Military Schools Are Again Popular With Students

By Glen Macnow — January 19, 1983 6 min read
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Culver, Ind.--It’s not that Bill Linsenmeyer didn’t appreciate the opportunity to attend a preparatory school. He just figured that students at Andover or Choate would be more concerned with the proper clothes and proper social standing than with proper academics. “I wanted to go to a school stressing serious academics and hard work,” says Mr. Linsenmeyer, 17. “So I chose the most serious school I could find.”

Mr. Linsenmeyer convinced his parents three years ago to send him to Culver Military Academy, an 800-student college-preparatory school in northern Indiana. Instead of the tweedy wardrobe he thought might be requisite at other prep schools, he and other students here wear sharply creased uniforms and spit-shined shoes.

Their day begins with reveille at 6:30 A.M. and ends with taps at 10 P.M. In between are seven hours of classes and two and a half hours of mandatory studying. In addition to traditional academic subjects, students take courses in leadership, military science, and riflery.

“It’s a tiring schedule,” concedes Mr. Linsenmeyer, a senior from Monroe, Mich., who hopes someday to be an Air Force fighter pilot. “But it’s taught me a self-discipline and self-respect I wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Wouldn’t he rather be at home leading a “normal” teen-age life? “No,” he quickly responds. “Military school has forced me to learn things that will give me a big advantage when I get out in real life.”

A growing number of parents across the country also seem to think that military schools will help their children in the real life that follows graduation. Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago, many of America’s military schools are now jammed with college-bound students and are generally respected by the public.

Enrollment at Culver Military and its sister school, Culver School for Girls, is up 7 percent this year, after an 8-percent increase in 1981. Similar increases are reported at the other prep schools that are perceived to be a feeder system for the Army, Navy and Air Force academies.

Applications to the postsecondary military institutions are rising even more dramatically, perhaps for related reasons, although the military prep schools are not in fact their principal source of students. Applications for admission to West Point--which accepted about 2 percent of military-school applicants this year--increased 20 percent over 1981 totals. At the Air Force Academy--which reports that less than 50 percent of its entering students came from military schools--the increase over last year was 17 percent. The Naval Academy received 12,614 applications for the class of 1986, versus 11,897 for the class of 1985 and 10,400 for the class of 1984. The size of the entering class at all three institutions, however, remains fairly constant.

Culver, according to its public-information officer, sends about one or two percent of its graduates annually to one of “the big three” service academies. Nationwide, there are about 45 military schools, enrolling more than 9,000 students, according to W. D. Crittenberger Jr., a retired Army general who serves as executive director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States.

“Times have changed for schools like ours,” he says. “Back 10 years ago, we were afraid many of the schools would go out of business. But now people see jobs are scarce and the military is a good place for an honorable career. Just about all the schools in our association are growing at the rate of 5 percent a year.”

Glenn Cox, director of admissions at the Howe Military Academy in eastern Indiana, agrees: “The pendulum has swung back. During the Vietnam era, schools like ours suffered because of anti-military feelings and social liberalism. But things have changed. Parents are again seeking a conservative, traditional education.”

At Howe, the recent increase in student applications meant a general tightening of standards. “We can afford to take only the best now,” says Mr. Cox, whose school takes just 270 students. “We’ve toughened up on both academics and discipline.”

Not that anyone might regard military schools as being soft on discipline. At most of the schools in the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States, students live under the demerit system, in which they are penalized for infractions such as being late to class, wearing jewelry, or failing room inspection.

“We’re not going to expel a student for littering,” says Dr. Ralph Manuel, the former dean of students at Dartmouth College who is now Culver’s superintendent. “But neither will we let him get away with repeated violations. We use penalties, like loss of privileges or an extra work detail. Students know they must live up to our standards--or else.”

Few students try to learn what the “or else” means. “My parents pay good money to send me here,” says Kurt Broock, 17, a Culver senior. “They don’t expect me to do something stupid like rebel.”

Indeed, the parents, who pay about $9,000 a year to send a son or daughter here, expect much in return. Ninety-nine percent of Culver’s graduates go on to college or a military academy, and 86 percent of those graduate. Culver boasts about its alumni, who include George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees; Nelson Bunker Hunt, Texas financier; U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut Republican, and the actor Hal Holbrook.

Ninth graders enter Culver as “plebes,” a status that requires them to salute upperclass students and prohibits them from walking down the center of halls. During their freshman year they must pass strict tests on table etiquette, school history, and leadership development. And they must attend chapel services regularly.

If they do well enough, they earn collar pins that signify their completion of the rites of passage.

“The tests, the tough discipline, even the uniforms are designed to make us prove ourselves,” says David Johnston, a 15-year-old sophomore from Flint, Mich. Mr. Johnston, a lance corporal in Culver’s equestrian Black Horse Troop, transferred to Culver from a public school where, he says, “I could spend my days and nights in front of a television.” At Culver, where no televisions are allowed, “I have to work all the time--mornings, afternoons, nights.”

Contrary to popular myth, military schools are not filled with rabble-rousing students who get thrown out of public schools. Says Vincent Duke, admissions director at Culver, “We’re not the right place for parents to send their discipline problems. We want motivated kids who already have a strong sense of self-discipline.”

Those “motivated kids” include the children of foreign diplomats and corporate ex-ecutives, inner-city students on scholarships, and fourth-generation Culverites. And, since 1971, they have included girls.

“A lot of our old-timers were shocked when we started the girls’ academy,” says Mr. Manuel, “but it saved this institution; 1971 was still the lean period for miltary schools, we doubled our potential enrollment pool.” The 200 girls at Culver wear uniforms, although they are more like parochial-school outfits than military dress. Classes are coeducational and students may date, although public displays of affection are forbidden.

“You learn to live with the rules,” says Sue Knoll, a 17-year-old senior who has a varsity letter in rifle shooting. “I looked at other prep schools, but girls there were too engrossed in the social aspects of things. Sometimes things seem a bit strict here, but I’d rather be in an environment like this than in a place where anything goes.”

Renee Roelke, 18, a senior, admits she sometimes finds the arduous schedule exhausting and that she is occasionally homesick.

“But I’m going to make it through here, go to college, and go on to be successful,” she says. “I want to be part of the tradition.”

Culver Girls Academy, a non-military school, above, was opened in 1971. Senior Kemin Tsung fulfills his fine-arts requirement, above right. Staff Sergeant Michael Baig with members of his unit, right.

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 1983 edition of Education Week as Military Schools Are Again Popular With Students


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