Fewer answer call to military academies

ANNAPOLIS, WEST POINT, AND OTHER ELITE BASTIONS OF MILITARYTRAINING ENTER AN ERA OF TOUGHER COMPETITION FOR HIGH-SCHOOLERS'ATTENTION.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Navy wishes it had a few more Chris Larsons.

Smart enough to get into pretty much any school in America, Mr. Larson knows that in today's hot job market he'd be wooed with signing bonuses and big bucks if he had an Ivy League diploma in his back pocket.

Instead, the engineering major with a quick smile just graduated from the US Naval Academy, will spend at least five more years in uniform - and couldn't be happier with his choice.

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But in an era of general peace and private-sector prosperity, elite military academies like Annapolis and West Point are finding it increasingly difficult to attract the likes of Larson.

Applications are down sharply since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and officials are struggling to reverse a decade of decline.

"In the past, we didn't have to go out and tell the Naval Academy story," says David Vetter, the dean of admissions and a 1967 graduate. "Now we can't assume the 15,000 best and brightest are going to apply."

It's not just that dotcom riches have dimmed the lure of a free military education.

Fading military ties

Experts also cite diminishing family ties to the military, the end of the cold war, and the prospect that a military career will involve a succession of complex peacekeeping duties.

With military ranks shrinking, many feel strained by the rise of small-scale operations in places like Kosovo and the Middle East.

"It's OK to be gone four to five months at a time - then you want to come home. Today, there is always somewhere to be," says John Carney, a retired Air Force colonel.

Moreover, since many baby-boomer parents had no connection to the armed services, family ties to the military are thinning, and the first choice for high school grads is no longer an academy.

The upshot is dwindling applications for the Naval Academy's 1,000 slots. According to Mr. Vetter, nearly 16,000 people applied in 1988, versus fewer than 10,000 in recent years.

Adding insult to injury for those who once watched "The Men of Annapolis," a popular television program of Vetter's youth, many kids today don't even know the academy's location.

"They want to know if it's in the Great Lakes or out at sea somewhere," Vetter says.

From the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, similar challenges abound. Officials are turning to everything from the Internet to people like Larson to reel in those with the right stuff.

Participating in "Operation Information," which sends academy students back to their high schools to recruit, Larson speaks about his academy experience, and the skills he'll have at the end of a military career.

"I keep hearing the word 'market-able,' " smiles the Minnesota native, who mingles with high school students in his civilian clothes before taking the podium. For full effect, he suits up in his crisp white uniform before his speech.

For students who don't make it to events like this, the Naval Academy is also developing an interactive "virtual tour" on CD-ROM to win recruits.

Vetter also points to a new tracking system aimed at the very youngest students. From the first time youngsters or their parents inquire about academy enrollment, they are placed in the admissions computer system.

As students near senior year in high school, letters and invitations to visit Annapolis are automatically mailed to them.

Another program, the Summer Seminar, brings high school seniors to the academy for a week-long visit. For Midshipman Jason Chen, the week altered the course of his life.

As a high school student about to graduate from an elite prep school that typically sends a quarter of its graduates to Ivy League schools, Mr. Chen decided that week on Annapolis.

"I was in awe," he recalls of the maturity and confidence of the midshipmen he met.

"When they saluted the flag or an officer, I just saw them as being a part of something larger than themselves, and for the first time I started to understand what service was," Chen says.

Smaller mission?

But for many, the call to serve has less appeal than it did in an era of superpower rivalry.

"There's just a wide sense of security today," says Houston native Will Mathis, who graduated from the Naval Academy last week.

It wasn't always that way. In the run-up to Vietnam, Carney, now an executive at Eastman Kodak, spent an extra year in prep school to earn a slot at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

After graduating in 1967, he went on to fly special operations in Southeast Asia and later high-altitude reconnaissance missions. "I always thought an Air Force career was a worthwhile thing to do. I knew exactly what I was getting into," he says.

Sometimes the draw to an academy education still boils down to the challenge and romanticized sense of adventure a military career can offer.

For Jessica Dixon, Tom Cruise had as much to do with her decision to apply to the Naval Academy as anything else.

"A long time ago, I saw 'Top Gun,' and then became interested in oceanography," explains Ms. Dixon, who last week finished her first year at Annapolis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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