Naval Academy professor: A veneer of selectivity


U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen signal their classmates in semaphore at the 112th Army-Navy football game. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

In a recent article, I wrote of allegations that the U.S. Naval Academy artificially inflates its application totals by counting large numbers of applications that are incomplete.

The Naval Academy reported an admission rate of 7.5 percent last year, one of the lowest in all of higher education. But academy officials now acknowledge that roughly two-thirds of the 19,146 applications were incomplete and never seriously considered for admission.

Overcounting applications can give an institution an unfair advantage in its admission rate, a key measure of selectivity. I found, in a survey of local institutions, that several other colleges around Washington count small numbers of incomplete applications in their official totals, but not the large numbers reported by the Naval Academy.

Academy officials said the institution has an admission process that is fundamentally different - - and far more extensive - - than those at traditional universities. The process comprises 11 distinct steps, whereas the bulk of a traditional college application can be completed in one sitting.

Here is a guest post by Bruce Fleming, the Naval Academy professor whose Freedom of Information request prompted the disclosure. Fleming is an outspoken critic of the service academy.

The U.S. Naval Academy’s response to my recent FOIA request seeking clarification regarding what we count as an applicant produced the sensational information that we overstate our selectivity by what is probably a factor of about 4-to-1. It’s still unclear what our true selectivity is, because though only about 5,700 applications (out of more than 19,000 claimed) go to the Admissions Board, I know from my own time on the Board that not all of these are complete either. More relevant may be the fact that about 1,900 applicants are deemed “fully qualified,” and about 1,500 are accepted. It’s not hard to be “fully qualified.” All it requires is SAT scores above 600, a B average from an undemanding high school, and some pushups. So our true acceptance rate may be over 50 percent.

This is a shocking revelation about an institution that claims it’s “held to a higher standard,” and from the military that exists to defend taxpayers. As Dan de Vise points out, selectivity is the coin of prestige among colleges. Though selectivity counts for only 1.5 percent of the much-cited US News rankings, public perception of exclusivity is a huge part of the 22.5 percent of the US News score devoted to “peer assessment.” Although some of the less stellar schools de Vise questioned admitted to counting a few incomplete applications, the Naval Academy apparently claims about 70 percent of its reported total are incomplete. That we do this is no longer under debate.

Here’s a question, by me, with a one-word answer—taken from the FOIA letter from the Academy to me: “Are High School juniors and above who initiate an application online counted as part of this number whether or not they subsequently complete an application?” Response: “Yes.”

This revelation is indicative of many things, none of them good. First we should consider the appalling fact that it required a Freedom of Information request—which a government entity like the Academy cannot legally refuse to comply with—to wrest from this taxpayer-supported institution data that it should be eager to share with its paymasters, the civilians. This, unfortunately, is consistently the way the academies operate. It took a similar FOIA request from a reporter at the Annapolis Capital to elicit the fact that the Naval Academy’s (taxpayer-supported) Prep School in Newport is composed of about half non-white minorities and half recruited athletes, who are generally admitted with lower grades and SAT scores than other midshipmen, and who make up about 20 percent of the following year’s USNA class. Another FOIA request by the same paper produced the revelation that Naval Academy disciplinary measures were slanted towards women and against men.

This unwillingness to share information with the civilian world contributes to a culture of suspicion and impunity with respect to civilians who pay their bills. Consider that the most recent Superintendent was removed a year early for having presided over an administration that worked with off-the-books “slush funds” for recruited athletes and racial minorities that the Navy Inspector General blasted. But the Board of Visitors wasn’t even told until months later, when the report was about to be made public. The Superintendent before that was yanked after a single year—he’d grabbed the wrist of a Marine gate guard who asked for his ID (as the guard was supposed to do). But it took having this incident in the Annapolis paper to produce this result.

