Despite what upperclassmen might think, the incoming class of freshmen at the Naval Academy isn't such a raggedy bunch of out-of-shape teens after all.
As the Class of 2003 says goodbye to its brutal summer of training, Plebe Summer, and begins the rigors of the academic year, data tallied from its members' first few months in Annapolis show that the latest group of more than 1,000 men and women might have a little more of the right stuff than some of their upperclassmen.
At a school becoming more and more interested in measuring its success with data, the numbers from "ought-three," as the Class of 2003 calls itself, are providing some indication that a strengthened recruiting and admissions program are paying off.
"This is one of the finest classes of plebes I've seen," Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, the academy superintendent, said this week.
This year's plebes scored better on their end-of-summer physical readiness test than any recent class, with a failure rate of one in 15 on the pull-ups, sit-ups and running. One in 10 members of the Class of 2002 failed the test last summer, and one in six members of the Class of 2001 failed the test two years ago.
The Class of 2003 also had one of the lowest dropout rates in recent years. Of 1,232 freshmen inducted July 1, 6.6 percent dropped out before September. Last year, 7 percent dropped out, and two years ago, 7.4 percent left.
The new freshmen also are better marksmen than their predecessors, with 97 percent of the class qualifying as marksmen. And they arrived in Annapolis with some of the highest high school scores ever, having averaged well over 1300 on their SATs. One in 10 was a high school student body president, and 88 percent were varsity athletes.
Ryan attributes the strong showing to efforts in recent years to improve the school's recruiting program. The academy has faced increased pressure in competing against other top academic schools for promising high school students, especially in recruiting minority students, who have made up 19 percent to 20 percent of the freshman class in each of the past five years. In an effort to maintain those percentages, the academy hired a former Navy football star last year to visit inner cities to encourage minority students to attend the school.
The academy has hired a database management firm to provide names and addresses of potential students, and has begun contacting promising students even before they reach high school. "Our goal is to reach deeper into their high school years," said Capt. Rick Hammond, the director of admissions.
The plebe class that arrived on campus July 1 featured 1,031 men and 201 women, of whom 235 were minorities and 84 were from Maryland. The class also included 10 citizens of other countries, including Bulgaria, Estonia, South Korea and the Philippines. The plebes finished six weeks of intensive Plebe Summer training at the end of last month and began classes this month.
Those men and women were chosen from among 10,145 applicants last year. The number of applicants has dwindled in recent years, from a high of 15,000, giving the admissions office a smaller pool from which to select the best and the brightest.
Still, the academy's selection process earned it a rating by the Princeton Review last year as the nation's third most competitive school. The University of Maryland admits about one in four of its 16,000 applicants; the Naval Academy admits about one in 10.
The process begins with a review of the 10,000-plus half-inch-thick application packages submitted from across the nation by teens seeking a free education (worth about $200,000) and a guaranteed job (with the Navy) upon graduation.
The process resumes in two weeks, when the academy's admissions board begins its weekly meetings to discuss whom to accept for the Class of 2004. It will meet every Thursday through April to review 200 applications at a time, Hammond said.