The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is failing as a commissioning source for future leaders in the maritime domain. Since 1929, when then-Superintendent Rear Admiral Harry Hamlet penned the institution’s Mission Statement, all incoming cadets have been required to memorize its hallowed words “to graduate young men and women with sound bodies, stout hearts and alert minds, with a liking for the sea and its lore.”This four-pillared approach was never presented as a hierarchy of importance, but rather as a framework of equal development imperatives to produce well-rounded ensigns.
Through World War II, Vietnam, the post-9/11 wars, and more, the leaders of the Coast Guard have navigated their crews through crises by putting their training, grounded in all four pillars of the Mission, to action. However, in a growing era of great power competition, while the Coast Guard finds itself operating in contested waters around the globe where the maritime expertise and leadership prowess of its junior officers influence mission success, the Academy errantly prioritizes academics over all other areas of development. The result is an officer corps, and a Coast Guard, unprepared for the challenges ahead.
Against this backdrop, Coast Guard Leaders are facing a crisis: junior officers do not want to go afloat. The rigorous qualification process, disruptions to family life, and the emergence of landside career paths have all been cited for contributing to this problem, but there is more below the waterline. The Academy’s skewed focus on academics over practical maritime experience and professional training, producing commissioned officers more concerned with future graduate school opportunities than their primary division officer duties, has escaped the notice and warranted attention of senior leaders. The current systematic prioritization of academics will continue to result in the Academy’s failure to meet the service’s need for career afloat officers unless decisive action is taken to address the military precedence average (MPA) calculation, minimal time dedicated to professional development, and scarcity of practical training cadets receive aboard cutters and at operational units.
The policy determining class rankings demonstrates how academic success is prioritized above all other performance areas. Per the Regulations of the Corps of Cadets, MPA determines cadet rankings relative to their classmates, dictating the likeliness of selection for their first-choice billet (assignment officers fill fleet vacancies in descending rank order), future promotion zones, and special opportunities at the Academy. An ensign’s first billet is viewed as his or her first steps toward a career path, living in a desired area, or experience with a specific mission. As such, MPA is a critical factor throughout a cadet’s 200-week journey.
If an outsider were asked what they thought contributed to a cadet’s MPA, likely answers would be some combination of military performance, seamanship, academics, and physical fitness. Yet, most are surprised to learn that MPA is calculated by 70 percent academic performance (GPA), 25 percent suitability for service or military performance (MPI), and 5 percent physical development competencies (PDC.)This formula is subtly shaping future generations of officers by encouraging them to prioritize serving personal desires over taking care of others.
Incoming fourth-class cadets must immediately learn how to manage competing demands on their time. As they begin to understand how skewed the MPA formula is, they become keenly aware that academics take precedence. Consequently, when faced with either taking duty or studying, there is hardly any management being practiced at all. The MPA formula ensures academics always take precedence even though it is widely understood that MPI better encapsulates what it means to be an effective officer. In fact, a study commissioned by the U.S. Military Academy demonstrated that the correlation between academic success and officer effectiveness “did not demonstrate a very high relationship.”1 In contrast, the Coast Guard Academy’s Cadet Evaluation Report, which generates the numeric grade for MPI, evaluates cadets on various performance dimensions including “professional competence,” “developing others,” and “initiative,” which all have clear service applications and are fundamentally selfless.
Developing Well-Rounded Officers
Current policy maintains a system in which cadets with a knack for academics but deficient suitability for service can find themselves outranking those quantifiably more suitable to serve but who struggle with math or science. At the most extreme, this allows superlative academic success to buoy downright poor military performance. Consequently, Academy leadership must adjust the MPA formula to value well-rounded officers. An evaluative prioritization shift to 55 percent GPA, 40 percent MPI, 5 percent PDC will help cadets reassess their priorities, allowing them to pursue opportunities for professional development not as a tradeoff for MPA points, but to advance both their personal readiness and class rank at the same time.
Outside individual time-management decisions, the 200-week curriculum itself demonstrates a clear preference for academics. Monday through Friday, there are only 100 minutes a day reserved—but not necessarily used—for military training and professional development compared with 420 minutes of academic time. Despite this lopsided distribution, the “School House” permits academic courses to hold Cadet Academic Assistance Program sessions that directly conflict with the 1900–2000 military training block, increasing the imbalance.
The military training calendar solidifies this preference. When the class of 2004 graduated, there were formal room and wing inspections nearly every Saturday;in the Fall 2021 semester, there were three. Certainly, a clean room does not directly correlate with military readiness, but the constant practice in attention to detail, time management, and spartan discipline remind cadets that their training and their future are both more than reading books and crunching numbers.2 Once incoming cadets complete the seven-week military indoctrination program—swab summer—the military pillar of the practicum becomes a periphery focus—including essential training in practical seamanship, as training and inspections are marginally sprinkled into the academic experience.
