Military Service Academies — An Alternative Path to a Great Education

By Dave Rodriguez

The U.S. Naval Academy is located in Annapolis, MD.

The U.S. Naval Academy is located in Annapolis, MD.

I’ll be completely honest with you, when I was graduating high school and looking at colleges, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had not applied for any scholarships, nor had I put too much thought into what kind of career I wanted to pursue. Now, I grew up in a military family, and was not so subtly nudged towards applying to the Naval Academy. I didn’t want to burden my family with tuition either — and it was a pretty good school — what was there to lose? So I applied, and I haven’t regretted it since. 

What exactly are Service Academies?

The service academies are just like any other college, but with a twist ─ they also train military officers. Everyone who graduates from the service academies is commissioned as an officer in one of the branches of the military. While you do have to serve for a few years to pay back your educational costs, I never looked at it like that. Not only was I given a free education, I was also immediately hired at with fairly competitive salary and full benefits. As a 21 year old fresh out of school, that’s not a bad deal! Each of the academies is fully funded and ranks among the top undergraduate colleges in the country year after year. That leads to one of the coolest benefits the Service Academies provide: free tuition. In fact, everything is free. Everyone who attends does so on a full scholarship, to include room, board, and even medical costs. Cadets and midshipmen (what the student bodies are called at the academies) even get a small monthly stipend.

 Each branch has their own school, listed here:

United States Naval Academy (USNA), located in Annapolis, MD

United States Military Academy (USMA, or “West Point”), located in West Point, NY

United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), located in Colorado Springs, CO

United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), located in Kings Point, NY

United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA), located in New London, CT

Everyone has different opportunities available while attending as well as after graduation. If you want an opportunity to go to college at a great school, but think paying for it may be beyond your grasp, this is definitely something to look at.  

Now, there are several other aspects of academy life that make attending one of them a very different experience than a normal college. Academy students do not have the same level of freedom as normal college students. They are required to wear uniforms every day and have specific grooming standards (meaning the men all have short hair…). Time away from the campus can be limited, especially in the first few years. Most of your day follows a fairly regimented schedule, running from about 6:30 AM until 11:00 PM, and packed with events. You are definitely never bored. They are also very STEM focused; every degree program starts with a core curriculum that includes engineering, science, and calculus. Physical fitness is also an important aspect of life at the service academies. Cadets and Midshipmen have to pass regular physical fitness tests, so you see many more people out running than you might at a normal school. It’s not the easiest lifestyle, but if you can make it through, the benefits are definitely worthwhile. 

How do I apply?

This is another area where the service academies differ from a normal college — they have a much more involved application process. I’ll use the Naval Academy admission process here as an example, but each one follows a similar process (for reference, here is a link to the entire application). Applicants must be between 17 and 22 upon entry and cannot be married, pregnant, or responsible for children. This is so you can meet the requirements to receive a military commission once you graduate. Most of the normal application pieces are still there: take the SAT/ACT, submit a transcript, and complete the application.

Here is where it starts to get a little complicated. Everyone who is accepted to the academies has to receive a “nomination” from an official source, typically a congressmen or representative (except for the USCGA, which does not require them). This usually entails a separate application process and series of interviews, and is unique to every source. Browse around your congressman’s websites and there will usually be a link to their service academy page. As an example, here is Senator Ben Cardin’s.

You also have to complete a basic physical fitness test; the Naval Academy calls this the Candidate Fitness Assessmentand consists of a basketball throw, pull-ups, sit-ups, shuttle run, pushups, and a one mile run. Given the physical demands of the service academies, this test lets the admissions board see how well you might perform. Then, after you have completed all of your applications, gotten your nomination, and thrown your basketball, the final step requires you to sit down for an official interview with someone we call a Blue and Gold Officer. There are local officers across the country and they are more than willing to help out with the process; mine ended up coming over to my house for the interview. It is a long process and anyone interested in applying should start as soon as possible. 

What can high school students do now? Both Naval Academyand Air Force Academyhave a list of things that you can accomplish right now to help you on your way. The Service Academies take a lot of work, but provide the opportunity to attend school and are a path to college that can help those that, like me, did not want the burden of tuition to hold them back.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, Department of Defense or the US Government.