13 April 2016

The Case Against the Military Academies

Stephen Kershar
Eliminate the Military Academies
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 30, 2016

            The U.S. Military Academies are important to American military leadership. It produces 20% of military officers and in the past has produced many, if not most, of the most important commanders. Generals Ulysses Grant, John Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton, and Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, among others, led America’s most important wars. Given the role of the academies, it seems to be important that they produce the best products they can and part of their doing so involves admitting the best. This becomes even more important if the army has less accountability in the field than in years past, so failure to put the best people into military leadership gets magnified in terms of subpar combat leadership.

It is unclear whether the academies are worth preserving or whether the American people are benefitted by having the best and brightest go there.

            The academies are inefficient in the sense that they are a comparatively expensive way of generating officers. Writing in USA Today, Gregory Korte and Frederka Shouten note that an Air Force Academy graduate costs $487,000. Scott Beauchamp writing in The Washington Post points out that this is four times as much as a ROTC program. The same is true for the other academies. Worse, many of the students come from pricey high schools associated with the academies. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming points out that 20% of the students who attend Naval Academy come from the Naval Academy high school that costs roughly $50,000 per year.

Despite being so expensive, academy graduates are not better. A 2003 study did not find there was a difference in promotion rate between USNA and ROTC officers. The same study found no evidence that that officers who attended civilian colleges or any one of the other military colleges (consider, for example, the Citadel) are lesser leaders than their service-academy peers. Even if they were better officers, the military has a difficult time hanging on to them. About half of academy graduates leave the military after their obligation of 5-7 years as a junior officer.

Academy graduates do not appear to be ethically superior to graduates of ROTC programs and Officer Candidate School. About a third of the commanding officers removed in 2012 malfeasance – record numbers for Navy – were academy graduates. Academy students have been found to have involved in various scandals (consider sexual assault and cheating). Remember that as a baseline, only 20% of officers in the military are graduates of the academies.

While the admissions process is opaque, there is a concern for nepotism and corruption. In 2012, 58% of students came from a congressional or vice presidential nomination. The nominations are largely made in secret, done via an inconsistent and opaque process, and perhaps corrupt. Pretty much what one would expect of our sleazy congressmen.

More specifically, the nomination process results in unequal competitiveness (consider districts that differ in the number and quality of applicants) and the process is opaque (nominations are made largely in secret), inconsistent (there are no universal standards or ethical guidelines governing nominations, each congressional office has its own process and criteria for awarding them), and perhaps corrupt (some nominations go to children of well-connected families, friends, and campaign contributors).  There are also allegations of nepotism.

Currently, people may be appointed without a nomination if they are children of armed forces members killed or missing in action, who have died or have a 100% service-connected-disability, and children of employees who are in missing status. Also, the president may appoint children of career military personnel and winners of the Medal of Honor. This does not intuitively seem just, fair, or, even, an efficient way to improve military performance, especially compared to other compensatory means (consider, for example, money).

            By analogy, consider how the University of Iowa chooses its elite wrestlers. Iowa would never choose wrestlers based on their pedigree. If it did, the team would do extremely poorly because it moved away from merit-based assignment of positions. It is unclear why avoiding subpar wrestlers is more important than avoiding subpar officers.

In any case, on average, the best and brightest do not attend the academies. The vaunted intellectual reputation of academy graduates as equal to that of the Ivy League and its peers is inaccurate. Academy SAT scores are not elite. In one 2014 Forbes ranking, Air Force Academy was ranked 77th (1305) and ranked next to Occidental and Villanova Colleges. West Point was ranked 98th (1283) and ranked next to New College at Florida and UC-San Diego. Naval Academy was ranked 99th (1280) and ranked next to UC-San Diego and UW Madison.

According to Naval Academy’s Fleming, more than a quarter of the Naval Academy class has SAT scores below 600 and the average is lower than the nearby state school University of Maryland. These are respectable scores and the peer schools are strong ones, but still not close to the scores that characterize the Ivies and their elite peers (for example, MIT, Duke, and Stanford).

            It is thus unclear whether the academies are worth preserving and whether it is better to have the best and brightest attend them rather go elsewhere. Without market discipline, there is no clear way of knowing whether we want better, worse, or equivalent people attending the academy than do so today. This lack of knowledge undermines the case for trying to get better students attend the academy. It is not clear, then, if it would be in the country’s interest were the academy to be packed with Ivy-League-caliber students rather than the impressive, but not elite, students it currently has.


On a side note, this is true regardless of what one thinks makes one student better than a second at the academy. For example, it is independent of whether one student is better than a second in virtue of the first having more academic ability, leadership, moral character, or so on. 

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