The Air Force Academy is among the most exclusive colleges in America, with nine applicants turned down for every one accepted - making it the 15th-toughest college in which to gain admittance, according to a U.S. News & World Report study.
The academy touts its academic standing and the quality of those who apply. High test scores, great grades and a pile of community service are the norm.
But there's a back door, and it's open wide for athletes. If you can throw a football or dunk a basketball, are at least 17, unmarried with no dependents, you're on track to become a cadet candidate at Air Force Academy Preparatory School. The school provides about a fifth of cadets entering the academy and a big share of its top athletes, including 17 of the school's 22 varsity basketball players this year and 69 of 189 football players.
It and similar cram schools at Army and Navy are unique, taxpayer-funded programs that give applicants an extra year after high school to meet academic muster to get into the respective academies. Prep schoolers are paid, get free tuition and train with coaches in the intricacies of academy sports. Each is packed with athletes.
"It's a football factory," said a former Air Force Academy enlisted leader who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
A Gazette investigation of the Air Force prep school revealed:
- The 240-student school houses nearly 150 athletes, including a 53-member football squad and 29 team managers, even as academy leaders claim the prep school is about leadership rather than sports.
- As character concerns for prep school athletes increased with allegations of drug use and sexual assault, the academy cut prep school character and leadership programs.
- Prep school admissions lack clear standards, and prep school athletes have entered the cadet wing despite grades that don't meet academy standards. Additionally, the academy doesn't use criminal background checks to screen would-be cadets.
- The academy has an outsized number of NCAA Division I teams - more than the University of Colorado and Colorado State University combined.
- Government Accountability Office reports dating to the 1970s found that athletes lagged nonathletes in grades. An academy study published this year included this statistic: Athletes in the Class of 2016 had a cumulative GPA of 2.6, while it was 2.94 for nonathletes. The study found that the athletes weren't underperforming because they entered the academy with lower academic abilities.
- A series of GAO reports has found that military academy prep schools had unclear missions, hazy standards and weren't meeting Pentagon goals to bring in enlisted troops, minorities and women.
The prep school was the first stop for three cadets court-martialed on sexual assault charges after 2012's "Operation Gridiron," detailed in a Gazette investigation in August. Two of those court-martialed cadets were accused of sexual assaults that occurred while they were attending the prep school.
The academy didn't directly respond to questions over whether the prep school or admissions process is being reviewed as part of an Inspector General's investigation into the culture of athletic programs at the academy.
The IG investigation was ordered by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson after The Gazette investigation into athlete misconduct.
"The intent is to make sure our athletic programs are in line with Air Force and USAFA standards and to provide a baseline as we continuously improve our athletic department," Johnson said. "Any inspection of cadet-athletes or the admission process will fall within this general inspection guidance."
Amid that inquiry, the academy has disciplined members of its men's gymnastics team for underage drinking and is investigating allegations of unspecified misconduct against a member of its men's basketball staff, the academy said Thursday in a news release.
Generally, though, academy officials defend the prep school as a fountain of diversity and leadership, which officials say strengthens the academy.
"The primary purpose of the Preparatory School is to give consideration for enrollment to nominees to fill officer accession objectives for minorities, including women, for enlisted applicants who, by their professional performance and demonstrated ability, deserve consideration, and for recruited athletes that meet all enrollment criteria," Johnson said in a statement. "All cadet candidates enrolled in the Prep School, whether they are a recruited athlete or not, must meet the same admissions standard as any other candidate."
Sports emphasis questioned
Prep school sports, leaders say, are there to build leaders, not to fill Falcon Stadium.
"Athletics play a key part in the physical fitness and that physical development," said Col. Jerry Szybist, the school's commander.
The prep school's roster includes 146 student-athletes representing 16 sports.
The school's Husky football team plays junior colleges around the region with a full schedule and a 53-member squad.
The Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., have prep school ranks brimming with future sports team stars. Nearly two-thirds of the football players at Army and Navy have prep school roots.
Preparatory schools were created for Army and Navy after World War I as a way to give enlisted soldiers, sailors and Marines a chance at becoming officers.
