The Tricky Pursuit of Diversity at the U.S. Air Force Academy
The school faces the complicated task of increasing the number of minority students while preserving order and tradition.
By Emily DeRuy
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson stood at the window of her office and surveyed one of the most orderly college campuses in America. Despite the mild spring weather, there were no students lounging on the grass or blasting music outside the dorms at the U.S. Air Force Academy just north of this mountain town. In fact, it was quiet, save for the low whir of tow planes pulling gliders across the blue April sky.
“We’re like an aluminum fortress,” she said, gesturing toward the pointed spires of the academy’s iconic chapel and the low-slung buildings that anchor this 19,000-acre school. “We’ve got to be open and secure.”
Johnson, who became the first woman to serve as superintendent of the academy in 2013, was speaking literally. (The Air Force has conducted airstrikes against ISIS and the campus has treasure island brindley beach a target of the group.) But she might as well have been referring to her strategy for running the operation responsible for educating the next generation of Air Force officers who will be tasked with defending the United States against foreign threats.
Although she’s only been at the helm for three years, they are years that span a tumultuous time for both higher education and the military broadly. Educators and military officials are grappling with shifting demographics, where the people in leadership roles look less and less like the people they are charged with serving. At colleges across the country, the overwhelming whiteness of those in power has prompted Black Lives Matter activists to call for more diversity. At the Pentagon, the Defense Department is looking for creative ways to fight an enemy that is less predictable and more amorphous. Both tasks require a delicate balance of preservation and evolution, of security and openness. As the leader of both an elite institution of higher learning and a key piece of the military pipeline, Johnson sits at the nexus. “We’re trying to deliver this traditional mission in a relevant way to this generation and to the profession of arms,” she said.
At the academy, that has meant bringing sometimes-uncomfortable conversations about race into the open. The dialogue is structured in a way that both adheres to the military’s strict guidelines around acceptable conduct and recognizes that the 4,000 cadets that call the academy home each year are not cogs in a machine, but young American adults with opinions and values and connections to the world around them. The student protests that erupted at schools like the University of Missouri after the black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, didn’t materialize at the academy. Such activities could, after all, be considered a violation of the Defense Department’s rules against making political statements in uniform. But Johnson acknowledged that the absence of overt unrest does not mean the absence of discontent. “Same concerns. Same gene pool. Same generation, so we try to tend to those,” she said.
After West Point, the Army’s service academy, said it would not punish 16 black female cadets who were photographed in early May with their arms raised in what many saw as a political statement, the Air Force Academy suggested it would behave similarly if confronted with such a demonstration.
“The Air Force’s Academy is a training institution, teaching cadets how to appropriately raise concerns, understand perceptions and balance personal freedom with effective leadership,” Lieutenant Colonel Brus Vidal, the academy’s director of public affairs, wrote in an email. “Cadets will continue to navigate through situations and circumstances where judgment is an important aspect of leadership on active duty. This is the ideal environment to explore those leadership issues with open and transparent conversations."
In a way, it’s been easier for Johnson and her colleagues than for university presidents to “tend to” students’ concerns because they’ve been building the scaffolding to do so for years. Where the University of Missouri only hired a chief diversity officer this year in response to protests, the academy created that position in 2010, and Johnson made sure it reports directly to the superintendent so that concerns can’t be filtered before they reach her. Where some schools have tried to contain conversations about policing and race (just 40 percent of university presidents in a recent survey said that dialogue has increased across their campuses in the wake of Black Lives Matter events), Johnson’s staff put together a forum on Ferguson for cadets with guidance from the Knapsack Institute, which helps schools and businesses navigate tricky conversations. “People have concerns but our faculty engaged,” she said. “We try to broach it on a real human level and draw out what their concerns are … We’re not immune, being in uniform.”
The focus on diversity is “embedded in many of the courses we teach,” said Brigadier General Andrew Armacost, the dean of faculty at the academy. New hires go through an orientation the summer before they start teaching to learn how to lead classes in a way that makes people feel like they belong. During the year, faculty gather occasionally during lunch to talk about books on belonging. Up recently were Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race and Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.
Cadet Colonel Tarina Crook, an African American student, attended the Ferguson forum. “We just had the most respectful conversation I thought imaginable,” she said. Cadet Colonel Kristov George, another cadet, echoed Crook. “We see all these opportunities as academic discussions,” he said. “We don’t protest.” Raised in a small town outside of Dallas by a mother from Trinidad and Tobago, the black 6’1’’ mechanical-engineering major was recruited to play football and this year serves as the cadet wing commander, the school’s highest-ranked student. “You’re not going to see black cadets marching around this campus saying, ‘black lives matter,’ or saying, ‘down with the white system putting us down,’” he said. “We’re not going to do that. What we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about it … We try to remove emotions from these conversations here because we know that it only leads to trouble, so we try to use logic in most of these circumstances.”
Putting aside the question of whether suppressing emotions is the healthiest way to engage in such conversations, the fact that the conversations are happening at an institution many have regarded for decades as less-than-accepting of differences is noteworthy. So is the fact that they’ve been going on for years, well before many liberal-arts universities found themselves scrambling last year to react to student demands. “Rightly so, in military service we’re expected to hold higher standards,” Johnson said. “It’s what our nation expects of us, so the scrutiny is strong and we need to be at the leading edge of things.”
“We are trying to develop them into leaders,” Brigadier General Stephen Williams, the commandant of cadets (the dean of students, in civilian terms) added. “They’re going to lead a diverse group. You can’t lead a diverse group unless you learn how to work and integrate within a diverse group. So, really, everything we’re trying us air force academy teach them is how to manipulate their world in that environment so they can lead.”
That is the crux of why a school so regimented that failing to cut your hair or marching out of sync are still cause for disciplinary action is wading into such a gray zone: The military’s future depends on it. Why care about diversity, I asked Johnson. In a candid interview that spanned more than an hour, she offered a number of nuanced, thoughtful reasons. But the short answer, as she said, is this: “Cold hard facts? So that we can conduct our mission better. We really need each other.”
