25% of USMA Nominations Aren’t Congressional, Change My Mind

**Updated 11/15/20 to 25% and with some additional information on the number of service-related cadetships**

In researching for our last couple of posts, we noticed something funny. Perhaps you, the perspicacious reader, can help us explain it or correct us if we’re wrong.

You see, we thought the vast majority of nominations to the Academies came through Congress. But it looks like that’s wrong. Let us explain.

We ran across the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center‘s “Gatekeepers to Opportunity Report“, which was submitted to Congress and cited by Col Ellen Haring as evidence that Congress discriminated against women in the nominations process. Its description of the nominations process was very interesting.

The relevant bits are below.

To even be considered for admission, candidates must first secure a nomination. There are two main types of nominations: congressional and service-connected nominations. This report focuses on nominations by members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. At any time, a maximum of five admits nominated by any given Member of Congress may attend each academy. For each admit vacancy, which occur whenever admits graduate or withdraw from the school, a member may nominate up to 10 new candidates for consideration by the academy. Each year, typically one vacancy per military service academy becomes available per representative.9 For residents in U.S. territories, the admit quota differs slightly.10

The congressional nominations process is highly decentralized, and Representatives and Senators do not use one, uniform selection process. Congress originally created the nominations system to help diversify the ranks of military officers. Congress intended for the military to draw its officers from all geographic regions, and also to ensure that officers be appointed democratically, free of political patronage.11 In practice, some dispute how well this goal has been achieved.12 As one application guidance document put together by a Missouri high school states, “If your family has connections to your Representative or to either of the Senators, this would be a good time to utilize them.”13

Each congressional office may set its own selection process. Offices frequently follow a holistic model that evaluates qualifications such as character, scholarship, leadership, physical aptitude, medical fitness, and motivation.14 However, as former Rep. John Hall has stated, the “X factor” for most applicants is leadership ability.15

..In conversations with several congressional offices, we learned that in practice, Members of Congress often try to grant interviews to each student who completes an application.

Offices may submit nominations in three ways: without ranking, with a principal candidate and nine ranked alternates, or with a principal candidate and nine unranked alternates.24 A candidate who receives a principal nomination must be admitted as long as they meet the minimum qualifications.

Let’s recap the report:

While a Congressman (or women) can nominate up to 10 candidates per admit vacancy, the Academy can only allow up to five (5) per Congressman to be attending at any given time, presumably to allow for four cadets across four years plus one incoming admit. Congressmen typically have one vacancy per year to nominate. And if they nominate a principal, that principal must be admitted.

This is not counting any service-related nominations. In fact we see about 4000 nominations for the last class, and that snapshot includes all service-related nominations.

Now let’s do the math.

Nomination Sources

How many people can nominate candidates to West Point? How many candidates can be nominated? How many can actually attend? From the USMA site’s nomination information and Cornell’s law school helpfully laying out nomination sources according to Code of Federal Regulations 32 Section 575.3, we find the following.

There are Congressional nominations, which include Congressmen and delegate sources, and there are service-connected nominations. Service-connected nomination sources include:

  1. Sons and Daughters of “career military personnel”
  2. Sons and Daughters of Deceased or Disabled Armed Forces Veterans
  3. Children of Medal of Honor recipients
  4. Army Junior and Senior ROTC programs, and Honor ROTC units of other services.
  5. While not explicitly stated on that page, another USMA Admission page for Current Soldiers says that

It doesn’t exactly inspire our confidence in USMA’s competence or transparency that this “nomination source” is not listed on the page called “Nomination Information” under “Service-Connected Nominations.”

Available Admit Vacancies / Cadetships

In case the table is hard to see and add up, that’s a total of 3889 cadets authorized at the Academy at any one time. Divide that by four class years, and you get 972 authorized cadets per year, of which 672 are authorized by Congress and 300 are Service-connected (excluding sons/daughter of Medal of Honor winners).

Update: The Cornell legal summary linked above updates this estimate. At 5x Cadets or candidates at any one time for each Congressman (and presumably the SecDef), this adds up to 2720 2695 cadets attending the Academy at any one time on Congressional authorization. This is a hard upper limit, and more likely to be 2156, because of the language stipulating that Congressmen can nominate candidates “when a vacancy opens up.” And with an average of one vacancy per Congressman per year, that’s ~540 Congressional vacancies per year.

In other words, a Congresswoman can have four cadets at the Academy at any one time, and nominate up to 10 more to fill the one admit vacancy during the recruiting cycle. If she has five cadets at the Academy, then she doesn’t have any admit vacancies to give until one of her cadets drops out or graduates. Even if there are dropouts or graduates, we assume a steady-state of 4 cadets attending at a time with an additional cadetship available for candidate applications. Because a candidate is nominated before the senior class has graduated, that adds up to the 5 consumed admit-vacancies.

We’ll use 2156 here to keep math consistent later on a per-class basis.

This is all even though the total number of annual nominations can be up to 5,440, and annual congressional admittees can be around ~544, barring any special Vice President or Secretary of Defense rules. Got all that?

Logically, then, this means that cadetships in excess of the congressionally authorized number must receive their nominations from sources other than the congressional nominations.