But GAO reports dating to the 1970s show that the schools have had little success in that realm but are a fine source of athletes.
In 2003, the GAO called on the academies to set mission statements and performance goals.
Air Force came up with this: "The prep school mission is to motivate, prepare, and evaluate selected candidates in an academic, military, moral, and physical environment, to perform successfully and enhance diversity at USAFA."
Szybist said that physical environment is accomplished through sports. Sports such as football, he said, equip troops for the conditions they might face in war.
"It's being able to discipline your body in those environments," he said.
For years, academies, especially Air Force, have dealt with staff concerns about the increasing role sports play in schools intended to create officers. A 2003 GAO survey found that 70 percent of the Air Force Academy's faculty and staff thought sports were overemphasized.
Retired Army Maj. Dwight Mears, a West Point graduate and former history professor at the school, wrote a paper last year analyzing Army's prep school and found academic standards took a back seat to athletic prowess.
"The standards are not applied at all, because it is not a regular appointment," he said. "They are not competed against like the regular appointments."
Mears' work got him a guest column in the Washington Post but didn't result in changes at Army.
An ardent critic of the Naval Academy Prep School, Annapolis English professor Bruce Fleming has been in hot water with Navy brass for his outspoken opinions. His latest run-in came in 2013, when he was suspended briefly over his criticism of Navy's sexual assault prevention program.
He contends that all three service academies run their prep schools as redshirt programs to grow crops of star athletes who will keep fans cheering.
"Their dirty secret for all the schools is their prep schools," Fleming said.
Prep schools operate outside NCAA rules. Technically separate, unaccredited schools of higher learning, they field sports teams that aren't required to meet eligibility requirements. Prep school students don't have to "redshirt" to gain an extra year of NCAA eligibility to accommodate their five-year military education.
While Air Force prep schoolers can't practice with the academy's football team, they can practice against it. The prep school is scheduled to play the Falcons' JV squad twice. It will travel to West Point to take on Army's prep school as part of a 10-game schedule.
Air Force Academy admissions boss Col. Carolyn Benyshek said the prep school looks at candidates' grades and test scores and also at leadership qualities that don't show up on report cards or in test scores.
"We're looking at more than just the academic piece," she said.
Coaches at military academies pick their top athletic prospects and get them into the admissions system through "blue chipping," which allots a number of slots at the academy to each team.
While admitting that blue chipping exists, Benyshek said recruited athletes go through the same process as the rest of the Air Force Academy's freshman class. They face academic scrutiny, an examination of their character,and interviews with alumni "liaison officers." They must acquire nominations from Congress or the White House.
Quarterback or brainiac, everybody gets the same treatment, Benyshek said.
Still, the 2003 GAO study of Air Force faculty and staff showed that 72 percent thought recruited athletes got preferential treatment.
The officer source, who is familiar with the admissions process, said saying athletes and nonathletes are given the same treatment is like saying first class and coach airplane passengers are given the same treatment.
"Athletes, those kids are fast-tracked," he said. "A blue-chip athlete will be worked through the system one way or another."
Even the lack of a nomination is no barrier, the officer said. The superintendent of the Air Force Academy can bring in 50 students per year without further permission, as long as the prospective cadets meet "the needs of the academy."
Citing the federal Privacy Act, the academy declined to release the names of cadets who have been appointed by superintendents.
The academy's admission standards are tough and tough to nail down. The academic accomplishments of applicants account for about half of the equation. Other factors are immeasurable, led by an "extracurricular composite" that examines athletic prowess and other nonacademic activities. The third component is based on how faculty and staff view the candidate, an admissions interview and a physical fitness test. The physical test, unlike the rest of the military, grades prospective cadets on how far they can throw a basketball and how fast they can complete a shuttle-run commonly used as a measure for football talent.
There's no spreadsheet or measure that shows how one applicant might stack up against peers.
But blue-chip athletes seem to have an extra push on their side, sources said.
"Athletic recruits are told, if you want to come we'll get you in," the sergeant said.