While forums on Ferguson and faculty book clubs are important, the academy is digging in long-term on increasing the racial and gender diversity of its cadets, faculty, and staff, which it hopes will ultimately increase the diversity of the force’s officer corps. It’s a long, challenging slog. Women make up just 18 percent of military faculty, and minorities just 8 percent. The rates are higher for civilian faculty, 40 percent and 9 percent respectively, but not reflective of the broader population. The academy is behind on the Air Force’s goal to raise the number of women in the cadet applicant pool to a relatively modest 30 percent, too. Fewer than 27 percent of the young people who applied to be in the class of 2020 are racial minorities, despite the fact that children of color now make up more than half of all K-12 students nationwide.
Raising those figures is complicated by the fact that the academy is stuck adhering to federal regulations that say it cannot specifically recruit young women or people of color. In other words, it wants them, but it has to go about asking for them in a roundabout way. So about four years ago, the academy stepped up its outreach to what it calls “underrepresented congressional districts.” It’s worth pausing briefly here to explain how a student goes about applying in the first place and why those congressional districts matter so much.
A kid who wants to go to the academy doesn’t just go online and submit an application directly to the school. She has to apply for a nomination, generally from her Congressional representative, senators, or from the vice president. Each member of Congress is allowed to have five cadets enrolled at the academy at one time. When a spot opens up, a member can nominate up to 10 people for admission, known at the academy as “appointment.” Not everyone who gets a nomination gets in, but securing a nomination is a critical first step. So how does one get a coveted nomination? The answer varies widely because each congressional office has its own process, and they don’t have to disclose who they select or why. (Calls to several congressional offices requesting information about how nominees are selected were not returned.)
A 2014 USA Today examination of the process found that lawmakers sometimes nominate the children of friends and political donors with little oversight. “While congressional nominations help ensure geographic diversity,” the authors wrote, “they're less effective in providing for other kinds of diversity. For decades, many Southern lawmakers refused to nominate black candidates.” And sometimes students of color don’t reach out and apply for a nomination. A spokeswoman for Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat who represents a largely African American section of Brooklyn and Queens, told the paper he hadn’t received any applicants the prior year.
It’s in that framework that the academy must operate. So Colonel Carolyn Benyshek, the director of admissions, has her staff look at which districts have four or us air force academy cadets, reaches out to congressional staffers in those districts, and works with them to find qualified students. While that doesn’t necessarily foster racial diversity in theory, it actually has in some places because underrepresented districts are often comprised of constituents who are underrepresented minorities. That’s partially because people of color are often less familiar with or open to the idea of attending the academy, and partially because of pushback from some of the lawmakers themselves. Benyshek recalled a conversation with one congresswoman who hadn’t been nominating students. The woman, an older person of color who Benyshek declined to identify, allegedly told her, “I don’t believe in this. I don’t believe in the military because these are the things that happened to my race during this time period and I don't want my children to have to deal with that.”"You can’t lead a diverse group unless you learn how to work and integrate within a diverse group."
After outlining the opportunities cadets have and the financial benefits (tuition is covered by taxpayers in return for five years of service and cadets earn a stipend while they are enrolled), Benyshek said her office hasn’t “had a problem” with the congresswoman’s nominations. But fewer members of Congress are military veterans than in previous years. Less than 20 percent of today’s representatives and senators have served in the military. In the early 1970s, that figure was above 70 percent. So Benyshek and her staff also find themselves working with a group of lawmakers who have less personal understanding of the armed forces than earlier generations.
There’s also the fact that only about 25 percent of Americans are eligible for military service, and, for a variety of reasons, cadet eligibility requirements seem to favor upper-middle-class white men. There is a special nominating process for cadets from military families, which offers a leg up similar to the one legacy applicants get at Ivy League schools. Cadets have to be physically fit and criminal records can be disqualifying. They can’t be married or have children. They have to have excellent academic records and leadership qualities.
Convincing qualified kids to apply can also require convincing wary families that the Air Force Academy is the right way to go. Benyshek’s staffers, many of them recent graduates of the academy selected in part because they are bilingual or share a background with potential applicants, “blitz” a city like Chicago or Houston by talking to local schools, nonprofits, and even church leaders to find underrepresented qualified students, instead of using the “touch and go” approach they used to employ. Some communities, Benyshek said, saw the old approach as insincere. “With the African American population. we’ve had to work with some church elders to actually get access to their high-end students who are trying to seek higher education,” she said.
The academy’s community approach is a far cry from the tactic many universities employ of sending representatives to sit at a few college fairs hoping the perfect students will come to them, or tapping into alumni networks to interview people only after they’ve already applied. But the academy also has a resource advantage in that Benyshek has 1,300 admission liaison officers working for her around the world. She can compel some recent graduates, who owe the military at least five years of service in return for their education, to stay on and help her search out the next generation of cadets. Cadets at the academy aren’t furiously applying for consulting gigs or Wall Street jobs the way students are at other elite schools. General Johnson became one of the first female cadets (and eventually the first female cadet wing commander) in the late 1970s because a liaison officer spoke at her high school in the farming town of Spencer, Iowa, and painted her a picture of the way out. “We can’t just wait for them to line up,” she said.
Moses Stewart, who has been acting as the chief officer of culture, climate, and diversity at the academy since July of 2014, operates with that mantra in mind, and with the understanding that when a prospective cadet outside the standard mold does show up, the differences can be an asset. Us air force academy might sound obvious, but it’s not something all congressional offices have adopted. To nudge them in the right direction, he created a guidebook to help congressional staffers, who, it’s worth noting, are not admissions officers, choose kids to nominate. When a potential nominee shows up in a pair of jeans, he reminds them, it can be indicative of a lack of resources rather than a display of disrespect.
Degree tracks at the academy are relatively rigid and tightly packed. Admitted students start basic training in June, so there’s no time to offer the remedial courses that many college students find themselves in. But the academy doesn’t want to eliminate young people it thinks could ultimately succeed in the Air Force with a little more preparation, who are disproportionately students of color, from contention, so seven year-long prep schools, including one on the academy’s grounds, offer some students an extra boost before they enroll in the academy. Benyshek is herself the product of a prep school. Raised with a father who was in the military, she moved so much as a kid that her education was disjointed. She missed every class unit on the Civil War. “What the prep school did for me was to really tie all the pieces together and help me to learn how to study,” she said. “It was a very, very pokemon tcg charizard 1st edition opportunity to then earn an appointment to come here.” Johnson added, “That’s an avenue where we can say, ‘You’re close, you have that other thing we think you can bring to us—grit, experience, maybe a prior-enlisted person—and so go to prep school.’”
