by Amanda Miller Luciano
Air Force Academy recruiters are strategizing to get ahead of challenges posed by nationally declining college enrollment and poor military recruitment performance in recent years. And it worked this year, with applications up 21 percent year over year.
“We’re back to historic norms,” says Col. Art Primas, director of admissions. “Last year we had some challenges and we saw a pretty significant decrease.”
Applications for new Air Force Academy cadets, which are tallied in January, fell from 11,599 in 2021 to 8,393 in 2022. This year, they popped back up to 10,058, which is more in line with application numbers from 2020 and 2019.
The Academy expects to enroll 1,135 students into the class of 2027.
The COVID pandemic can be blamed for much of the disruption in the Academy’s recruitment efforts, Primas said. Recruiters were not able to attend in-person events or make the direct connects they rely on to reach prospective cadets because of COVID restrictions. Because recruitment efforts really begin with high school juniors, the effects of COVID especially showed up in the 2022 application figures.
While the tally is much improved, Primas notes that this year’s application numbers are still slightly lower than they were before the pandemic.
“There are a lot of recruitment headwinds we face,” Primas says. “We’re working to get ahead of the challenge.”
Nationally, college enrollment was falling before the pandemic, declining from a peak of 21.1 million in 2010 to 19 million in 2020 (a 9.6 percent drop), according to information from educationdata.com. Post-secondary enrollment fell another 14.6 percent from 2020 to 16.2 million in 2022.
Additionally, the military has fallen short of its recruitment goals in recent years. The Air Force was the only branch to meet active-duty recruitment goals in 2022, but it also fell short of National Guard and Reserves recruitment by 2,400 and 1,400 people respectively, according to a September report from the Department of Defense to the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.
“The propensity to serve has changed,” Primas says.
The Academy hosted a summit last week, bringing together recruitment officers from all over the world to discuss this year’s success and strategize for continued growth.
Lt. Ellie Beaulieu, a 2022 Academy graduate, is an Admissions Advisor based in Los Angeles. In the fall, the history major will begin training to be a space intelligence officer. But for this year, her full-time job is recruitment for the Air Force Academy. She visited more than 60 schools in the L.A. area and attended multiple career fairs and college recruitment events.
“It was just me,” she says. “I tell students about my experience at the Air Force Academy and help them navigate the rigorous application process.”
Beaulieu said there were more Admissions Advisors like her on the ground in communities around the country this year than there were two years ago, which could have positively influenced the increase in applications.
“My job is to go to high-performing schools and reach out to qualified students who might not know about the education opportunity at the Air Force Academy,” Beaulieu says. “I didn’t find out about the service academies until late in my junior year myself.”
So, along with informing high school students about the Air Force Academy, she encourages them to apply even if they think they’re behind in the process.
“It’s not a regular college application,” Beaulieu says. “It’s five times more work.”
In addition to making the application, students have to pass physical fitness assessments, and have a nomination from their U.S. Senator or Representative.
Of course, once appointed to the Academy, students do not have to pay tuition or room and board.
“That’s something we obviously mention,” Beaulieu says. “College is really expensive. But we tell them about that after we know they have an inclination to serve.”
There are a lot of recruitment headwinds we face.” — Col. Art Primas
Lt. Col. Brian Zajick is a Regional Support Lead based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He has been an Admissions Liaison for the Air Force Academy for 20 years. He mentors prospective cadets and helps them navigate the application process. He also conducts admissions interviews for applicants he has not mentored.
Zajick has seen Air Force Academy applications fluctuate over the years.
“We are doing a much better job of getting the word out recently,” he says.
Since he’s based overseas, Zajick’s direct recruitment efforts are focused on the children of current service members stationed abroad.
“They’re like oysters,” he said. “They’re either all in or all out on the military.”
Zajick also approaches first-year enlisted airmen as the Academy reserves 85 spaces a year for airmen under the age of 23 who want to apply. It’s rare in recent years that all of those spaces are filled, he says. There are also spaces for 15 to 20 foreign students who are citizens of ally nations.
Recruitment has changed over the years since Zajick began. He was also an Admissions Advisor, like Beaulieu, in his first year after graduating from the Academy.
“We’re in a time in history when not many people have served in the military,” Zajick says. “My father was in Vietnam. Today, you don’t get as many people who have those family connections. There’s not the innate interest to serve.”
That, and a perception of danger, are hurdles to Air Force Academy recruitment, he says. Parents often worry about the threat of war. But the biggest resistance he sees from parents is a reluctance to have their son or daughter going to school so far away and to being stationed away from their hometown and family.
“Even my parents,” says Beaulieu, who is from upstate New York. “I remember sitting down and having those conversations with my parents and my [Admissions Liaison]. They didn’t want me to fly halfway across the country to college.”
Recruitment strategies now are focused on getting enough Admissions Liaisons, who can work in the position all over the country and even the world as reservists, and Admissions Advisors on the ground getting the word out, and working with students to get through the arduous and complicated application process.
“The biggest challenge,” Zajick says, “is raising awareness. A lot of people have never heard of the education opportunity of the Air Force Academy. There are qualified people out there who never knew this was an option.”
Air Force Academy applications, by graduating class: