African-Americans continue to be under-represented at the highly selective U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but medical issues may contribute as much as academics to low admission rates. Although applications from Black students are on the rise, officials say their often unhealthy lifestyles make it hard for them to meet the academy’s admissions standards.
According to West Point officials, the past five years have seen more Black high school students fail required physical fitness requirements because of health issues like diabetes, asthma and obesity. SAT scores for Black men have also been dropping at the academy, where Blacks currently make up only 6 percent of the student population.
“You can’t be in the Army if you’re not fit,” says Capt. Rance Lee, a minority enrollment officer in the admissions office. “And kids these days just don’t exercise.”
About 1,320 cadet candidates were accepted this year, including 181 women, 101 Hispanics, 79 Asian Americans, 78 Blacks and 13 American Indians. The academy received nearly 10,300 applications for the 2006-2007 academic year.
“There are health problems across the board, not just minorities,” says Lt. Col. Deborah J. McDonald, West Point’s associate director of admissions, enrollment and recruiting. “But there is no marketing campaign that can influence [leading a healthy lifestyle].”
Officials say they’re pleased to see applications rebound after a dramatic post-9/11 dropoff. So far, Black applications are up 10 percent from last year’s figures, and Hispanic application has jumped 24 percent, McDonald says. The application process ends in February.
The Reserve Officers Training Corps has also seen poor health bite into its ranks, says Paul Kotakis, a spokesman for the program.
“Under-representation is not as much of an issue as getting students to commit to a full-time program here,” he says. “There are more nontraditional, part-time students around college campuses these days and ROTC programs require students to be full-time or not apply.”
In 1996, nearly 15 percent of the ROTC’s 36,365 cadets were Black. Today, the total number of cadets is down to 25,089, of which 12.2 percent are Black.
In 1996, West Point faculty and cadets formed the Association of Graduates Diversity Leadership Committee to boost Black enrollment to between 8 percent and 12 percent. The committee provides SAT preparation programs, mentorship for future cadets and physical fitness training.
The academy also features other minority outreach efforts and “minority blitzes” targeting inner city high schools in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City and Philadelphia, among others. Recruiters hope a personal, face-to-face experience, coupled with an aggressive multimedia campaign, will inspire more Black students to consider West Point.
Recruiters say they’re targeting their message of higher education and physical fitness to inner city school students as young as junior high. “If we talk to 200 kids and pick out at least five or six potential candidates and make the rest of them think about their future, then I consider it a success,” Lee says.
— By Shilpa Banerji
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