Once the cadets arrive at the academy, there is more of a safety net to help those who are struggling than at many other universities, particularly big state schools where courses can run 400 students and professors often prioritize research opportunities over teaching. Cadets belong to squadrons of about 100 students of varying age and rank, so they are automatically members of a smaller community. Whether they feel like members of that community is a valid question and the answer is not always yes, but the fact that they are explicitly named as members of a smaller community within the school is a step. Recent research has indicated that students who are the first in their families to go to college often drop out because they don’t feel a sense of belonging. At the academy, the groundwork is already laid."Part of it is seeing somebody like you and saying, ‘Oh, I could do that.'"
Studying is mandatory at certain hours in the first couple of years and cutting class has real consequences, so no one gets away with slacking for so long that they fall through the cracks. Cadets have their instructors’ phone numbers and are encouraged to call with both academic and personal questions. Each student has the option to be paired with a local sponsor family who can take her to church or to dinner and help ease the transition from civilian to military life. Sometimes, the academy will reduce a new cadet’s course load and add a study-skills class (the missed course is made up over the summer), or send a cadet to a tutoring center on campus that is led not by graduate teaching assistants but by salaried faculty members. At many schools, the onus is on students to recognize when they’re struggling and figure out how to handle it; at the academy, that’s not the case.
For better or worse, basic training also serves as something of a unifier for the cadets who survive it. There’s nothing like running a successful evacuation drill in a deliberately stressful simulation to make a new cadet feel like part of a team. “They subordinate their desires to the unit and the unit has set those standards,” Williams, the dean of students, said. The implication is that demanding such cohesion creates less space for racism or sexism to creep in. But it also demands a certain restriction of personal agency, which can look to some people like the continuation of policies that for years allowed those in power to keep others quiet.
Interviews with half a dozen cadets suggest that while discussions about race in the context of Black Lives Matter do come up, race doesn’t seem to play a role in who becomes a leader at the school. “As far as race goes here, I come from a town where I was one of maybe five [black students] tops,” George, the highest-ranked cadet, said. “And here, I’m seeing more people who look like me in general. But then again, it doesn’t matter, I think people here are high-quality people. They’re intelligent people, so the ignorance that you see in us air force academy places like where I came from just doesn't exist. Bottom line, people here look for performance.”
If anything, conversations with several female cadets seemed to indicate more of an issue with gender discrimination than with overt racism. Crook said male cadets respect her as an equal “for the most part,” but she’s fielded negative comments about the fact that the athletic standards for women are different than for men. Even George, in a comment intended to praise the strength of the academy’s female cadets, said they don’t “let their gender take them down.” He meant well, and none of the female cadets sitting next to him reacted negatively, but it takes a certain mental stamina to exist in an environment where even the people who support you being there see your gender as a drawback and not an asset. Crook said she has sought out mentors who encourage her to educate fellow students instead of getting angry.
Cadet First Sergeant Sarah Fishbein, another female cadet, agrees. She’s learned, she said, “just to ask more questions” of critics to try to understand where they’re coming from. Both women expressed an “it happens” mentality, but Fishbein acknowledged that “it is intimidating knowing that you’re going to come in and be a minority here as a female because that’s just really strange, especially in higher education.” While she ultimately decided that the benefits of attending the academy outweighed any cost, not everyone does, and the potential solution is a classic catch-22. More women would join if they saw more women, but there’s no way to show them more women if more women don’t join. The same is true for people of color. “Part of it is seeing somebody like you and saying, ‘Oh, I could do that,’” Johnson said. For her part, she’s forced a conversation about sexual assault on the campus (reports of assault in the academy are up, which likely means more people feel comfortable coming forward), particularly in the athletic department, in a way that previous leaders had not.
On campus, Stewart, the acting diversity officer, spends his days dealing with all of these issues, stressing to different departments the importance of not just paying lip service to diversity in its various forms, but of fostering actual inclusion. That task will likely become easier as the faculty itself diversifies, but Armacost says that process is made more challenging by the fact that positions don’t open often on the civilian side, and on the military side, by the fact that the Air Force is occasionally reluctant to send some of its top women and people of color to teach at the academy. “‘Yes, we understand your needs for diversity but the Air Force has needs for diversity as well.’ That’s the response sometimes,” Armacost said.
In the meantime, the academy has taken a few stabs at modernity—efforts that would seem laughable to most college 1st and 2nd grade math worksheets, but are welcome news fallout new vegas 1st mission cadets and in part an attempt to draw in young people unfamiliar with military standards. Dorms are now co-ed. Dating is allowed, with the exception of a ban on first-years dating upperclassmen that’s intended to prevent an imbalance of power. “In this day and age, we can’t cloister ‘em like 1802 in Westpoint. And that didn’t work out that well anyway,” Johnson said, chuckling. “I’m a military commander, but it’s college.” Seniors in good standing can leave campus in the evenings as long as they’re back by 6:45 a.m. the following morning, where they were required to be back by the end of the night just several years ago. Cadets are permitted to spend time with ROTC units on regular campuses around the country to get a taste of college life. There’s talk of giving students more choice over which classes they take and even moving to a block schedule that would give students time during the day to informally grab coffee with their peers. (Don’t laugh; this is a novel idea at the academy.)
There has also been an attempt in recent years to embrace religious and, to some extent, sexual diversity. Attendance at chapel is no longer required (it was until the 1970s), and there are spaces american express national bank personal savings cadets of all faiths to worship. The academy faced allegations before Johnson’s tenure that non-Christian cadets were subject to unwanted proselytizing. Freedom of religion and religious tolerance came up frequently during my visit, with academy leaders going out of their way to show that the academy welcomes cadets of all faiths, including through an hour-long private tour of the chapel and other worship spaces. The academy, which has about 30 Muslim cadets, including four women, has one of three Muslim chaplains in the entire Air Force, and its only female rabbi. The school, like the Air Force more broadly, says it accommodates religious requests, such as the ability to wear a headscarf (a request a conservative military college in South Carolina recently denied a cadet), on a case-by-case basis, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.”
In the aftermath of the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, lesbian, gay, and bisexual cadets are free to be open about their identities, and the academy has held forums for cadets to talk about sexual identity. But at the same time the military still does not permit transgender people to serve openly, and academy leaders referred simply to “LGB” issues in conversation, leaving the standard T noticeably hanging. Young people, especially, may see that as frustratingly slow progress toward inclusion. And while the academy is trying to balance modernity and tradition, there is clearly still room to grow when it comes to preventing some cadets from leaving.
The attrition rate for the class of 2016 is 23 percent, meaning nearly one in four of the cadets who started out won’t graduate and be commissioned. It’s 25 percent for women and 39 percent for African Americans. A recent informal cadet survey found that some 60 percent of cadets don’t feel like they belong. There’s no quick fix, but Johnson and her colleagues say they are committed to engaging in the effort, and helping cadets navigate an increasingly heterogeneous Air Force after graduation. “What they understand from very early on is that we have a product at the back end and that’s going to be an officer of character leading our Air Force and our nation,” Benyshek said. “They understand that, ‘I’m going to go out and I’m going to have to lead people who don't look like me or who didn’t grow up like I did.’”
Ultimately, cadets are beginning their military careers when they enroll at the academy, not when they graduate. Their professors and classmates are also their future bosses and colleagues. So the way they behave and the concerns they share are certainly filtered at times through that understanding. But the academy is taking steps to draw out their thinking in ways that could someday benefit the Air Force as a whole as it faces an enemy no longer marching in a straight line. “We’re a better force because of that diversity of thought,” Williams said. The effort is “not perfect,” nor complete, Johnson acknowledged, but, she said, “We think we’re going in the right direction.” The key is “not having a tin ear, being willing to listen,” and willing to ask: “What are we missing, what can we do better so that everyone has a sense of belonging?” she said. Part of the approach is upholding clear standards for everyone, from athletes to faculty members. And part of it is figuring out how to make previously restricted spaces accessible for young people who sometimes lack a roadmap for how to reach them. “You know how the philosophers say, ‘Don’t blame the apples if the barrel is bad?’” Johnson asked as our conversation wound down. “I want to have a great barrel.”
As U.S. Air Force Academy graduates, we condemn the eruption of right-wing white supremacy violently disrupting and intimidating elected representatives and staff at the U.S. Capitol. It is particularly distressing that fellow graduate, Lt. Col. (Ret) Larry Rendall Brock, Jr, is accused by police of participating in the event that terrorized Congress, the very body that nominated him for an appointment to the Academy. We urge leaders at compass inc Academy and Association of Graduates to condemn any graduates involved with the insurrection.
It should not surprise anyone that calculated deception about electoral irregularities fueled this desecration of the U.S. Capitol. This included false accusations from newly elected House representative and Academy graduate August Pfluger (R-TX).
Brock’s family members reported to The New Yorker that in recent years he has expressed white-supremacist views and traveled to Washington “willing to get in trouble to defend what he thinks is right.” In what appears to be a video of Brock on the floor of the Senate, he was recorded advocating for information warfare during the insurrection, and the FBI subsequently arrested him.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff rightfully condemned the violence and cited the military’s support for the rule of law; however, they stopped short of addressing the unacceptable and growing fire of bigotry, racism, and home-grown extremism within our ranks.
A survey last year by the newspaper Military Times reported that 36% of active-duty military members have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism and racism within the ranks of the military, including stickers supporting the KKK and Nazi-style salutes. In February, 2020, the House Armed Services Committee held a Subcommittee on Military Personnel Hearing: “Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military — How to Stop It?”
The Southern Poverty Law Center Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks stated in her testimony, “Because servicemembers often possess unique training and capabilities, those who are indoctrinated into white supremacist ideology may represent a significant threat to national security and the safety of our communities.” It is clear this was on full display at the Capitol, and rooting out these perverted ideologies among current and former members of the armed forces represents an urgent matter of the highest degree.
We are also aware via social media of other Academy graduates attending the insurrection, including a former Cadet Wing Commander. While we have no evidence that any other than Brock crossed barriers or may have violated the law, the mere presence of Academy graduates sporting Air Force garb posting smiling selfies at one of the most notorious events in our nation’s history should be concerning to all graduates. We call on any graduate that attended the event to disavow the lawless behavior of others and the incitement by our 45th president and his co-conspirators.
It is clear from the actions of these graduates that the Academy must look within (as should the entire military) to better ascertain the “how and why” we have produced extremists among our graduates that would threaten the republic and Constitution to which we all swore an us air force academy. Perhaps focusing an upcoming National Character and Leadership Symposium, our Academy’s flagship event on character and leadership, on this subject would be appropriate.
In conclusion, we the undersigned, condemn the actions of Brock and all others that may have been involved in this heinous act and call on the entire Academy graduate community to do the same.
David Corpman, U.S. Air Force Class of 2010. Martin E France, Brig Gen, USAF (ret), Class of 1981.
The following Air Force Academy graduates co-signed: Richard Rauschkolb, Col, USAF (ret), Class of 1970; Irv Halter, Maj Gen, USAF (ret), Class of 1977; Michael G. Donatelli, LtCol, USAF (ret), Class of 1979; Richard S. Haddad, Maj Gen, USAF (ret), Class of 1981; Randy Worrall, Class of 1981; Kathryn L Smith, Class of 1982; Jeffrey Quiggle, Class of 1987; Dr. Brian H. Williams, Class of 1991; Luis Linares, Class of 1994; Jennifer Parenti, Lt Col, USAF (ret), Class of 1995; Rep. Casey Weinstein, Class us air force academy 2004; Christian Evans, Class of 2008; Dr. Shankar Kulumani, Class of 2009; Berkley Davis, Class of 2010.
