Graduation day at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is a proud moment both for the newly minted Coast Guard Officers and the thousands of family members in attendance. It is also an opportunity for the Coast Guard to look proudly toward the future, as represented by its newest crop of service-ready ensigns.
As an alumnus, it is a day that I will never forget as it marked the end to a challenging undergraduate journey but also the dawn of my professional career as an officer. Unfortunately, this year's sun-filled graduation was a painful reminder of the Coast Guard's diversity crisis. Among a class of 195, only four people — 2 percent of the class — self-identify as black or African-American.
For decades, the Coast Guard Academy has struggled to enroll black students. This issue has far-reaching implications beyond the documented benefits of diversity on a college campus. With the academy serving as the Coast Guard's primary feeder for officers, a lack of diversity within the student body ensures a non-diverse officer corps. Consider that out of 47 active duty admirals, there are only two who self-identify as black or African-American — a mere 4 percent of the service's senior leadership. Sound the general emergency alarm!
During a congressional subcommittee hearing in 2009, U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, rattled Coast Guard leadership, questioning why staff were unable to produce the results that hundreds of selective institutions across the country have been able to, including the other service academies.
The graduating classes this year at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, and U.S. Air Force Academy are comprised of 8 percent (83), 7 percent (71), and 10 percent (94) black graduates, respectively. The Naval Academy, which is roughly five times the size of the Coast Guard Academy, was able to produce nearly 18 times more black graduates than the Coast Guard Academy.
So why has the Coast Guard Academy continued to struggle?
For far too long the Coast Guard Academy has taken a "we know how to do it" approach. To the contrary, data illustrates that they don't know how to address this problem.
While the academy has all the best intentions of making good on its promise to diversify the Corps of Cadets, we have arrived at the point where good intentions are no longer good enough.
As an example, take Connecticut's own fertile ground, home to the Coast Guard Academy. Of all the 49 Connecticut students currently enrolled, only one hails from any of Connecticut's seven major cities. And it is not as if there are no qualified candidates. In fact, the state department of education reports that last year, there were 33 black students who scored above 1200 on the SAT within Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven alone. A 1200 score is the anecdotal SAT cutoff when discussing "who can make it."
Washington has grown frustrated, alumni of color have become disillusioned, yet the institution continues marching to its own beat.
Two weeks before graduation, I had the pleasure of sitting with a black cadet over brunch. In the course of conversation, I asked, "Do you think you are going to make it through to graduation?" She responded with a confident "yes" and followed with a serious question: "I am going to make it," she said, "but why would I ever send my child to the academy?" I was floored.
This raises other questions about whether the challenges solely rest with recruiting practices or the realities of a campus climate where students and families do not feel encouraged to enroll — or both. Ultimately, it was a painful reminder that the students the academy and military so eagerly need have little faith in the system.
One thing now remains clear: The lack of black students attending and graduating from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy demands an aggressive change of course. Neither the Coast Guard Academy nor the millions of U.S. taxpayers who subsidize the institution's $20 million annual budget can afford the same excuses.
The armed forces need diversity in their ranks, our country demands it, and most of all, the talented, well-qualified students across the country dream of it.
As the academy now prepares to welcome the class of 2021, let's get right to work to guarantee the end of an era, in which only four black cadets walk across the stage at a Coast Guard Academy graduation.
Chris Soto is the State Representative for Connecticut's 39th Assembly District which represents New London, Conn., where the Coast Guard Academy is located. He is an academy alumnus and former vice-chairman of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter: @mrchrissoto.