Alarmed by a drop in applications for admission, officials at the U.S. Naval Academy are asking President Clinton to review the suspected reason, a one-year increase in the time graduates must spend as military officers.
The academy's advisory Board of Visitors says the increase from five years to six years in active duty service time, which starts with the 1996 graduating class, has been eroding interest in the academy.
"The Board has serious concern about the six-year active duty service obligation," the 15-member board said in a draft of its annual report to the president, expected to be sent this week. "These changes, enacted by Congress . . . are beginning to have an adverse impact on the mission of the Naval Academy."
Applications dropped 12.8 percent in the past year, from 9,867 in the first week of December 1993 to 8,601 in the first week of December 1994.
For the past three years, an average of 23 percent annually of prospective midshipmen have declined an academy admission offer, citing the six-year service obligation, academy officials said.
The troubling trend, said the board, "warrants a review of the active duty service obligation."
"To the 17-year-old mind, six years is not just an eternity but their whole conscious life," said Chase Untermeyer, incoming board chairman. "Five years is the way to go."
Mr. Untermeyer, a former special assistant to President George Bush, said academy officials fear the shrinking pool of young people will mean the academy won't get the "best pick of prospective applicants."
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs have noticed an 11 percent decline in applications since the six-year service obligation went into effect. While Army admissions officials say they doubt the longer obligation has been a factor, their Air Force counterparts agree with the Naval Academy.
"I do think the increased commitment from five to six years has been one of the primary factors," said Col. Robert Y. Foerster, director of admissions at the Air Force Academy.
Sen. John Glenn, a member of the Armed Services Committee, pressed for the six-year obligation in the fiscal 1992 defense bill, hoping to achieve a bigger bang for the taxpayers' buck. A service academy education costs about $250,000.
The Ohio Democrat could not be reached, and his office had no comment on the report by the Naval Academy board.
The board, made up of presidential and congressional appointees, has tracked the drop in academy interest since the Glenn measure was approved.
During the past three years, applications dropped by 8 percent between the classes of 1996 and 1998. Academy officials also saw a 10 percent decline over the same period in congressional nominations.
"It's been brewing," said John W. Renard, the academy's dean of admissions, who expects the declines to continue. "The trend says we're going to be down."
Applicants are telling admissions counselors that a six-year commitment after four years at the academy is too much. "These kids don't think past a burger Saturday night," the dean said. "And they're saying, 'That's 10 years of my life.' "
Mr. Renard said the service obligation should be lowered two years. "My personal preference would be a four-year obligation," he said, citing the same commitment for ROTC graduates. "You come here for four years, you have a four-year obligation."
But Richard L. Armitage, a former State Department official who recently stepped down from the board, said he was against lowering the service requirement. That move, he said, would raise the possibility of budget cuts at the academy. Still, the drop in applications did not start with the Glenn amendment, academy officials concede. Admiral Charles R. Larson, the academy's superintendent, has told board members that applications are half what they were when he headed the school in the mid-1980s.
Mr. Untermeyer and Mr. Renard acknowledge that reducing the size of the military is another reason for declining interest in the Naval Academy, a view echoed by officials at the other two service schools.
"Kids may want to have a stable employer," said Maj. Jay Ebbeson, a spokesman at West Point. Colonel Foerster agreed that reducing the size of the military is another key reason for fewer applications at the Air Force Academy.