are also hiding the quality of the future officers who will be charged with prosecuting wars, administering a military budget currently around $740 billion, and protecting 320 million U.S. citizens.
It’s not difficult to draw a line from the deceit and low standards to the decline in the competence of the generals and admirals who were admitted to and graduated from the military academies. This is certainly highly connected to the fact our country hasn’t won a major war in 75 years. And the decline is poised to continue until something is done about it.
Tim Bakken is a professor of law at West Point, and his new book is The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military. The views here are his and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.