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Keeping the momentum [Commentary]

Every so often, there is reason to cheer a little louder both within the gates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and 350 miles down Interstate 95 at the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.

This year, the academy had a banner admissions class, enrolling 256 highly qualified, bright-eyed cadets who took their oaths of office under a beautiful New England summer sky on June 30th. The group, not including international cadets, boasts an average GPA of 3.87 and includes 214 varsity letter earners, numerous class presidents and many other talented young people who will lead our great nation into the next generation.

Equally important, this pool of exceptional Americans represents one of the most diverse classes ever enrolled by the academy. Thirty-three percent self-identify as under-represented minorities. Parsing the data further, we find 31 black/African-American students — 12 percent of the entire class. To put the significance of this number into context, last year, the academy enrolled just five black students, with this total population comprising a mere 4 percent of the entire student body. Moving the enrollment needle from five to 31 is a noteworthy accomplishment.

This shift connects to an area of concern shared among a variety of stakeholders within the Coast Guard and the halls of Congress. At Coast Guard headquarters, the results have long-lasting effects on workforce planning, particularly within the senior ranks. Currently, the Coast Guard is the only military service without a black flag officer, such as an admiral or general.

The uptick in black admissions among the Class of 2018 is certainly promising, but the academy has made progress in the past and then failed to sustain its diversity gains. In 2010, the academy welcomed one of its most diverse classes ever. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and former chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said at the time that he was "heart-warmed" with the results of the entering class. But he also emphasized that "maintaining such increased levels of minority applications and enrollment will require a concerted outreach effort and I'm eager to hear how it will be sustained."

In 2011 through 2014, the Academy focused on the total of under-represented minorities enrolling while struggling to enroll black students. Only by separating the data by race can we determine whether admissions outreach is succeeding among all underrepresented populations.

The Coast Guard must stay the course in order to achieve continued mission success. This effort transcends the academy's admissions office. It requires commitment — shared belief in this goal as well as dedicated resources — at all levels of the organization. It requires sustaining benchmarked strategies, like engaging alumni with a passion to expand access to their alma mater and a willingness to serve as extensions of the admissions office.

It also requires supporting new, innovative efforts, like shifting away from the academy's institution-specific and outdated application toward the Common Application, an online form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously. Across 500 college campuses nation-wide, the Common App, as it's widely known, has demonstrated its value in increasing the diversity of applicant pools.

It is encouraging to see this year's progress. It is inspiring to know that this level of success is possible. Continuing this positive momentum is an organizational imperative. Doing so would help rectify an endemic injustice, strengthen the fabric of our country's premier maritime institution and enhance the service's capacity to meet its own workforce goals. It would deliver a powerful message to our ever-changing nation that America's Coast Guard values the people it serves and does its part to ensure equal access to opportunity and education.

But most importantly, sustaining this effort echoes the Coast Guard's remarks made to the subcommittee in 2010 that "Commitment is meaningless without actions and clear signs of improvement." The signs of change are here; now we must remain on course.

Chris Soto is the executive director of Higher Edge, a college completion organization in New London, Conn., and vice chairman of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association's Board of Directors. His email is chris@higheredgect.org; Twitter: @MrChrisSoto.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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