In total, cadets accumulate approximately 140 sea days before graduation: 6-weeks on board the USCGC Barque Eagle (WIX-327) during third-class summer, three weeks on board 44-foot sailing yachts during second-class summer, and 11-weeks on board a cutter during first-class summer. However, this practicum is of questionable efficacy, as sailing a yacht to Nantucket is only tenuously related to conning a Coast Guard cutter. Moreover, many first class go to drydocked cutters, never leaving the pier, or only go underway for 6 weeks rather than 11, opting instead for internships and air stations. In summer 2021, more than one third of first-class cadets were assigned to internships or air stations. This apportionment helped contribute to 42 percent of the class not having enough sea time to earn a 100-ton license as of November 2021.
The misplaced curriculum priorities are evident when compared with those of other naval commissioning sources. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy requires midshipmen to undergo two sea periods, one 135-day period during sophomore year and another 265-day period during junior year, forming “a cooperative educational program designed to give you practical knowledge of the performance and operating characteristics of various classes of vessels, the operating requirements in different trade routes, and labor relations in the ocean shipping industry,” all of which are essential knowledge for seagoing officers.Similarly, SUNY Maritime requires three summer sea terms, either all on their training ship or in combination with a commercial shipping vessel, for a sum of no less than 180 days at sea. These graduates are significantly better acquainted with the global maritime community and associated stakeholders than Cost Guard Academy graduates.
While it may be a bridge too far to insist the Academy take a hard look at semesters at sea, coordinators of internships and special assignments should question whether their programs are best suited for graduating fleet-ready ensigns. First-class summer is a great opportunity to acquire experience and qualifications, but many cadets spend time at specialized units, intelligence agencies, private companies, and other communities they will not enter until later in their careers, if ever. The Coast Guard’s Strategic Vision for the Coast Guard Academy, signed by the Commandant, advises the Academy to “Leverage academic programs [ . . . ] that expand awareness of Coast Guard operations and the role junior officers have” while also mandating that coordinators “evaluate how well existing Academy programs and activities contribute to delivering service-ready officers.”3 In alignment with this vision, the Academy must recognize that while these opportunities may help build organizational relationships, they are also degrading the overall maritime experience required to build fleet-ready ensigns and do little to expand Coast Guard specific knowledge pertinent to junior officers.
The final blow these practices have dealt to the fleet is the effects they have on the culture of the Corps of Cadets. As articulated by then–Lieutenant Commander Brian Smicklas in his article “Demise of the Cutterman,” the cost-benefit analysis conducted by junior officers when deciding whether to stay afloat has always been unfavorable; health, family life, and personal relationships are difficult to maintain at sea.This situation was tenuous when Academy graduates had some desire to go afloat in the first place but became critical when there was zero interest to begin with. The class of 2004 was the first class that did not send 100 percent of its graduates afloat; the 30 ashore billets and five flight school billets went to the top of the class almost without exception.4 Thus, the precedent was set, and a culture was created: top performers do not go afloat.
This is most unsettling considering the grave conclusion Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Monacelli reached in his more recent article “Demise of the Cutterman, Part II,” stating that “without dramatic, immediate action, it [the service] will have to select-and-direct cuttermen to serve afloat in six months’ time.”Similarly, the Coast Guard Academy, like any society, has its own social dynamics that influence words, actions, and behaviors, and there are those who possess more social capital than others. Because of the above factors and the monumental shift in 2004, the individuals with the most influence in the Corps of Cadets are those who excel academically.
Today, informal conversations in Chase Hall revere the Fulbright and Truman Scholars, flight school applicants, top secret clearance holders, and others who show the highest prospects of avoiding going afloat and “five-and-diving" (leaving the service immediately on completion of the payback commitment). Many of those positioned at the bottom of the class lament the likelihood of going afloat on larger platforms, secure in the knowledge that the coveted landside jobs and smaller patrol boats will be taken early, even though the afloat community is the historical and operational lifeblood of our service.
Lieutenant Commanders Monacelli and Smicklas surmised that the stressors of the afloat community push talent out. That may be true, but after four years steeped in this culture, ensigns join the cutter fleet as a last resort and ready to leave, often selecting billets to better position themselves for a second tour outside of the afloat community. So pervasive is this sentiment that more comfortable assets, promotion incentives, and even $40,000 bonuses cannot convince junior officers to do their job.
The Academy must develop some esprit de corps centered around military service and maritime leadership through policy changes that better reflect the values of the Mission Statement. First, the Academy must analyze whether the MPA formula best produces a fleet-ready ensign and adjust priorities accordingly. Second, it must analyze its military training program and how it builds the maritime experience of future officers. Enacting these reforms would communicate a major shift in values to the Corps and would begin chipping away at the “School House’s” superiority in Chase Hall. If senior service leaders do not plot an immediate course correction for the cadet curriculum, the Coast Guard Academy risks becoming little more than a nautically-themed school on the banks of the Thames River, with a service woefully short of officers ready and willing to pursue careers at sea.
1. Helen R. Haggerty, Personnel Research for the United States Military Academy, 1942–53, U.S. Department of the Army, Personnel Research Branch, 14 (1953).
2. Correspondence with Coast Guard commander and 2004 Coast Guard Academy graduate by author, 15 October 2021.
3. The Coast Guard’s Strategic Vision for the Coast Guard Academy 2019–2023.
4. Correspondence with Coast Guard commander and 2004 Coast Guard Academy graduate by author, 15 October 2021.