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The Air Force Academy’s committed to its academic booster program. But at what cost? 

A prep to protect

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that academy cadets graduate as second lieutenants, not first lieutenants.

It's a weekday morning in mid-October, and the sidewalks are deserted among a series of bland buildings that comprise the Air Force Academy's Preparatory School. Everyone's in math, science or English classes, where a staff of 60 tries to prepare 220 "cadet candidates" to serve as officers in the U.S. Air Force.

Actually, the faculty is hoping that most of the students make enough progress in academics, military and fitness training to make it to the academy — or "the hill," as they call it — in the first place. And those students, just three months into the 2013-14 academic year, already are having trouble.

Sixteen in this year's class of 236 have dropped out by the time of our visit. Another 35 are on academic probation due to poor grades, which actually is an improvement from 55 at this time last year.

Based on the last nine years' of data obtained by the Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, you can expect that next spring, 172 of these kids will be admitted to the Air Force Academy. That means 64 kids who started the year in these prep school classrooms won't be admitted, for one reason or another.

Before AFA graduation rolls around in May 2018, another 46 can be expected to wash out. So that'll leave just 126 students — 53 percent of this prep school class — tossing their hats in the air as second lieutenants. Chances are, those graduates will do so with a grade point average .42 below that of direct appointees. And "preppies" will probably have accounted for an inordinate number of honor code violations along the way.

In response to written questions, the academy says the prep school's purpose is to "enhance diversity" by providing minority candidates, young enlistees identified as having potential as academy cadets, and recruited athletes a "pathway" for success through additional preparation. Prep school superintendent Col. Kabrena Rodda, who took over in 2012, says she's beefed up academic rigor and embedded character messages within military training. "We bend over backwards to prepare them," she says.

But at the same time, hundreds of applicants qualified for direct appointment are being turned away each year, including applicants of color. This is one of the reasons why, in 2005, Air Force auditors recommended cutting the size of the 240-candidate Prep School by two-thirds. The other: They estimated it cost taxpayers $93,800 per prep school graduate for the 10-month program.

In particular, the auditors said the academy should "eliminate recruited athletes as a targeted group for admission."

Not only has none of this happened, it's not likely to anytime soon. In written responses to the Indy's questions, the academy said the school "is fulfilling its mission" and called athletics "crucial" and "essential," not only for character development but also as "the best way to teach cadets about the pressures these men and women will experience in actual combat."

'Watering deeply'

The prep school program was created by the Air Force in 1961 to enable enlisted personnel to gain entry to the academy, like prep schools already in place at West Point and the Naval Academy. In 52 years, it has churned out more than 4,600 academy graduates, or an average of 88 per year. It's produced one Rhodes Scholar, one Medal of Honor recipient, astronauts, Thunderbird pilots, federal judges and CEOs. Forty general officers got their start at the prep school, and one, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, has served as academy superintendent. (Gould retired last summer after four years at the helm.)

The first commander was Col. Lee Black, who served at the prep school more than a decade.

"The way he described it is, 'We are watering deeply,'" Rodda says. "So we have students who have the potential to be very successful, but they haven't had the opportunity to develop academically in the way they need to. So through the extensive work we do here, we water them deeply so they can survive and lead."

To that end, the academy admits candidates — now including minority candidates and recruited athletes — to the prep school who fail to post qualifying scores required of direct appointees.

The academy's website explains, "Students who score below 580 verbal and 560 math on the SAT Reasoning and below 24 English/reading and 25 math/science reasoning on the ACT normally will not be competitive for an appointment." Yet the current prep school class' mean SAT verbal score was 529.1, and the ACT science/reasoning test, 24.72. Its other scores met or barely exceeded the other four minimum scores — a stellar performance compared to the past four years, when classes' mean scores met or exceeded the minimum on only two of the six tests.

Historically, the worst-faring prep-school group is recruited athletes, who in the last three years chalked up the lowest mean score on the SATs and ACTs in every category, when compared to minorities and prior-enlisted.

Perhaps more telling is the academic composite (accomp) score assigned to each incoming candidate based not only on SAT and ACT scores, but also on prior academic record. "This score is the most important component of our selection composite, weighted at 60%," the academy website states.

An analysis performed in spring 2011 by the academy for the Board of Visitors, a panel of dignitaries and congressmen that oversees the school, showed that the lower the accomp, the higher the chance of being placed on academic probation, which occurs when a student earns less than a 2.5 GPA or gets a C-minus or lower in a course. A presentation given to the board outlined how those entering with an accomp at or below 2800 don't do well. Consider:

• More than 10 percent of the class of 2014, entering in 2010, had disenrolled from the academy by the 2011 spring semester.

