Like any other school, graduation is the highlight of the year at the service academies. That isn’t the case for everybody, though. The end of the school year also means that some midshipmen and cadets with low grades will have their fate determined by the Superintendent and senior faculty at an academic board. Not everyone makes it through.
Unfortunately for Army, that appears to be the case for star cornerback Josh Jenkins:
Jenkins’ comeback would have been a good story after he missed last season with what was thought to be a career-threatening injury that he suffered in an off-field incident. Seeing him on the field with a new team will still be a reason to celebrate, but it won’t feel quite the same as if it had happened in an Army uniform.
Jenkins isn’t the only Army player leaving West Point; fullback Drue Harris has reportedly decided to leave the school on his own. While those two are some of the more recognizable players to have left USMA recently, they are hardly alone. Retention, both at the academy and at the prep school, has been a problem at Army since the Ellerson days, and Jeff Monken is seeking out solutions for the problem.
While reading about Army’s retention troubles, I thought about this article that ran in the New York Times a few years ago. More specifically, I recalled this quote from Army AD Boo Corrigan:
He also said Army could be slightly more relaxed on its admissions policy when it came to superior athletes. “We’re looking for a level of trust that our people out there recruiting can recognize that a young man has the character and leadership qualities to come and succeed at West Point,” he said. “We want to be able to take an educated risk on someone that we’ve identified holistically. We’re not talking about five deviations from the average cadet.”
It would be unfair to assume that Jenkins was one of those “educated risks,” since none of us know anything about his situation. Details of any one player’s situation are (rightfully) private, but the fact that the problem is widespread enough that Jeff Monken is compelled to search for answers suggests a systemic issue. The school’s decision to tinker with admissions is more than likely a leading cause.
In a vacuum, I wouldn’t have much of an issue with what Corrigan said. Admissions are one of the most misunderstood (and arguably overrated) elements of the service academy experience, and we’ll get to that in a minute. What bothered me at the time was that Corrigan’s quote seemed to reinforce an article of faith among some Army fans– that their on-field struggles in relation to Navy were in large part because the latter had compromised admissions standards. It isn’t true for many reasons, not the least of which being that changing admissions standards doesn’t work.
It seems like the opposite would be true, doesn’t it? The recruiting pool for service academies is limited, after all, so making the pool larger should theoretically enable them to bring in more talented players. And it does. The problem is that getting guys in the door is only the first step. Changing admissions won’t have the intended effect unless you change the school’s curriculum to match, and that isn’t going to happen.
There is a subculture within the service academy sphere that is a little too concerned with things like US News and Forbes rankings. Obviously, being well-regarded by these publications isn’t a bad thing, but it also isn’t a relevant data point for measuring how well the academies fulfill their mission. The service academies have one job, which is to produce the core of our nation’s career military officers. How well they do that job isn’t something that can be judged through comparisons with other schools. Those who place an undue emphasis on those comparisons tend to focus on things like GPAs and SAT scores when talking about admissions standards, and while those things are important, there is far more to admissions than simply letting in those who have the best grades and standardized test scores.
Service academies differ from other colleges in that the degrees awarded to their graduates are not the goal; the commission is. A robust academic regimen is essential in the development of military officers, but it’s only one component of a broad curriculum that includes character development, athletics and physical fitness, and professional training. It is a proven formula, and while some of the finer points have evolved along with the military in general, the basics have remained unchanged. The goal of service academy admissions, then, is not to find the person with the highest grades, but the person who has a high average across each of those areas. It’s what the Naval Academy calls a “whole person” assessment. A candidate that isn’t quite as strong academically but excels in other factors can still make for a fine officer and be a worthy candidate. As Pete Dawkins said in the Times piece:
“You can tell if a young person has the core qualities to be very able Army officers,” Dawkins said. “It’s entirely fair to accept some risks and then tutor them and make them successful. I think it’s something we can do without compromising the standards and culture of the place.”
He’s right. It doesn’t take a 4.0 student to make a good officer, but you do have to handle the academic load well enough to make it through to graduation. Whether a candidate has that ability is the judgment call made by the admissions board.
That brings us back to Army’s retention issues. While a few educated risks are defensible, they are still risks. Increasing risk also carries with it the increased possibility of failure. There’s a taxpayer element to all of this that should probably be acknowledged here… How many of these risks are appropriate before you start to question the cost of all those who don’t make it? Whatever that threshold is, I don’t know if we can honestly say that Army’s crossed it. However, from a football program’s perspective, maybe they have.
Army isn’t the only service academy to take chances on recruits. They all do. The difference is in how many. At the Naval Academy, for example, coaches are limited to a certain number of “blue chips” within each class. While there are also non-sports-related reasons for this, some of it is for each program’s own good. Every coach would like the chance to get more athletes through the door, but like I said earlier, that’s just the first step. No matter how much admissions might change, the curriculum does not. To reduce the risk of these athletes not making it through to graduation, you’d either have to change the curriculum or engage in UNC-levels of academic fraud. Since neither is going to happen, it doesn’t make sense to admit so many of these players that you depend on them to make up the bulk of your roster. It’s one thing to hope to augment your team with a couple of blue chips, but it’s another to depend on them.
It’s entirely possible that there are other reasons for Army’s retention struggles. Service academies, being what they are, will always have a few people decide that the military isn’t for them. Command climate, both at the academies and their prep schools, can also have an effect on retention. However, I can’t imagine that Army’s stated admissions changes and today’s retention problems are mere coincidence. If it was up to me to solve the issue, that’s where I’d start.