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A U.S. Public Service Academy Is Unnecessary

Feb 15, 2008
As the new year begins, I read of a proposal for a U.S. Public Service Academy; its admissions, leadership training and post-graduate service obligations would be modeled after the five U.S. military academies.

The author of the proposal, Chris Myers Asch, a Teach for American veteran, has said that 16 senators and 93 representatives support legislation for the new academy. The legislation to create the academy is sponsored by Democratic presidential aspirant Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has endorsed it.

There must be something in the water in Hope, Arkansas.

This proposal is a bad idea. I have studied military recruiting in preparing a new novel and have previously worked with college career counselors, so I'm qualified to explain why. The enrollment target of 1,275 entering freshmen, rising to 5,100 undergraduates, is too ambitious, and the proposed institution is unnecessary.

It would be more cost-effective to model the academy proposal after ROTC programs; ROTC covers tuition, fees and living allowances at accredited universities and provides the same summer leadership experiences as the military academies. Better, ROTC allows for "late-bloomers," students who have waited until their junior years in college to declare their major and interest in military service.

The author made an extremely valid point: the military academies are among the most selective institutions in the land because they offer a free education, fulfill a desire to serve, and to lead. The reputation of the educational experience is unquestioned in the military and the private sector.

However, that experience can be offered less expensively without building a new national university. For example, INROADS, a national and privately sponsored internship organization, places 4,500 minority college-age youth in business, communications and engineering assignments in over 400 corporations, while also offering coaching, counseling and leadership training. INROADS has no ties to schools, but operates 50 offices across the country.

I understand why the author wanted to model a public services academy after the military academies, but I wonder why America needs a similarly elite public service institution when there are so many fine public policy, education and law enforcement programs offered in hundreds of colleges and universities. This is less true for the military. Only the military can teach military science. That is why we have military academies as well as active duty instructors teaching in ROTC programs, as well as public and private military colleges; civilians cannot teach the art and science of war.

The military academies retain another advantage over a civilian counterpart: they always find summer training assignments for Cadets, Midshipmen and the like during war and peace. There are fewer concerns about security clearances for trainees, since they will be serving in the same armed forces for the five years after they graduate. Law enforcement agencies and public school systems cannot offer the same experiences, especially to underclassmen.

In additions to comparisons with the military academies, I also have to consider a Public Service Academy against recent college start-ups in this country. It's wise to look at the accomplishments of well-financed, recently opened post-secondary schools, then consider them against the merits of this public proposal.

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering opened in 2001 with a "pre-freshman" class of 30 Olin Partners, students who had turned down offers of admission from the leading engineering schools. The following year, Olin welcomed a freshman class of 75 students. According to Olin's Web site, these students, like the original 30 Partners, were close to the cream of the crop for engineering school applicants:

They represent 34 states and one foreign country; they have an average GPA of 4.3 on a 4.0 scale; 29 are National Merit Finalists; three are U.S. Presidential Scholars; 41 were recognized by the Advanced Placement program for academic excellence; 29 were valedictorians or salutatorians; and, in a rarity for an engineering school, the class is gender balanced.

Olin is still extremely selective; their total enrollment is just under 300 students, with 75 spots expected to be available in next year's freshman class.

Patrick Henry College, the first U.S. college founded specifically for Christian home-schooled students opened in 2000 with 92 students. Today the College enrolls 325.

Ave Maria University, the first new U.S. Catholic university in 50 years, opened its campus in 2003, also with a freshman class of 75 students. Today the university enrolls 600.

The University of California-Merced, the newest public state university, enrolls 1,800 students. According to their 2005 budget report, UC-Merced opened with 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in the fall of 2005. Total investment in the campus at the time was $427 million, nearly twice the amount proposed for the U.S. Public Service Academy.

These four schools had the benefit of generous financial support from foundations (Olin), wealthy individuals (Patrick Henry and Ave Maria) and the largest state in the union (UC-Merced).

Yet none of these schools set a first year enrollment target as ambition as the one for the proposed U.S. Public Service Academy.

If the legislation for the proposed academy were to pass with its current enrollment targets, and built in Washington DC, the institution would be critically under-funded.

It would also be an elite public school with no reason to exist.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest
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