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Whether you’ve come to Colorado Springs as a visitor, cadet, parent or new member of our staff, one thing is certain—the U.S. Air Force Academy experience is unlike any other.
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It’s not just our cadets who operate at a different altitude—our campus facilities and programs also continually reach for new horizons. Our labs and research centers are home to cutting-edge technology. Our buildings feature stunning midcentury modern architecture. Our redesigned athletic and military training facilities foster fierce competition and leadership training. Even our publicly accessible trails are cared for and updated to provide local hikers, bikers and equestrians with beautiful vistas.
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United States Air Force Academy
Do you have a sincere desire to serve your country? Are you looking for a college that will give you a world-class education? Is your dream to become a pilot, engineer, computer programmer, or scientist? Then the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) may be the right choice for you.
Getting accepted to this high-flying military academy is not easy. It will take brains, brawn, and a bit of planning. To help you reach for the stars, we have put together some tips on navigating the Academy application process. From pre-application to life as a cadet, read on to see if you have what it takes to become a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force.
The Air Force Academy at a Glance
Located in picturesque Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Air Force Academy is home to the 4,000 cadets who make up the Cadet Wing. All students are there because they have decided they want to serve as officers in the United States Air Force. The Academy is designed to prepare you to be the Air Force’s future leader by challenging you with excellent academic programs, leadership training, and competitive athletics.
You can choose from among 27 majors, taught in small classes by Academy faculty. Small classes allow you in-depth discussion and hands-on learning, providing opportunities for critical thinking and engagement. In addition to graded courses, you are also evaluated on your military performance and physical training. The USAFA expects you to maintain high standards for academics, military performance, and fitness. After graduation, you will enter the United States San jose sharks trade rumors Force as a Second Lieutenant.
After commissioning, you agree to serve a minimum of five years on active duty and an additional three years in the inactive reserves. Becoming a Cadet at USAFA is your first step to a life of service to the Air Force and your country.
What Does It Take To Get In The USAFA?
Here is a birds eye view of what you need to be competitive.
- Complete an interview with your Admissions Liaison Officer (ALO)
- Be a Future Falcon
- Attend their Summer Seminar
- Attend the Academy Prep School
- Excel academically (GPA, SAT/ACT scores, and class rank)
- Participate in extracurricular activities and sports
- Pass a full medical exam and physical fitness test
- Get a congressional nomination
Even if you crush all of these tasks, you may still fall short. The USAFA acceptance rate is just 11.4%.
So, how can you do to increase your chances of getting into the USAFA? Read on to find out.
How Can I Prepare?
The earlier you start, the greater your potential of being accepted and earning an appointment to the USAFA.
If you are in middle school:
- Study hard (especially in English, math, and science).
- Join a sports team.
- Become a Leader by joining a scouting program, Civil Air Patrol, or a local or school club. Take on leadership positions like club president or secretary.
- Demonstrate character by helping others or getting involved with church groups or other organizations that help your community.
- Register for their Future Falcons Program to learn as much as you can about the application process and life as a cadet. You will receive email updates about admissions, as well as invitations to online and in-person meetups and seminars to help you connect with other potential and current cadets.
If you are in High School:
- Start Your Application. Junior year is when your application process begins. Start by filling out the Pre-candidate Questionnaire, which becomes available online March 1.
- Live the Academy Experience. During the summer of your junior year, you can attend the Summer Seminar. This program allows you to see yourself as an Academy cadet. Space is limited, and it’s highly competitive, so apply early.
If you are a college student, enlisted airman, or an international student:
- You can still apply for an appointment to the USAFA. Check the USAFA Website for more information.
How Do I Know If I Qualify?
To earn an appointment to the Air Force Academy, you must meet the following basic requirements:
- Be at least 17 but not past your 23rd birthday by July 1 of the year you enter the Academy
- Be a United States citizen
- Be unmarried with no dependents
- Be of good moral character
In addition to these basic requirements, you will need to meet the following specific requirements:
To compete academically, you should complete the following high school courses:
- Four years of English, math, and science
- Three years of social studies
- Two years of a modern foreign language
- One year of computer study
You should also average in the top three percent of your high school classes and have an SAT score above 620 verbal and 580 or have an ACT score above 24 English/reading and 25 math/science.
In addition to academic performance and physical fitness, you will need to show your strength of character and leadership potential. The USAFA will use the following to assess your character:
- Teacher’s evaluation
- Writing Sample
- Letters of Recommendation
- Background Review
PT is a big part of the Academy, and satisfactory completion of the Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA) is an important part of the admissions process. This test of strength, agility, speed, and endurance. It will help determine if you possess the stamina required to complete the physical program at the Academy. Your examination may be administered by any physical education teacher, Service Academy Liaison Officer, or JROTC instructor.
You must meet the medical and weight standards for a commission in the United States Air Force. If you do not meet these standards as an applicant, you’re disqualified (unless you get a medical waiver). You will take your examination at one of the designated examining centers located on or after July 1 of the year preceding your year of admission.
What Is The Admission Cycle For The USAFA?
The Air Force Academy admissions cycle helps you manage your application. The process consists of pre-candidate and candidate phases. Here are some important dates in the Academy’s annual admissions cycle:
|March 1 – December 31||The Pre-Candidate Questionnaire (PCQ) opens March 1 of your junior year. The deadline to submit a PCQ is December 31 of your senior year.|
|July 1 – January 31||After completion of your PCQ, you’ll get correspondence with guidance and the next steps for the application process. All items must be completed by the deadline.|
|December 1 – January 15||Summer Seminar applications open on December 1 and end on January 15.|
|January||ACT/SAT must be taken for the results to arrive at the Admissions Office by mid-February.|
|February – April||Applications are reviewed, and the majority of appointments are offered.|
|April||You should know your admissions status by this time. All notifications will be made through your application portal.|
|June||Academy classes begin. Summer Seminar sessions take place.|
How Do I Apply?
The application process is time-consuming and pinnacle financial services detailed planning and follow up. Let’s take a look at the application process.