• Half of those remaining were on some type of probation: academic, honor or conduct.

The presentation, triggered by inquiries from then-Sen. Jim Webb, R-Va., about a perception that military academies' prep schools were becoming athlete factories, also noted that recruited athletes from the prep school graduated from the academy at a rate of just 45.6 percent.

So how does the latest batch of prep school graduates stack up? The class entering in July 2012 had an average accomp of 2650 — a score that research supporting the presentation suggested would lead to four out of 10 students being on academic probation in the second semester. That accomp score was the highest average in the last 10 years; the lowest came in 2007, when it dipped below 2550.

None of this is to say that performance can't be improved during the prep school year through remedial work and extra attention from faculty, the academy contends. Those steps, Rodda says, have led to 39 percent faster reading speeds from July to April, 6.5 percent higher vocabulary scores, 29.5 percent better reading comprehension, and 37 percent higher trigonometry scores for the prep-school class that graduated in spring 2013. The improvements upped their average accomp from just under 2650 in July 2012 to a tad over 2750 in the spring semester.

Sporting chances

Such improvement bolsters the academy's argument that the prep school can serve as a gateway for candidates who otherwise wouldn't qualify.

Among those are candidates of color and women, although the Air Force defines diversity far broader to include personal life experiences, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, language abilities and cultural knowledge. Prep minorities historically graduate from the academy at higher rates than enlisted personnel and recruited athletes, though not everyone makes the grade.

"When we talk about the need for academic prep, that can come to us in a lot of different forms," Rodda says. "It may be someone who needs to improve their grades, but it also can be somebody like one of the Native Americans last year who was the top female high school graduate of the Navajo Nation. She's a smart young lady, very tenacious. But she grew up in a Navajo Hogan without running water, without power. She had to walk a mile each way to get water. She was a great candidate for the prep school."

However, while the young woman did graduate from the prep school, she didn't get an academy appointment.

"She got good grades, but the quality of instruction she was exposed to [in high school] was not sufficient for her to be successful at the academy," Rodda says. "She did not quite improve to the level that the academy board was willing to grant her an appointment."

As for enlisted personnel, it's worth noting that all 51 prior enlisted candidates in this year's prep class remain in the class, Rodda says. And in two of the last three years, prior enlisted personnel have graduated from the academy at a higher percentage than either athletes or minorities, data show.

The third targeted group — recruited athletes — has proven the most controversial. Athletes represent a whopping 45 percent of the current prep class (107), compared to 22 percent who are prior enlisted and 43 percent who are minorities. (Some groups overlap.)

One reason might be that the academy has a lot of rosters to fill. The academy, with a student body of about 4,000 cadets, competes in 26 NCAA Division I sports. In contrast, the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has a student population of about 26,000, competes in only 16 NCAA D-I sports.

Even athletic powerhouse University of Texas at Austin, with about 50,000 students, offers only 20 NCAA D-I sports.

In written responses to questions, the academy justifies the academy's ambitious sports involvement by pointing to a 1994 report from the Defense Advisory Committee on Service Academy Athletic Programs. It concluded that the academy's sole purpose is to produce leaders capable of "a wide variety of roles and tasks in service to the nation," and singled out athletics as "one of the best forms of leadership/character training available to cadets." The committee also noted "national visibility and prestige" of Division I activities "is in consonance with the overall service academy mission to compete at the highest level," and help attract "quality people."

That said, the academy's sports demands don't seem to mesh with a rigorous curriculum and honor code expectations.

Only 50 recruited athletes graduated in the academy's Class of 2013, less than two-thirds of the 76 who entered that class in 2009. It was the worst showing among the prep school's categories, and yet it was the highest raw number of prep-school recruited athletes to graduate in the last nine years.

One area where the prep school's recruited athletes do outpace direct appointees? In committing honor violations. In the last eight years, preppies have been responsible for 24.5 percent of freshmen honor violations — 83 out of 339 — while comprising 15.4 percent of the class, on average. Prep-school recruited athletes committed 55 of those 83 violations.

Call to action

Air Force Secretary James Roche became concerned about the prep school in 2004, following the sexual assault scandal that enveloped the academy. That gave rise to the 2005 Air Force Audit Agency probe, which recommended reducing the prep school's student body to just 80, via curtailing admission of women and minorities and by eliminating recruited athletes as a target group.