It’s misleading to applicants who may get nominated by their congressman (remember, Congressmen can nominate up to 10 candidates per vacancy, but only have 5 total attend concurrently across all four years), but find that the Academy is still the ultimate selector of who attends.

Mystery Nominations

This brings up the issue of where the “other” nominations to cadetships come from. Using some back-of-the-napkin math and an average of (say) 1100 cadets per class across the four years, we see that:

4 classes x 1100 cadets per class = 4400 cadets in the USMA Corps of Cadets

4400 Cadets – 2156 Congress Admit Vacancies* – 1200 service-connected cadetships = 1044 Other Cadetship vacancies

*Again, we could use 2695 admit vacancies filled, but the 5 Admit Vacancy model then doesn’t make sense. The effect on the below calculation is a distinction without a difference.

That’s close to 25% of cadetships that are filled without officially authorized nominations. If we divide by four classes, that’s 261 “other” nominations per class. Given all the strategizing on how to get a Congressman’s nomination, that’s outlandish! Where do those come from?

We also see from the Cornell nomination source table that all service-connected nominations total 300 annually, excluding Medal of Honor (MOH) posterity, which we assume to be small.

That’s 25% of an entering class!

Of the 561 “non-congressional” nominations by class, we can assume 300 of them are Service-related. That leaves 261 nominations unaccounted-for.

To confirm/deny this, we found from our datasets that Prior Service cadets make up about 100-200 cadets per year, more or less, because excluding “duplicate CDT_IDs” from turnbacks makes precise calculation a bit tricky. But it’s in the ballpark.

Regardless of whether the CFR table or our data is “right”, this is still a big gap in nomination accountability. Looking at the annual flow numbers for the class of 2020, for example:

32CFR’s 300 annual Service-Connected nominations plus ~540 Congressional nominations annually equals 840. Entering classes are usually 1200+ cadets. So service-connected nominations are roughly a quarter of an entering class. But 1200-840 = 360 unaccounted-for-nominations annually. Where are the extra 300-400+ nominations coming from? Readers? Anyone?

In the absence of transparent sources and uses of nominations, one might think that those non-authorized nominations were being given for political or military patronage. This is certainly not the intent of the system.

On a whole-Corps basis, we see something similar:

Adjusting the average class size up makes the gaps bigger. Adjusting it down closes it, but not enough to account for the discrepancy.


A few points jump out from this:

Col Haring and the Veterans Advocates of Connecticut are barking up a wrong tree. There’s probably a reason they only quoted percentages of nominations. While Congress seems to sponsor most West Point cadets, up to 50% are coming from unelected sources. And we saw no apparent cap on the unelected sources’ nomination ability, though DOD may have non-public guidance. So if Haring and VAC want to improve the number of women getting nominated, they need to broaden their range of targets.

We have also never seen data on applicant profiles or cadet performance stratified by nomination source. Perhaps it’s irrelevant. But perhaps it accounts for part of why Admissions consistently passes up opportunities to build the best classes.

Second, with some large percentage of USMA cadets getting nominations to cadetships via unelected sources or family, this supports charges that the U.S. Military is becoming a hereditary or nepotistic caste. This is bad if you worry about the increasing civil/military divide. It is a much bigger problem than whether congressmen are nominating women at preferred though arbitrary percentages.

More bluntly: If the point of the congressional nomination process is to ensure voters/taxpayers are represented at the Academies, presumably to prevent favoritism and patronage, it’s only a 50% solution. The rest of the time, the military picks who goes. Why is this necessary? Why not give each member of Congress another 4 admit vacancies, and let the other service-related folks (excepting perhaps the currently-serving, who may not have access) fend for themselves with their Representatives?

Maybe we were looking at the wrong information sources, or we can’t do simple math. But this information ought to be publicly available and the numbers should add up easily to the casual researcher. In this case, the math shows a big gap.

Lastly, for all the starry-eyed high-school Future Cadets out there: You’re not competing for one of 1100 slots. You’re competing for one of 540, because the other 560 are coming from family or military or political connections that you don’t have. And of those 560, we know from the USMA Parent Grad flags that about 25%, or 135, of those are the children of other USMA grads.

But take heart – getting “a” nomination is not the hard part. There are more available nominations available than are given. Less than 80% of Congressional nominations are even used, and that’s not even including the impact of the full extent of available Service-Related Nominations.

We think this is a problem. But perhaps we missed something in the process in the information or logic in this post. We welcome thoughtful criticism and factual corrections.

1 thought on “25% of USMA Nominations Aren’t Congressional, Change My Mind”

  1. The additional cadet entries are taken from from the the pool of candidates that were nominated from an approved source. For example each Congressional Rep having a vacancy nominates ten individuals for that one slot. One is selected and counted against the Congressperson’s total of five. Then the Academy admissions to fill up the authorized strength take unsuccessful candidates from the nine nominated by the Congressperson. These selectees are not counted against the five for the congressional representative. If you look at past issues of the Register of Graduates and Former Cadets, these additional selectees are identified as Qualified Alternates (QA) or Additional Alternates (AA).


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