And that usually means a year in prep school.
The school has no published academic standards, although Benyshek said students are required to get at least 1,000 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test - right at the 50th percentile. Cadets gaining direct admission to the academy average more than 1,300 on the test, putting them in the top 10 percent.
There's a serious need for athletes at the Air Force Academy, which fields 27 varsity intercollegiate teams from its 4,000 cadets.
Colorado State University in Fort Collins has 14 NCAA Division I sports teams, with a campus of about 26,000 students. The University of Colorado at Boulder has 29,000 students and 12 NCAA teams.
Facing budgets cuts this year, Johnson decided to keep all 27 teams.
"I think the value of competition is invaluable, and that's why we're trying to preserve the essence of it," she said.
To fill those teams, the prep school has a minimum of 110 athletic recruits and other athletes who are brought in under other banners, including improving the school's diversity.
Benyshek explained that the academy is chartered to represent the nation and its territories, giving an equal shot to cadets from 435 congressional districts and other constituencies. That means, at times, bringing in lesser-qualified applicants from underrepresented congressional districts and putting them through the prep school.
A former athletic department official said coaches call those prep school recruits "two-fers" if they're athletes from an underrepresented district. They can come into the prep school without using one of the slots reserved for athletes.
That means the school that's officially home to 110 athletes actually has nearly 150.
Character program cut
Former prep school commander Col. Bart Weiss, now the academy's deputy athletic director, said he never paid attention to which students had been courted to serve on academy teams.
"I remember getting all the cadet candidates in and I said, 'No one will put a placard on you. You are all recruited,' " Weiss said.
Weiss led the prep school in 2010 and 2011, a time when cadet candidates there were investigated by the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations for drug use and allegations of sexual assault.
Coming into the school, Weiss said he analyzed how to make it fit the academy's mission during a time of tightening budgets.
One of the first cuts: nine reserve officers who trained cadet candidates in honor, character and leadership.
Weiss said he could make the cut due to a new program that made all prep-school workers teach honor and character as part of their math, English and science classes. The sergeant and the officer say Weiss was ordered by his boss, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, to "make prep school fun." Weiss said that never happened.
The change in philosophy at the prep school was announced in a mission directive Jan. 24, 2012.
In 2007, the top responsibility of the prep school commander was: "Prepares cadet candidates to live the principles and precepts of the USAFA Honor Code and to reflect the high moral and ethical character of an honorable person," according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
By 2012, the top responsibility was: "Prepares cadet candidates for academics at the Air Force Academy through instruction in mathematics, English, science and other subject matter."
The character and honor programs at the prep school were beefed up starting in 2007 by then-Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Regni after the Air Force Audit Agency slammed the prep school in a report, questioning whether it met the Air Force's mission needs. The audit found that the prep school was too expensive and recommended cutting its ranks in half.
Regni, brought in to fix problems that resulted in the school's 2003 sexual assault scandal, upgraded character programs across the academy.
Weiss said the recent change in character programs didn't reduce strict discipline.
When seven cadet candidates were identified in an investigation into the use of the synthetic drug "spice" in 2010, Weiss said he kicked six of them out under administrative rules and sought court-martial for the seventh.
Szybist took command of the prep school this summer with a simple message for his cadet candidates: "You're an airman first, you're always on parade, you lead by example."
The colonel said he has been told by his boss, academy Superintendent Johnson, that discipline rules won't bend for athletes.
"The standards apply equally to everybody," Szybist said. "She wants all the mission elements at the Air Force Academy to be aligned."
Former Air Force Academy linebacker Jamil Cooks is appealing his 2013 court-martial conviction for abusive sexual contact that got him tossed from the school.
Cooks, who starred at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, came to the academy after 10 months at the prep school.
Sources say Cooks' "C" average grades should have denied him entry to the academy.
More than 75 percent of prep school students gain academy admission. They're supposed to earn their way in with a minimum of C+ grades.
Benyshek said students with a prep school GPA below 2.42 are generally barred. That GPA equates to just over a 50-50 chance of passing through the academy's rigorous freshman year.
