Applications decline 20% at academy

Rising casualty count in Iraq likely a factor

11,140 students seek 1,200 slots

First drop in four years at the military college

February 08, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy said yesterday that applications for the Class of 2009 fell 20 percent from the year before, a drop mirrored at the nation's other military colleges that some experts attribute to increasing combat casualties.

As of its Jan. 31 application deadline, the Annapolis academy had received 11,140 applications, down from 13,922 at the same time last year. The slump is the first in four years for the academy, which saw a surge in applications after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Academy officials declined to speculate on why fewer students applied for admission, but said the number of applicants still exceeds the approximately 1,200 slots available and remains above the 2001 level.

But some experts say that like the National Guard and Army Reserve -- both of which have suffered low recruitment numbers as the death toll increases in Iraq and deployments are extended -- military service academies are suffering because of the conflict.

"My sense is that for those who were thinking about the service academies as a way to get a college education rather than a first step toward a military career, the war in Iraq has acted as a deterrent," said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Segal added that the deaths of academy graduates might also be affecting potential students -- who must obtain a recommendation from an official such as a congressman or senator and pass a physical exam to apply. In the past year, at least five Naval Academy graduates have been killed in the war in Iraq -- the first combat deaths the school has seen since 1983.

"That makes it very real to the midshipmen who are there now, and they are a very important part of the recruiting process," Segal said.

Leonardtown High School graduate Jason Beaudwin, 17, who received a nomination to the Naval Academy from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, said news of bloodshed in Iraq causes him to think about his future beyond the Annapolis campus.

"Like anyone, it makes me a little nervous," said Beaudwin. "But I think it's worth it to have the chance to serve my country."

David A. Vetter, the academy's dean of admissions, said, "It is really difficult to say why applications trend up or down, but we do know that the quality of our applicants is very good."

Despite the downward trend, Vetter said applications remain significantly higher than they were in the years before Sept. 11, 2001.

"We are not concerned," said Vetter, noting that the Class of 2008 attracted more than 14,425 applicants, the highest number in 12 years. "We're just trending back to where we were before the attacks."

The Naval Academy is not the only military college to see its numbers fall. At the Air Force Academy -- where applications totaled 12,430 in 2004 -- the number of applications received as of Thursday was 9,401.

West Point, which has sent the largest number of graduates into combat in Iraq, has also seen applications fall for the Class of 2009. As of Thursday, the school had received 10,500 applications, compared with 11,700 at the same time last year.

Maj. Dale Smith, West Point's admissions officer, said administrators expected the school's post-Sept. 11 boom to taper off as memories of the attacks grow more distant.

Asked if the violence in Iraq has deterred applicants, Smith said, "Sure, it's caused some people to rethink going to West Point, but that's not a bad thing.

"We look people in the eye and tell them they will be like the soldiers they see on television in Iraq, and they have to be OK with that before they show up here," he added.

Historically, applications to military service academies have ebbed and flowed during times of war and peace -- making it difficult to predict the long-term effect of the conflict in Iraq.

Although the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in a surge of applications to the academies, the bloodiest years of Vietnam saw a sharp drop in applications to the Naval Academy and West Point.

In the late 1980s -- after the fall of the Soviet Union -- interest in the academies dimmed but rose in the early 1990s during the first Persian Gulf War.

Sun staff writer Sarah Schaffer contributed to this article.

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