The Academy wants respect bordering on reverence from the civilian world, yet it wants to be able to forgo following the same rules as everybody else: it wants to be able to win a two-mile race by running a mile. The FOIA response made clear that the Naval Academy does not follow, nor should it be expected to follow, the criteria of the Common Data Set (though this is also used to provide such information to the U.S. Department of Education as well as private outlets such as the hyper-important US News rankings).

To quote the letter: “There is no mandate to apply the definition of the common data set to the U.S. Naval Academy’s admissions process. Of note, the requirements for admission to the Service Academies are different than other colleges and universities.” And this was echoed by the Academy spokesman quoted in Dan de Vise’s article of 28 December: the Naval Academy is different. Yet, they supply this completely cockeyed data to best other schools that are playing by the rules.

Similarly, the academies claim incessantly that their students are the “best and the brightest.” They also claim to teach “leadership” and to produce “leaders.” (Check out their Web sites.)

On what are these claims based? Apparently the gullibility of the taxpayers. “Best” is apparently defined by being at the service academies, and that is a circular definition. “Brightest” is never justified—nor can it be. More than a quarter of our students have SAT scores in the 400s and 500s. Yes, our top quarter is comparable to the top half of Ivies. So we have some bright kids, but they’re the exception. Oh, we hear: But they’re leaders! This, too, is circular: the only “leadership” we consider in admission is things like student council offices—which also help get you into the University of Maryland (whose SAT scores, a visiting lecturer pointed out recently, are now higher than USNA’s). And for our target groups of recruited athletes and racial minorities, even this leadership score becomes irrelevant: students below our minima simply enter by the taxpayer-supported back door of NAPS.

What’s striking nowadays is the unrelenting barrage of self-serving hype coming from the academies, little of it apparently justified by facts. The academies are like any government program, intent on their own survival. This they do by claiming over and over to be better than they are compared to the alternatives—much to the disgust of most of their students, who are not allowed to talk to the public on this subject. (Increasingly USNA reminds me of East Berlin, which I got to know as a Fulbright Scholar in West Berlin: only good news, lie with statistics, control information, and make the citizens cheer on the streets—for us it’s the mandatory football games.)

In 1950 the academies were the primary officer production source; this is no longer true. Now, after radical expansion of ROTC in the 1960s and 70s, more than twice as many young officers come from ROTC programs housed in civilian colleges and universities as come from the academies. And as many Officer Candidate School officers are produced each year as Academy graduates. These ROTC officers cost taxpayers on average one quarter of what the academies’ products cost—and are apparently just as good. We’d better hope they are, because there are twice as many of them as academy graduates. (An academy graduate costs taxpayers close to a half a million dollars.) The academies don’t actually produce better “leaders” than an ROTC program, or for that matter than the civilian universities. Certainly they’re prestige objects for the military—and I’m sure the Superintendent and the other brass who live on our gorgeous campus like their taxpayer-supported mansions with the white-coated servants and the groundsmen. Who wouldn’t? This, I believe, is why the academies have begun to engage in a desperate end-game to artificially burnish their image and ensure their own survival. The wild over-inflation of selectivity is part of this campaign.

The shrill insistence by the military on its own virtue is, finally, indicative of a serious problem in the military’s relationship with the civilian world. Consider the Army’s dogged initial insistence that Pat Tillman was not, in fact, killed by “friendly fire;” the fabrication of the story of Jessica Lynch; and the recent embellishment by the Marine Corps of their medal winner’s story. This is lying to the people the military is meant to protect, and who pay for it. It is absolutely, completely, unacceptable. Yet it now has become common.

I have suggested in my book “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” that this too-glowing misrepresentation by the military of itself is part of this largest problem of all, the fact that the minority professional military in these all-volunteer times lacks a coherent sense of its purpose with respect to the civilian world. It’s not so clear that what they do is defense (how was Iraq defense? Afghanistan?). Still, it costs lives, and limbs, and psyches, and civilians go about their business of shopping—as President Bush suggested we do. Apparently the military disdains and resents the civilians it exists to defend—and feels free to lie to these civilians. The Naval Academy’s wild exaggeration of its selectivity is the tip of an iceberg.

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