Minority wave in summer tide of Coast Guard swabs

Jennifer McDermott | 7/6/2010, 7:42 p.m.

NEW LONDON, Conn. — New recruits at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy are supposed to look straight ahead, but Rasheed Breland was able to glance at his classmates long enough to realize that many besides him were minorities.

Swabs from racial and ethnic minority groups make up 24 percent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 2014 — the second highest percentage in the school’s history, surpassed only by one class that was a percentage point higher.

The academy has been criticized for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, with some in Congress attempting to bring the admissions process in line with the other service academies to increase diversity.

Monday  June 28, was the first day of swab summer, an intense, seven-week training program designed to transform civilian students into military recruits and to prepare them for the academic year. Of the 290 who reported on Monday, 36 are Hispanic, 15 black, 13 Asian, five Pacific Islander and one Native American. Six international students are also attending.

About 2,200 high school students applied for the Class of 2014. Fewer than 400 were accepted.

The other service academies admit students by congressional nomination while the Coast Guard Academy has traditionally admitted students on the basis of academic merit, much like civilian colleges and universities.

Breland, whose father retired from the Coast Guard as a chief petty officer, spent a year at a preparatory school so he could get into the academy. He was also one of 18 students who attended a pre-orientation program for minority and international students, offered for the first time this year at the academy.

They arrived at the school on Friday, days before the other swabs, to get to know each other, meet the faculty and staff and learn about the support services offered on campus.

Breland, 19, of Hampton, Va., said the academy’s efforts will enhance his experience there.

“There’s more diversity instead of all the same race at the academy,” he said. “It will get more culture into the academy.”

The percentage of minorities in each class has traditionally hovered around 15 percent. The school has fared better with women, who typically make up about 30 percent of each class. The incoming class of 2014 is 31 percent female.

The Coast Guard commandant and academy officials acknowledge that the student body needs to be more diverse, but they have argued that changing the school’s admissions process is not the way to do it.

Instead, the academy is spending more to advertise, recruit and host educators and minority students on campus. The academy is also sending more students to preparatory school to meet the academy’s requirements.

Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, academy superintendent, wants minorities to comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the student body by 2015.

The Class of 2014, Burhoe said, is the beginning of the corps of cadets being “reflective of the nation we serve.” He said the academy will become a “better institution” as the number of minorities increase.