Get A Congressional Nomination
Before you can be considered for an appointment, you must obtain a nomination, which is a very competitive process. Most applicants get one of the following nominations:
Congressional. For each cadet vacancy, each member of Congress may nominate up to 10 candidates. If you want to request a Congressional nomination, follow the guidelines in the Congressional Nomination Request Sample Letter.
Vice Presidential. For each cadet vacancy that occurs, the vice president may nominate up to 10 candidates to be considered for appointment. Don’t mail your request for a vice presidential nomination to the Academy. They will make recommendations to the vice president based upon your admissions file.
Starting on March 1, the admissions process begins with the online Pre-candidate Questionnaire (PCQ). You can start this as early as your junior year, but no later than December 31 of your senior year of high school. This form is a self-report, letting the Academy know your qualifications, like your GPA, class rank, and extracurricular activities. If you meet their candidate guidelines, your application will be promoted to candidate status. PCQ’s are officially due December 31 each year.
Once you achieve candidate status, you will get an email and your online application. Your deadline is based on when you entered the candidate phase and will be posted on your portal. You must complete the required items by the deadline posted. There are many steps to the process, and may take four to six months to complete.
- Request your official school transcripts. For more details, see the Academic Requirements admissions factor. You’ll also need to get three teacher evaluations. If you us air force academy in high school, the instructors evaluating you MUST be your:
- 11th- or 12th-grade English instructor
- 11th- or 12th-grade math instructor, and
- one other instructor
- Schedule and pass the Candidate Fitness Assessment (CFA). You have to find your own examiner and provide them with official instructions on setting up and administering the test. Your best bet is to ask your physical education instructor or a coach.
- Complete Your Extracurricular Activities Record. This shows clubs you were active in, including leadership positions.
- Complete Your Writing Sample and Personal Interview. For more on these admissions requirements, see Character Requirements. If you have not done so already, connect with your Admissions Liaison Officer (ALO) and schedule your personal interview.
- Complete Your Medical Evaluation. You must meet the medical and weight standards for a commission in the U.S. Air Force. The Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board (DoDMERB) is responsible for determining your medical qualification. It can take up to 30 days to schedule your initial medical evaluation, 60 days for completion, and possibly another 30 days for a medical waiver if required. This can result in up to a four-month process for candidates.
What Happens After I Apply?
Once you’ve completed your application, you’ll hear whether you will 1st state bank nebraska offered an appointment. Appointments offered are conditional until you take the Oath of Allegiance. You’ll typically be notified by April 21.
A Day In The Life Of An Academy Cadet
Now that you know what is involved in applying to the United States Air Force Academy let’s take a look at a day in the life of an Academy Cadet.
Every activity during your day is designed to build a leader of character, and us air force academy will be required to push yourself higher each day in pursuit of your goal of earning those prestigious Second Lieutenant bars.
You’ll start your day early, making sure that your room is in inspection order find a chase bank around me are dressed in the uniform of the day. Some mornings you may have a squadron meeting or other events before breakfast. You’ll eat breakfast in Mitchell Hall, where the entire Cadet Wing (4,000+ students) assembles to eat family-style meals.
You’ll have two different, alternating class schedules – “M-Day Schedule” and “T-Day Schedule.” Morning classes at 0730 and most academic classes and labs are held in Fairchild Hall. Saturdays are often reserved for military training throughout the semester, while Sundays are usually downtime for training and allow you some personal time.
Morning classes or study time end around 1100, and you’ll return to your squadron area for formation and lunch. At 1130, your squadron lines up alphabetically in front of Vandenberg Hall, and marches across The Terrazo to eat lunch at Mitchell Hall.
Afternoon classes begin at 1230 and include military training, Commander’s Calls, briefings, commissioning education, or real-world research. You are also required to complete 10 physical education classes, which are the best team-building and leadership opportunities the Academy has to offer.
Your evenings popular banks in florida be filled with a variety of military training events like briefings and lectures. Upper-class cadets use this time to mentor younger students or meet to discuss upcoming events that impact their squadron, flight, or element. You also have the option to eat a buffet-style dinner from 1700-1900 in Mitchell Hall. Your last activity of the day is in your room with the Academic Call to Quarters (ACQ), or required study time. Your day ends at 2300, with taps (the last bugle call of the day).
The path to admission at the Air Force Academy is long and challenging. But if you plan ahead and use the information in this article, you can face the application process with confidence. Following these guidelines gives you the best chance to impress the admissions committee and earn that coveted appointment to the Air Force Academy. Good luck as you venture off into the Wild Blue Yonder.
Jim spent 22 years on active duty, climbing the ranks from Airman Basic to a decorated Air Force Major. Stationed all over the world, he held many high-level posts, including Chief of Foreign Military Sales at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Jim earned his Ph.D. through the Montgomery Era GI Bill and spent 13 years teaching African Studies in Pennsylvania. Flagscape for bank of america associates is also an award-winning travel writer.
United States Air Force Academy facts for kids
The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA or Air Force) is an Americanmilitarycollege. It was created in 1954. The Acadey is an accredited college for the undergraduateeducation of people who want to be officers for the United States Air Force. The college is north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County. The Academy's goal is "to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation." It is the youngest of the five United States service academies. The Academy had its first graduation in 1959. Graduates of the Academy's four-year program get a Bachelor of Sciencedegree. Most become second lieutenants in the United States Air Force.
The Academy is one of the largest tourist attractions in Colorado. More than a million people visit it each year. Students are called "cadets".
The Air Force Academy is one of the most selective colleges in the United States. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked it tied for 5th place in the category Undergraduate Engineering Programs. Forbes magazine, in 2009, ranked the Academy the #2 public college in the United States and the #7 college overall in its "America's Best Colleges 2009" publication. People wanting to study at the Academy are judged on their academic achievement, leadership, athletics and character. They must pass a fitness test, pass a medicalexamination, and be nominated by the member of Congress where they live. Recent classes have had about 1,400 cadets. Normally, under 1,000 of the cadets will graduate. The cost of going to the Academy, Housing and food are paid for by the U.S. government. Cadets are paid monthly while at the Academy but they must be a part of the military for a number of years after they graduate.
