Applications to the Air Force Academy are way down — 20 percent — as COVID continues

Dan Boyce/CPR News
A sign directs visitors to an admissions event on the U.S. Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs on July 29, 2022.

Applications for admittance to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs dropped by about 20 percent for the latest incoming class of cadets compared with application numbers seen before the coronavirus pandemic. 

A total of 8,393 people submitted applications to be part of the academy’s class of 2026. Ultimately, 1,071 were admitted into the military institution. 

Col. Arthur Wayne Primas Jr., the academy’s director of admissions, said approximately 10,600 people applied in the years leading up to the rapid spread of COVID-19. He attributed the drop largely to the academy’s decision to stop in-person recruiting for much of the pandemic. That meant recruiters did not visit high school college fairs or recruit at youth STEM competitions. It also meant the academy’s largest recruitment event, known as its Summer Seminar, was held only virtually for two years. 

Primas said in-person recruitment not only brings in more applicants, but can be critical in inspiring a young person who is the first generation of their family considering college or who comes from an underrepresented community. 

“If they're able to speak to … somebody who may look like them, may have the same background and experiences as them, [they can] see that this is an institution that values everybody,” Primas said. 

Primas said West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy have seen a similar drop in applicants since the pandemic. He also pointed to recruitment problems plaguing the military as a whole, an issue with roots likely extending far beyond the coronavirus. 

Primas has his acceptance letter to the Air Force Academy framed on a wall in his office — it’s dated April 27, 1988. It notes that 16,500 people applied to be part of the academy’s class of 1992 — his graduation year — about half of this year’s applicant total.

“The propensity to serve among America's youth has decreased in the last several years,” Primas said. “Getting them to stay engaged and interested and consider military service … is something that we continue to work on every year.”
The academy resumed its in-person summer seminar events this year. Leaders also hope a new visitor center, now under construction, will help attract more interest in the institution.