"After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I've concluded that graduates of the service academies don't stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.
This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school? Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers — three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way — they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects. " Ricks
Wow! Tom Ricks is about to find out that hell hath no fury like West Point alumni scorned. His willingness to write this column is a measure of how secure he feels behind his wall of successful books. Every once in a while someone decides to take up this idea. It is usually an expensive idea for the proponent.
There is very little chance that the service academies; West Point (USMA), Annapolis (USNA), the Air Force Academy (USAFA) are going to be done away with. People generally like the idea of these undergraduate publicly funded university colleges. These institutions find their students through a competitive process that is as close to fair as they have been able to make it. Congressmen have the ability to NOMINATE candidates for these schools, but the service academies themselves decide who will be ADMITTED. The screening process that lies between those two "gates" is a massive barrier to admittance of the unqualified. That process produces a lot of available cadetships that congressmen do not fill. Those available positions are filled with young people who are judged qualified by the academies and who were nominated by other congressmen or from the ranks by the services themselves. Just to make sure that young people who show some potential as leaders are not disavantaged by poor prior educational opportunities, the Army actually runs a one year prep school for enlisted candidates before a decision is reached about them for admission to West Pont. Students at the service academies are members of the armed forces. They are paid a salary. How good is the education? Since I am a former faculty member at West Point I will leave that judgment to others. Americans value such a "path" open to talent for those who find it. There is no real chance that these colleges will "go away."
Do the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force really need the service academies to produce commissioned officers? No. They do not. Ricks' arguments about money, diversity of educational experience, and careerism and cronyism are all rather valid and the truth of Ricks' points are generally understood by the great majority of those most concerned, officers themselves.
Nevertheless, the country values these schools and they will endure.
Ricks' points about the war colleges is very interesting. These mid-career schools were founded at the end of the Victorian age to provide advanced professional education for exceptionally promising officers. They were created with European models in mind. The "Ecole Superieur de Guerre," and the "Kriegsakademie" were the models, Over the years these schools have declined and degenerated until they are now third rate graduate schools, paper mills that grind out certificates with which officers can satisfy the bureaucratic demands of their services with regard to advanced degrees and promotion. These schools are also expensive to run and, as Ricks says, they allow officers who need exposure to diversity of opinion to "hide" in an isolation that weakens the intellect rather than strengthens it. These schools are still very selective. One does not apply for attendance. One is selected by a service wide board. Sending the selected to good civilian Graduate schools as a substitute opportunity is an appealing alternative and that is done with some of the best selectees. A representative group of civilian employees of the government are allowed to attend the war colleges. The method of their selection is quite different.
In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I was selected for and graduated from the resident course at the Army War College. It was a delightful but not very challenging year except for the cance it gave me to learn from the great Israeli/American Clausewitz scholar, Michael Handel. pl