Nominations for admission to military service academies by members of Congress disproportionately favor white students, which in turn may hurt future leadership opportunities in the ranks for minority groups, according to a new analysis out today from the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
From 1994 to 2019, roughly 74 percent of nominations from current members of Congress to the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Military Academy at West Point went to white students, even though they made up just 54 percent of the eligible student pool.
Only about 6 percent of nominations went to Black students, and only about 8 percent to Hispanic students.
“While every congressional district is represented at the service academies, the student body fails to reflect the demographic diversity of our nation,” researchers said.
“This new report illustrates that congressional nominations have also contributed to significant racial and ethnic disparities in the student bodies of the academies, and therefore, the leadership of the nation’s military.”
Acceptance rates for the military academies rival the exclusivity of Ivy League schools, in large part due to the application requirements. Along with good grades and high physical marks, students must get a nomination from an authorized source to get into the schools. Congress accounts for about three-fourths of all of those nominations.
But CVLC officials said that despite the importance of that backing, little public attention has been paid to who those lawmakers are nominating.
In 2019, the group released a report noting that men were receiving the nominations at three times the rate of women. The new report suggests the racial gaps may be just as pronounced.
Researchers said the problem is not restricted to one chamber or one political party. With only a few exceptions, nominations from both Republicans and Democrats did a poor job of reflecting local districts, consistently favoring white candidates.
The report tracks 81 senators, five House members and five congressional delegates who have made at least 10 nominations in the last 25 years. Of that group, 49 members failed to nominate a single Black student for the academies, and 31 have not nominated a single Hispanic one.
Researchers said that plays a role not just in the culture of the academies, but of the entire military.
“Officers of color are underrepresented relative both to the enlisted corps and to the U.S. population,” the report notes. “For example, roughly 18 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, as is 18 percent of the active-duty enlisted corps. But only 8 percent of the officer corps is Hispanic
“Black Americans are about 14 percent of the U.S. population and 17 percent of the active-duty enlisted corps, but only 8 percent of the officer corps. As a result, racially diverse enlisted service members often lack mentorship from higher-ranked role models with similar experiences and backgrounds.”
Recent nominations from other sources — including presidential recommendations and ROTC pipelines — have included more minorities than the congressional poll. For the class of 2024, minority students make up 30 percent of the Air Force Academy’s enrollment, 37 percent of West Point’s enrollment, and 40 percent of the Naval Academy’s enrollment.
Officials from West Point and the Naval Academy did not have an immediate response on the new report. Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, spokesman for the Air Force Academy, said that institution “remains fully committed to utilizing and reflecting one of our nation’s greatest strengths – its unique diversity.”
CVLC officials said to improve diversity in nominations, they want to see more annual reports on the racial breakdown of congressional nominations and supplementary nominations given to lawmakers “who equitably nominate students from underrepresented groups.”
They also said the Defense Department should invest more resources in recruiting academy candidates from minority groups, to better address the gaps in leadership representation.
Several Democratic lawmakers said they plan to look into the issue.
“The diversity of our nation is one of our greatest assets, but we have fallen far short of realizing our strength and our greatness,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. According to the report, minorities have made up 38 percent of his nominations to the academies since he was first elected to Congress in 2016.
“It’s a problem when Black and Hispanic students receive only 6 and 8 percent of sitting Congress members’ nominations. Those members are not reflective of our nation’s diversity, and will continue to exacerbate disparities in military leadership. Every member of Congress must prioritize improvement.”
The report did not look at whether minorities in Congress were more likely to nominate non-white candidates to the service academies. But Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn. — the first Black woman ever to represent her state in Congress — said she believes that plays a role.
“As a woman of color, I was more aware of the lack of diversity in the applicant pool, and was intentional about diversifying the selection process,” she said (Hayes, elected in 2018, did not have enough nominations to be included in the report data).
“I would not choose someone just based solely on the fact that they were a minority or a woman. I really had to seek out really strong applicants, but it’s just natural instinct as a person of color, you are more aware when you’re looking through these applicants and there is a stark lack of diversity here.”
The full report is available on the CVLC web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.