Three decades ago, when I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, just 10 percent of the students in my class were women.
Since then, women have made gains in many areas of American society—from Congress to corporate boardrooms. But at West Point the numbers have barely budged: By the time I retired from the Army, in 2014, just 16 percent of students were women.
In 2018, the number bumped up to 20 percent, but that is still low. The situation isn’t much better at the other service academies. The Air Force Academy’s 2018 graduating class was just shy of 22 percent women, and the Naval Academy came in only a bit better, at 25 percent.
How can it be that America’s military academies are still admitting and graduating so few women—especially when these schools are free and prestigious, and across the country women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees? This low percentage persists even now that all military occupations and units are open to women. The small percentage of women who do gain admission often perform better than their male classmates. Despite women making up just under 20 percent of the 2018 West Point class, eight of the top 10 graduates were women, and women made up 44 percent of honor roll students.
It turns out Congress might be limiting qualified women’s ability to access this elite educational opportunity.
By law, and with a few exceptions, West Point only considers applicants who have been nominated by a member of Congress from their state. (Lawmakers make their nominations based on an application and in-person interview.) A report released over the summer by the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center revealed that since 1994 women have never made up more than 27 percent of all congressional nominations made in any year for admission to the three military academies. According to the report, Democrats have, on average, given 22 percent of their nominations to women, while Republicans have given 20 percent of their nominations to women. (The CVLC made multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to get the data from the military for its report.)
The CVLC was not able to obtain data on the gender composition of each Congress member’s applicant pool, so it’s not clear whether lawmakers are failing to nominate women at rates commensurate with the applications they receive. But there is enough variation in how many women lawmakers nominate to raise the troubling possibility that some members are failing to nominate qualified women. Take New Jersey. How is it that Senator Cory Booker gives approximately 40 percent of his nominations to women while New Jersey’s other senator, Robert Menendez, gives only 26 percent of his nominations to women? Academy applicants know that they should apply to all their representatives to maximize their chances of admission; it is hard to believe that Booker and Menendez’s applicant pools contain radically different numbers of women.
And why is it that Hawaii’s representatives, on average, give 34 percent of their nominations to women, while Vermont and Massachusetts give just 18 percent of their nominations to women?
Particularly low nominators are both Republicans and Democrats, men and women. In fact, two 2020 presidential contenders, Bernie Sanders, at 17 percent women, and Amy Klobuchar, at 16 percent women, are in the bottom 15 of the 100 Senate nominators. Booker, at 40 percent, is the No. 1 Senate nominator of women. (CLVC was not able to obtain per representative percentages for the Naval Academy; these numbers reflect nominations only for the other two service academies.)
Congress is not solely responsible for this discrepancy. Congress and the academies form a symbiotic partnership when it comes to who attends the military academies. In addition to making the final decision on who is admitted from the pool of nominations, the academies’ admissions departments market to, recruit and coach applicants through the admissions process. Their efforts are critical to developing a robust and competitive applicant pool.
In 2013, during a conference at West Point, I asked the dean about the persistent low percentage of women at West Point. His response was that West Point’s demographics should mirror the Army that it serves and that since the Army is made up of less than 20 percent women so too should the academy. At that time, West Point was following a strict class composition goal that was set at 16 percent women.
A professor who sat on the admissions committee around the same time told me that the selection process was very opaque, even to those who reviewed applications. When she and others asked about the low goal for women, they were told that because women were not allowed to serve in the infantry or armor occupations, they were automatically limited to less than 20 percent of any class. However, she said a close examination of occupational assignments available at that time revealed that the goal could easily have been raised to 35 percent and still allowed women to commission in all of the other available occupations. She said she reviewed the files of many highly qualified women who never matriculated at West Point and wondered whether they had simply chosen to go to another university or if they were never offered admission.
My worry, which I wrote about in 2013, was that West Point was using its “goal” as a ceiling. It is not uncommon, nor is it illegal, for universities or colleges to establish minority recruiting goals in order to create a diverse and representative student body. But it is illegal to limit access with goals that essentially serve as ceilings. It is a form of structural inequality that is designed to limit access to a minority group without appearing to do so. Today, all occupations and units are open to women, so there should be no limitations placed on the number of women at the academies.
After West Point’s gross gender imbalance was publicly challenged, including by me, in 2013, the admissions goal for women was raised from 16 to 20 percent, and later to 22 percent, which is the most recently published goal. Not unsurprisingly, West Point quickly reached its new goals. What was, and remains, apparent is that the fractional minority of women who gain admission are highly qualified, graduating disproportionally high in their classes.
In response to criticism about low admission rates for women, West Point in the past has offered two explanations. One is that women “ naturally” matriculate at low rates. That may be true to a degree, but the military also has control over how it markets itself to women and who it aims to recruit. The other is that by law, the school can admit those only with congressional nominations.
In the past few years there have been signs of improvement. The professor who sat on the admissions committee said there was some change under Superintendent Robert Caslen, who took over in 2013. She saw changes in the academy’s marketing practices including more efforts to highlight women and their successes.
Colonel Deborah McDonald, director of admissions at West Point, says “in 2014, USMA began developing gender-specific recruitment mailings, specifically addressing women in their first three years of high school. These mailings celebrate the accomplishments of women West Point graduates, describing how they have gone on to become generals, astronauts, executives and government leaders.” She adds that “increased athletic opportunities have also increased women’s interest in applying to West Point.” In 2016, for example, the women’s lacrosse team moved up to Division I.
In 2019, with a new marketing effort, McDonald says, West Point has seen a 40 percent increase in applications overall, with a 50 percent increase in women applicants. The most recently admitted class is 24 percent women.
But that is still not high enough. Clearly, both Congress and the service academies are going to have to try harder to recruit, nominate and admit women if they want the most talented military possible. The CVLC report makes several recommendations for leveling the playing field. It proposes that members of Congress be required to report annually who is receiving their congressional nominations by race, ethnicity and sex. It also recommends increasing recruitment efforts geared toward women, and diversifying and training the nomination selection committees.
The academies must market themselves to women, and congressional representatives must monitor, track and publish their nominations. It is time for women to receive equal access, not more, not less, to taxpayer-provided educational benefits and to shoulder the same responsibilities for national defense.