According to court-martial documents, Cooks had other trouble at the prep school.
In 2009, investigators said, Cooks allegedly sexually assaulted a drunken woman at the school. The accuser came forward more than two years after the incident. That charge was dropped before his April 2013 court-martial began.
Cooks' prep school classmate Tony Daniels, a wide receiver, was convicted in June 2013 of attempted sexual assault on a prep school cadet candidate in 2009. His accuser also came forward more than two years after the crime.
The woman testified that she'd been working with Daniels on homework when he tried to kiss her and then grabbed her and forced her head to his groin after she resisted.
Before the charges were brought, Daniels was passed from the prep school to the Falcons football team.
The sergeant and the officer who talked to The Gazette about athletes at the prep school and the academy said leaders will look the other way to win on the gridiron.
"The reality is you have a lot of retired officers out there who cheer for the football team," the former academy officer said.
Benyshek said the academy is careful to take in only cadets who can succeed.
"It does us no good to bring in a kid who can't make it here," she said.
Cooks, because of his grades, had less than a 40 percent chance of making it through four years at the academy, sources said.
Congress requires that cadets and cadet candidates be of "good moral character."
While recruiters quiz teachers and coaches about the character of athletes, a key step common for military enlistment isn't carried out.
Prospective airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines get a criminal background check before basic training. Air Force Academy cadets do not. National Crime Information Center checks can reveal juvenile misconduct, arrests, convictions, warrants and other criminal involvement. The academy said it checks its freshmen as part of the process to get them an initial security clearance, well after they have started at the school. Benyshek said occasionally that check turns up undisclosed legal trouble.
The academy is examining ways to get full pre-admission background checks on freshmen and prep schoolers, but Benyshek said the academy has too many applicants to screen them all.
Since the 1970s, the Government Accountability Office has written reports questioning the demographics and mission of military-academy prep schools.
In reports in 1992, 2003 and 2012, the agency found that the schools had unclear missions, hazy standards and weren't set up to meet a Pentagon goal to bring in enlisted troops, minorities and women.
"Senior service academy officials told us that their expectations of the preparatory schools to provide students in these three groups are consistent with DOD guidance, and that they also rely on the preparatory schools to meet their needs for a fourth group - recruited athletes," the agency wrote in 2003.
More than a third of the 266 midshipman candidates at the Naval Academy's prep school are recruited athletes and as many as 160 Navy prep school students play on the school's sports teams. A quarter of Navy preppies had prior service as sailors or Marines.
West Point has 103 recruited athletes at its prep school. The Army prep school football team has 52 cadet candidates on its roster. A fifth of Army's 237 preppies served as soldiers.
The three prep schools could accommodate large numbers of enlisted troops, but none of them does.
The Air Force Academy's prep school has for years brought in fewer than 50 former airmen to fill its ranks - far less than the 85 active duty and 85 reservists who could be accepted.
The same is true of Army and Navy.
Benyshek said enlisted airmen aren't producing big numbers of cadet candidates for the academy because those who apply can't make the grade.
Getting airmen to apply is no easy sell. They would face basic training at the prep school and again at the academy. The freedoms of adulthood would disappear.
"Your car is going to be taken away from you," Benyshek said.
The academy, though, says its prep school is all about building leaders.
"Former prep school students have also succeeded on active duty following graduation from the academy. Several graduates have gone on to become brigadier, major and lieutenant generals, Air Force Cross and Silver Star recipients, and space shuttle astronauts. Other honors include a White House Fellow, a Thunderbird pilot and a winner of the coveted Jabara Award," the academy says on its website.
A graduate of Doherty High School, Benyshek said the prep school gave her a way into the academy despite low test scores.
"It was the best year of my life," she said.
The prep school does show academic results.
The academy says the most recent group of prep school graduates showed 33.2 percent improvement in chemistry scores, a 39 percent increase in reading speed and a 29.5 percent jump in reading comprehension.
Weiss said the prep school succeeds in building good cadets because its workers stay focused.
"Our mission is these kids and making sure we give them the type of prep they need to succeed."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240