Applications to the service academies dropped significantly this past year -- ranging from 10% to nearly 30% -- as the military continues to grapple with recruitment woes amid a national dip in college enrollment across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This past year, 8,393 people applied to be a part of the Air Force Academy's class of 2026, a 28% drop from the year before. Officials point to strict COVID-19 rules across the country that didn't allow them to host or attend many in-person recruiting events to drum up interest.
"A lot of schools did not allow us access to a lot of gatherings and a lot of conferences. ... A lot of those things were canceled," Col. Arthur Wayne Primas Jr., the academy's director of admissions, told Military.com in an interview. "So we really had to shift for the class of 2026 onto a virtual platform."
And it's not just the Air Force Academy seeing the decline. The U.S. Naval Academy saw a 20% application drop for the recently reported Class of 2026, according to Elizabeth B. Wrightson, an academy spokeswoman.
"Due to our unique mission, the Naval Academy relies heavily on in-person outreach, whether hosting potential candidates at the Naval Academy or our many in-person outreach events across the nation," Wrightson said in an emailed statement. "This in-person outreach was significantly restricted during the height of the pandemic (we held our summer programs -- key to our recruiting -- virtually last year) and played a major role in the application reduction."
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point saw 12,589 applications for the class of 2026, about a 10% decrease from the prior year of 13,984 applicants. That application total is still, notably, higher than the number of applications for the recent 2022 and 2023 classes.
"The academy is not concerned about this nominal drop-off in applications since we had record high applications in the 2024 cycle," said Francis J. DeMaro Jr., a West Point spokesman. "The downturn in applications is more of a result of pandemic issues associated with higher education across the board and an increase in taking a 'gap year' amongst high school graduates."
Chaitra M. Hardison, a researcher for Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank that specializes in military research, told Military.com that the pandemic is an anomaly and has brought never-before-seen changes to everything from military enlistment to applications to the service academies.
But she said larger themes, such as overall interest in the military, should be considered too.
"I think that any dip in applications is something that they should take a look at," Hardison said.
The decline in service academy applications mirrors a trend seen in the civilian word, albeit at an elevated level. Undergraduate enrollment declined by more than 662,000 students -- 4.7% -- from spring 2021 at civilian colleges, according to a report by the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
To date, the undergraduate student body has dropped by nearly 1.4 million students, or 9.4%, during the two years of the pandemic.
Officials at the service academies said they're competing for the same students as other universities, and are feeling the same effects.
"As the Air Force Academy admissions office, we obviously have to stay in tune with the higher education enterprise and those trends ... because this is a four-year institution and we are all competing for the same talent," Primas said. "So, we believe, part of it is those that may feel like college is no longer part of their future career path."
Acceptance to a service academy, and graduating from it, is far different than getting a degree from any other institution. It's a debt-free education and also has a guaranteed job with substantial career advancement.
But the military lifestyle has become less appealing to younger generations, even with the benefits a service academy education offers. Additionally, fewer young adults would qualify.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee personnel panel, said during an April hearing -- citing Pentagon information -- that just 8% of young Americans have seriously considered joining the military.
Only about one-quarter of young Americans are even eligible for service these days, a shrinking pool limited by an increasing number of potential recruits who are overweight or are screened out due to minor criminal infractions, including the use of recreational drugs such as marijuana. Those eligibility standards apply to students at the service academies just as they do to those immediately shipping out to boot camp.
In response, the services have offered a wide range of financial incentives and choices about career progression to better appeal to a younger generation.
"I think a lot of times the military thinks about monetary benefits," Hardison said. "But there are other things that factor into people's decision, and that includes quality of life and job satisfaction and interests."
Some of the service academies believe there will be a small dip in applications for a short period of time, but that it will be temporary as COVID-19 worries begin to ease.
"We do anticipate based on census data that we will see (along with all institutions of higher education) a decrease in applicants in the next several years -- but do not see a decrease in the quality of those applicants," DeMaro told Military.com. "We do not translate this as a decreased interest in West Point or Service Academies as a whole, but more of a dynamic of the higher education landscape at this time."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.