Applications to the Air Force Academy saw a significant decrease in the past year as military recruitment and college enrollment continue to suffer from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Colorado Springs-based service academy had 8,393 applicants for the Class of 2026, compared with 11,615 the previous year — about a 28% drop in applications, according to academy admissions data.
Col. Arthur Primas, the academy’s admissions director, blames the downturn in applications primarily on the pandemic hindering in-person outreach efforts.
“We believe a major part of the decrease in applications for this last year was our inability to get out in person and raise awareness for the Air Force Academy and Air Force opportunity, to have open engagement with talented young men and women in schools, at conferences, at forums, and really be able to get our message out there,” Primas said.
Applications and enrollment have also dropped at some other Colorado Springs-area colleges, officials said.
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs received 2,270 fewer applications this year than in 2021 — about a 10% decline — but last year’s application numbers were a record high, school officials said. This year’s 22,330 applications were actually the second-highest ever at UCCS, according to spokeswoman Jenna Press.
At Pikes Peak Community College, enrollment numbers hit an all-time high in 2019, the last full school year before the pandemic hit. Since then, enrollment has steadily declined, said spokeswoman Karen Kovaly.
“Interestingly enough, this fall, we are 7% up in new student enrollment from last fall, so that means our overall decline is because current students aren’t returning,” Kovaly told The Gazette in an email.
Colorado College’s enrollment numbers have actually increased in small increments since the pandemic, according to school officials. The 2023 numbers won’t be official until the 2022-2023 academic year begins on Monday, but the school estimates a total undergraduate enrollment of about 2,390.
The Air Force Academy’s recruiting endeavors depend heavily on campus-based seminars and workshops that were prevented by the pandemic, Primas said. The school’s summer seminar — one of the academy’s largest and most popular recruiting efforts — was held in person this year for the first time since 2019.
An overall decline in military recruitment may also have been a factor in the reduced number of applications, Primas said.
“The youth of today sees the world differently, and they see their own futures differently,” he said. “It is important that we understand what they are thinking about in terms of what they can achieve, and we want to articulate to them that the Air Force Academy, and service in the Air Force and Space Force, can still help them achieve those goals and aspirations. Our goal — and our job — is to make sure that we inform them so they can make a fully informed decision on what to do with their future.”
Primas said there have been no indications that the academy’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement has been a factor in the reduced amount of applications.
And now that the academy can resume its outreach efforts without COVID-19 restrictions, the school intends to go full-bore with in-person recruiting, Primas said.
“We have a great plan, and we are in the process of executing it,” he said.
The academy’s efforts may actually benefit from lessons learned during the pandemic, Primas said.
“We have learned that there is some value to doing things virtually,” he said. “We’re able to reach certain audiences that may not be able to come to an event or visit the academy. Virtual outreach does broaden our ability to do things, so we are incorporating some aspects of that.”
Officials say applications for the Class of 2027 are about where they should be at this point in the year, which makes Primas optimistic that the overall numbers will rebound.
“Our applications are actually back up from the same point last year,” he said. “That’s a good sign, and we hope to continue that momentum going forward.”
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