The agency, operating under the Air Force secretary to provide "independent, objective and quality audit services" that promote "economy, effectiveness, and efficiency of operations," discovered that in 2002 and 2003, a total of 454 minority and female applicants were qualified for direct entry to the academy but were not admitted. Meanwhile, 136 minorities and women received appointments after graduating from the prep school — where their year had come at a cost to taxpayers of $12.6 million.

"Therefore," auditors wrote, "there were at least three times the numbers of fully qualified applicants as Prep School graduates from the same target groups."

As for recruited athletes, on average 94 a year were given slots in the prep school over five years, from 2000 to 2005, despite there being "no basis in the School's Headquarters Air Force (HAF) approved mission or DoD's guidance to target recruited athletes." (Worth noting is that the percentage of the prep school comprised of recruited athletes has grown from 39 percent eight years ago to 45 percent this year.)

Auditors said they couldn't determine how long recruited athletes had been admitted, because there was no documentation of approval, but the practice was determined to have been in place since at least 1995. Eliminating recruited athletes from the prep school could save $5.5 million a year, auditors said.

The academy superintendent when auditors issued their report was Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., though he's not identified by name in the audit report. The superintendent "nonconcurred" with the audit findings, saying in written comments, "USAFA leadership feels that the size of the Preparatory School is correct based on the benefits it provides to the Academy and the Air Force."

In 2007, when auditors returned to follow up on the previous report, they found some changes, but no reduction in the size of the prep school and no offering of those slots as direct appointments to fully qualified candidates. By then, the academy had officially identified recruited athletes as a prep-school-targeted group under a directive from then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne (who would resign in 2008 amid fallout from a nuclear weapons incident).

Auditors noted the school had, however, invigorated its honor program by developing classroom training, investigating violations, and no longer allowing athletes to participate in intercollegiate sports games while on honor code probation or other restriction. Those steps resulted from the assignment, under Gen. Rosa, of more than a dozen reservists to run the prep school's honor program and teach courses on leadership and character, academy officials have said previously.

During that time frame, from 2005 to 2008, preppie violations abated to just 15 percent of freshmen honor code violations, basically in line with their percentage representation.

But that intensive training ended in 2008 when the Air Force downsized and reassigned personnel. Since 2009, prep school graduates have been responsible for 38.5 percent of freshman honor violations at a time when they comprised an average of 14.1 percent of the class.

Roche, who left his post in January 2005, now tells the Indy in an email, "One might say that the prep school has a difficult mission, and needs constant oversight."

No requirements

The hallways at the prep school are painted with quotes from generals and other role models, and one poster recently made headlines. It states the academy's honor code — "We will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does" — except the word "cheat" is omitted.

But the bigger oddity was that the 29-year-old poster also contained the line, "Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably, so help me God." The religious reference raised a protest from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson directed a review, which concluded "so help me God" will be considered optional.

Rodda says honor is embedded in military training through lessons on different topics, guest speakers and the like. Unlike the academy, where cadets run the honor program, staff is in charge at the prep school. Honor boards, wherein the violation is investigated, are rare, she says, with one held last year, and one so far this year. (If a candidate admits to a violation, no board is held.)

Honor is among the considerations when it comes time to figure out who from the prep school is going to be offered one of the AFA's 1,190 appointments (see "Reaching 'the hill'"). But those decisions seem to be purely subjective. There is no GPA requirement for graduation, no test-score hurdle, no mandatory score for military performance, no honor-and-character requirement.

The Independent found only two expectations articulated for the service academies' prep schools in general, both by a working group formed by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. A 2012 Government Accountability Office update of its 2003 review of the academies states that the ratio of prep students entering an academy should be greater than 70 percent of the number who entered the prep school.

The Air Force Academy failed to meet that guideline four of the last nine years, most recently this year.

In addition, prep students' graduation rate from an academy shouldn't lag behind the graduate rate of direct appointees by more than 5 percent. The Air Force Academy failed to meet that goal three of the last nine years, most recently for the Class of 2013, for which there was a 6.8 percent graduation gap between preppies and direct appointees.

But Rodda emphasizes that not everything can be measured with numbers.

"We really look at the whole person," Rodda explains. "It's not just about academic success, although that's key. We also want to make sure they are persons of character and they are demonstrating improvement in physical fitness. It is a very competitive selection process. I consult with staff about who we should recommend, present those individuals to the academy board, and then the board votes."

Voting members of the board include the superintendent, vice superintendent, commandant of cadets, vice commandant, dean of faculty, director of athletics, vice director of athletics, four academic department chairs and a member at large.

The director of admissions is a member of the board, but has no vote.

zubeck@csindy.com

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