In its recent decision to ban race-conscious admissions policies at colleges and universities, the U.S. Supreme Court made one exception: military academies. The five schools led by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine hold “potentially distinct interests” in continuing affirmative action, Chief Justice John Roberts argued in the majority opinion. Having a diverse officer corps to lead a diverse group of enlisted service members, Roberts wrote, is vital to our national security interests.

Midshipmen salute during the national anthem at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation and commissioning ceremony in Annapolis, Md., on May 26. The three largest service academies – the Naval Academy, West Point and the Air Force Academy – have underenrolled Black and Hispanic students relative to the total share of undergraduates at civilian four-year institutions for the past decade. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS

But as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted in her dissent, this exemption – leaving aside its hypocrisy and racism – won’t achieve the goal of creating a diverse, equitable or inclusive military. Here are three reasons why:

• 1. The military recruits more of its officers through college ROTC programs than through service academies.

The Reserve Officer Training Corps program is offered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities and serves as a pipeline for military leadership. In exchange for paid college tuition, students agree to serve in the military after graduation. Many of those schools are newly subject to the Supreme Court’s ban on race-conscious admissions policies and will likely admit fewer underrepresented students, effectively making ROTC programs less racially diverse.

This will have huge implications for the military’s officer corps. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 37% of active-duty officers across the military were commissioned through ROTC programs, almost double the share of officers from the service academies. Officers from underrepresented groups overall are more likely to gain commissions through non-academy routes and are often recruited from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Limiting diversity for non-academy ROTC programs undermines the concept of “distinct interests” that Chief Justice Roberts used to justify the military exemption.

• 2. The academies struggle to recruit and retain students from underrepresented backgrounds.


The service academies have never been bastions of inclusivity for the armed forces. The three largest schools – the U.S. Military Academy (also known as “West Point”); the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy – have underenrolled Black and Hispanic students relative to the total share of undergraduates at civilian baccalaureate college and universities for the entire past decade.

Congress also contributes to racial inequalities in the armed forces through its provision of nominations for applicants to the service academies. Candidates are required to submit a nomination from their representative or senator, with each member of Congress able to fill up to five slots at each academy at one time (except for the Coast Guard Academy, which does not have a nominations requirement).

Black and Hispanic students made up only 6% and 8%, respectively, of congressional nominations for the 117th Congress and were even underrepresented in nominations from racially diverse districts. For students from underrepresented backgrounds, discriminatory barriers persist after enrollment. At both the Naval and Coast Guard academies, underrepresented students graduated at lower rates than their peers throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

• 3. The exemption for military academies now faces a similar legal challenge.

Students for Fair Admissions, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case striking down race-conscious admissions, and other groups will continue to push for an end to all policies that promote diversity in higher education. In fact, in mid-September, Students for Fair Admissions sued West Point in federal court over its commitment to affirmative action. The group is actively seeking plaintiffs to challenge race-based admissions at other service academies as well.

In addition, policymakers have proposed amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to block the military exemption. Their goal is to reduce diversity across the board.

Thousands of individuals from underrepresented communities serve in the military, driven by a sense of duty along with the promise of a debt-free college education and a path to upward economic mobility. The “distinct interests” that the armed forces have are the same as all other colleges and universities.

Reducing racial inequities is not morally or legally superior just because it occurs for military academies versus civilian universities. Policymakers must work with postsecondary leaders, advocates and students to ensure equitable access to educational opportunities – at military academies and civilian institutions alike.

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