The program at the Academy is based on the Air Force's core values. These are "Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do". They are also based on four "pillars of excellence": military training, academics, athletics and character development. Cadets study military training and large curriculum in engineering, humanities, social sciences, basic sciences, military studies and physical education. All cadets take part in athletics. The academy has a character development and leadership curriculum.
The National Security Act of 1947 started the Air Force within the United States military. Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington made an agreement where up to 25% of West Point and Annapolis graduates could ask to become officers in the new Air Force. This was only meant to happen for a short time. Disagreements between the parts of the military led to the creation of the Service Academy Board. It was created by Secretary of DefenseJames Forrestal. In January 1950, the Service Academy Board was controlled by Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was the president of Columbia University at the time. The board said that the two U.S. service academies were not able to train enough officers for the Air Force. They decided that an air force academy was needed. President Eisenhower signed a law on 1 April 1954 to begin building the Air Force Academy.
On 7 October 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed a law that let women study at the United States service academies. On 26 June 1976, 157 women went to the Air Force Academy. On 28 May 1980, 97 of them finished the program and graduated from the Academy. They made up about 10% of the graduating class. Women now make up about 20% of the classes.
The first Honorscandal happened in 1965. A cadet who was leaving the Academy said that more than 100 cadets had been part of a cheating ring. One hundred and nine cadets had to leave the Academy. Cheating scandals were at the Academy again in 1967, 1972, 1984, 2004. and 2007. After each scandal, the Academy tried to learn why the cheating took place. They also looked at complaints that the academic system put too much pressure on the cadets. Changes were made to try to reduce the events from happening again.
In 2005, there were complaints that some Evangelical Christian cadets and staff were trying to convert others to their religion at the Academy. Because of this and how the Air Force deals other religious issues, Academy graduate Michael L. Weinstein filed a lawsuit against the Air Force.
- Bruegmann, Robert. Modernism at Mid-Century: The Architecture of the United States Air Force Academy. University of Chicago Press: 1995. ISBN: 0-226-07693-8.
- Celebrating the U.S. Air Force Academy's Golden Anniversary, (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Special Edition, Spring 2004.
- Contrails (various years)
- Fagan, George V. Air Force Academy: An Illustrated History. Johnson Books: 1988. ISBN: 1-55566-032-0.
- Fifty Years of Excellence: Building Leaders of Character for the Nation, 2004.
- Lui, Elizabeth Gill. Spirit and Flight: A Photographic Salute to the United States Air Force Academy. 1996. ISBN: 0-9652585-0-5.
- Nauman, Robert Allen. (2004). On the Wings of Modernism: the United States Air Force Academy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN: 978-0-252-02891-5; OCLC 52542599
- Schemo, Diana Jean. Skies to Conquer: A Year Inside the Air Force Academy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 2010.
Images for kids
Cadets from the first USAFA class lined up for physical training at Lowry AFB in 1955
The Class Wall is located just below the Cadet Chapel.
Cadets have the opportunity to fly gliders as part of their training.
More than 1,300 basic cadets salute during the ceremonial Oath of Office formation on 26 June 2009. The Cadet Chapel is in the background.
Air Force Academy cadets celebrate after graduation.
The Eagle and Fledglings Statue at the south end of the Air Gardens is inscribed with the quote, "Man's flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge".
United States Air Force Academy mascot
Presentation of the Commander in Chief's Trophy to the Air Force Falcons, May 2, 2017
The United States Air Force Academy Drum and Bugle Corps performing prior to the start of a USAFA football game against Idaho State University at Falcon Stadium
See what students say:
Students who seek out a United States Air Force Academy education note their satisfaction in how “values of integrity, service, and excellence.are actually the norm.” This esteemed institution not only promotes a “culture of excellence” that molds students into “leaders of character,” but also offers “prestige in both the military and private sector.” It does so, incidentally, while offering free tuition and a “guaranteed job” following graduation. Of course, if you decide to attend, be prepared to “be challenged physically and mentally” and held “to a higher standard” than at your average college. In return, however, students suggest you’ll also get “incredible opportunities” not found elsewhere. These opportunities can range from taking “trips around the world” or “operating a real DoD satellite” to “jumping out of planes [and] getting a secret clearance.” Additionally, undergrads benefit from “extremely small” class sizes. As one cadet shares, “the biggest class I’ve had in four years was 24 students.” The faculty itself is a nice “mix of military and civilian” instructors who “tend to make class interesting” and often excel at “bring[ing] their life experiences into the classroom.” The majority also do their utmost to ensure that they are “accessible for extra instruction, exam review, etc.” Many students also feel that their professors “really seem to care about your performance and work with you on a one-on-one basis.” Us air force academy one cadet frames it, “Their only focus is supporting us.”
Air Force Academy cadets seem to agree that the school attracts a number of “type A personalities” and “hard working” individuals who are “much more motivated than many other normal college students.” They are also united in their deep desire “to serve [the] country” and are often “team oriented” as well. Further, cadets pride themselves on being “more fit than the general population,” though cadets at USAFA “come from all over the nation, territories included, and from allied partner nations.” While there may be a “healthy diversity of thought” at the academy, students do acknowledge a disparity in gender. A few individuals also grumble that some of their peers can be “very cynical.” Thankfully, students view themselves as “one brotherhood and sisterhood looking out for each other.” One cadet jack lingo rehoboth beach rentals deeper adding, “We hold each other to an honor code the best we can and feel very close as a student body because we all live on campus and spend a majority of our time together.” All in all, “there is a definite culture of helping out fellow cadets and of striving to bring peers up that helps people to perform at pokemon cards worth any money best.”
As you might have suspected, life at the Air Force Academy is rather regimented and cadets “don’t have much free time.” Students “go to class from 0730 to 1530 [and] freshmen have physical training multiple times a week after[wards].” Additionally, everyone “participate[s] in an athletic activity [whether] it be NCAA athletics, club sports, or intramurals.” And on the weekends it’s quite common to “have the Cadet Wing marching” or to have to perform “other military duties.” Students also make a point of mentioning that “once every semester we have mandatory fitness tests, and throughout the semester [there are] random mandatory military briefs in the evenings.” Even with a schedule packed with academic obligations and military training, one individual notes that there are “various clubs and activities for different interests, as well as religious services, all [of ] which take [place] intermittently throughout the week.” And if they do have a moment to relax, cadets will typically kick back with “Netflix or video games.” Of course, when students really want to have fun, they generally leave “USAFA and [go] out into CO Springs or Denver” or they will “take advantage of outdoor areas for hiking, fishing, etc.”
Acceptance Rate: 13%
Average HS GPA: 3.86
Need to boost your grades? We can help.Learn More
SAT & ACT Test Scores
SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
600 - 700
620 - 730
ACT Composite Scores
25th-75th percentile (enrolled students)
29 - 33
Regular — December 31
Other Admission Factors
Rigor of Secondary School Record
Standardized Test Scores
Character / Personal Qualities
Level of applicant's interest
AGRICULTURE, AGRICULTURE OPERATIONS, AND RELATED SCIENCES.
Plant Sciences, General.
BIOLOGICAL AND BIOMEDICAL Us air force academy Biochemistry.
Biology/Biological Sciences, General.
BUSINESS, MANAGEMENT, MARKETING, AND RELATED SUPPORT SERVICES.
COMPUTER AND Us air force academy SCIENCES AND SUPPORT SERVICES.
Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering.
Electrical and Electronics Engineering
ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE/LETTERS.
FOREIGN LANGUAGES, LITERATURES, AND LINGUISTICS.
American History (United States).
LEGAL PROFESSIONS AND STUDIES.
International Law and Legal Studies.
LIBERAL ARTS AND SCIENCES, GENERAL STUDIES AND HUMANITIES.
MATHEMATICS AND STATISTICS.
Applied Mathematics, General.
MILITARY SCIENCE, LEADERSHIP AND OPERATIONAL ART.
Military Science and Operational Studies.
MILITARY TECHNOLOGIES AND APPLIED SCIENCES.
Air and Space Operations Technology.
PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES.
Science Technologies/Technicians, General.
Political Science and Government.
On-Campus Job Interviews Available
On Campus Interviews
Opportunities at School
Ms. Heather A. Wilson, '82
First Graduate to become Secretary of the Air Force
Captain Chesley Sullenberger, '73
American Hero, US Airways Flight 1549
General Janet Wolfenbarger '80
First Female Four-Star General in the Air Force
Coach Gregg C. Popovich, '70
Head Coach of the San Antonio Spurs; Four NBA Championships
The Honorable Frederick D. Gregory, '64
Former Astronaut; Former Acting NASA Administrator
Mr. Chad Hennings, '88
Dallas Cowboy Football Player, three time Super Bowl Champion
Mr. Alonzo Babers, '83
Olympic two-time gold medalist in 400 m and 4 x 400 m relay
On-Campus Job Interviews Available
On Campus Interviews
Opportunities at School
ROI & Outcomes
Information from PayScale:
Starting Median Salary (Up to Bachelor's degree completed, only)
Mid-Career Median Salary (Up to Bachelor's degree completed, only)
Starting Median Salary (At least Bachelor's degree)
Mid-Career Median Salary (At least Bachelor's degree)
Percent High Job Meaning
Cadets are committed to serve in the military for a certain number of years following graduation, when nearly half enter flight training. This is a school of go-getters, and over four thousand people all dreaming of becoming officers in the United States Air Force “makes it very competitive.” A few graduates receive scholarships to attend military or civilian graduate schools immediately after graduation, and many graduates receive funding for post-graduate programs. One way or another, the people that graduate from the academy “go on to do amazing things in the military and are great leaders who influence their airmen’s lives.” Of the Air Force Academy alumni visiting PayScale.com, 73 percent report that they derive a high level of meaning from their jobs.
Tuition & Aid
Financial Aid Statistics
Average Freshman Total Need-Based Gift Aid
Average Undergraduate Total Need-Based Gift Aid
Average Need-Based Loan
Undergraduates who have borrowed through any loan program
Average amount of loan debt per graduate
Financial aid provided to international students
Expenses per Academic Year
Average Cost for Books and Supplies
Tuition / Fees Vary by Year of Study
Transportation for Commuters
On-Campus Room and Board
Financial Aid Methodology
Scholarships and Grants
Federal Direct Student Loan Programs
Federal Family Education Loan Programs (FFEL)
Is Institutional Employment Available (other than Federal Work Study)
Student Body Profile
Total Undergraduate Enrollment
Foreign Countries Represented
100%are full time
0%are part time
Special Needs Admissions
College Entrance Tests Required
Special Need Services Offered
Calculator allowed in exams
Dictionary allowed in exams
Computer allowed in exams
Spellchecker allowed in exams
Accommodation for students with ADHD
Other assistive technology
Registered Student Organizations
Number of Honor Societies
Number of Social Sororities
Number of Religious Organizations
56%participate in intramural sports
24%participate in intercollegiate sports
Men's Sports (Falcons)
Track Field Indoor
Track Field Outdoor
Women's Sports (Falcons)
Track Field Indoor
Track Field Outdoor
LGBT Support Groups: Spectrum club provides support for LGBT cadets. https://www.usafa.edu/cadet-life/clubs//
Minority Support Groups: Hispanic/Latino Club, Korean American Relations Seminar (club), Native American Heritage Club, Way of Life (Club focusing on African American culture)
Campus Security Report
The Jeanne Clery Act requires colleges and universities to disclose their security policies, keep a public crime log, publish an annual crime report and provide timely warnings to students and campus employees about a crime posing an immediate or ongoing threat to students and campus pay uverse att bill online.
Please visit The Princeton Reviewâ€™s page on campus safety for additional resources: http://www.princetonreview.com/safety
The Princeton Review publishes links directly to each school's Campus Security Reports where available. Applicants can also access all school-specific campus safety information using the Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool provided by the Office of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education: http://ope.ed.gov/security
Campus-wide Internet Network
% of Classrooms with Wireless Internet
Partnerships with Technology Companies
Personal computer included in tuition for each student
Discounts Available with Hardware Vendors
Negotiated annually for hardware; with multiple vendors