Fleming or the Supe: Whose Numbers Add Up?

There are a few certainties when one sits down with Dr. Bruce Fleming for an interview. At the top of the list is the fact that the USNA English professor will hold no punches. He will tell you his opinion and won't mince words in the process. The other fact is that most Navy sports fans won't like what he has to say. Will this time be any different? Keep reading to find out.

In anticipation of my interview with U.S. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming I asked Navy fans to submit questions that they would like him to answer. The overwhelming majority of submissions I received revolved around the financial aspect of Fleming's New York Times opinion piece. In it he said:

"With the rise after World War II of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at universities around the country, the academies now produce 20 percent or less of the officers in each service, at an average cost to taxpayers of nearly half a million dollars per student, more than four times what an R.O.T.C.-trained officer costs."

In response to this claim, the outgoing Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler had this to say in his rebuttal:

"The cost associated with educating a Naval Academy midshipman is also far less than stated in the May 21st op-ed. When a midshipman fails to complete the academy program and is charged for their four-year education, that bill comes to $170,000, a figure established by the Department of the Navy. The costs associated with educating an academy student are in fact comparable to or less than the total realized costs of educating an ROTC student at select private or other state-funded universities."

Since Fleming's entire argument revolves around what he perceives to be the exorbitant cost to educate a Naval Academy graduate, one fan summed it up best by requesting of me to, "Please resolve the money difference because if the Supe is right (about the cost), Fleming has no case."

So prior to the interview, I did my best to figure out what the cost to taxpayers is to educate a midshipman at the Naval Academy versus at a ROTC school. In order to do this, I thought it was prudent to read the Superintendent's statement extremely carefully, over and over. Because if you just read it quickly, one could easily conclude that it costs $170,000 to educate a Naval Academy midshipman because as Fowler states, that is "the figure established by the Department of the Navy."

That is the conclusion I came to at first. So I took that $170,000 number and compared it to the advertised cost of an ROTC scholarship. Overall, according to the official Navy web site, an ROTC scholarship can be worth as much as $180,000 when all factors are included. This number is also supported in numerous local news stories like this one that have shown the maximum value of an ROTC scholarship earned by high school students.   

So, on the surface, without examining Fowler's statement closely, his argument makes perfect sense. $170,000 to educate a midshipman at the Naval Academy is far less than Fleming's claim, and it is indeed comparable to or less than the advertised, maximum cost to educate an ROTC student.

However, what Fowler did not offer in his cost analysis is the fact that midshipmen who leave the Naval Academy early are not charged for their first two years at the school. That bill falls to the taxpayers. To explain, if a midshipman decides to leave the Academy on his last day of his sophomore year, he does not owe the Navy anything. A financial liability is only established once a midshipman signs their commitment letter to serve five years in the Navy. This is done on the first day of their junior year.

So if you take $170,000 and multiply it by 2, you get a figure close to the $340,000 one presented in this 2004 Navy Supply School study which Fleming, in other articles, has used as the basis for his half-million dollar claim. In addition, if you read Fleming's statement closer, you will see that he is not just signaling out the Naval Academy in his opinion piece. He referred to "academies" and "each service" which meant he was lumping in the more expensive educations at West Point and Air Force. And according to this government accountability study, as well as this one, those two academies are indeed more expensive than the Naval Academy.

Now on the surface, it seems as though Fleming's argument has a lot of weight.

Still unconvinced, I did more digging into Fowler's claim that "the costs associated with educating an academy student are in fact comparable to or less than the total realized costs of educating an ROTC student at select private or other state-funded universities."

A key phrase in this dispute about the price tag to educate a future naval officer is "total realized costs." USNA officials pointed out that while the advertised cost of tuition at a university might be a certain amount, this figure is subsidized by endowments and in the case of public universities, state taxpayers pay part of the bill.

Therefore, I contacted Ohio State University, the school I had prepared to use as a comparison to the Naval Academy in my interview with Fleming, to see if they have ever done a study that put a dollar figure on the total realized cost to educate a student. It turns out that in FY2008, Ohio State University conducted such a study. Here is what it concluded:

FY 2008

Cost to educate a typical resident undergraduate                             $15,742  

Amount covered by tuition & fees                                           $8,410 (53%)

Amount covered by the state                                                    $4,325 (28%)

This information supports the USNA argument regarding unadvertised costs that should be factored in when considering the total realized cost of an ROTC education.  According to the Ohio State public affairs office, a ROTC scholarship would cover the $8,410 for tuition and fees, but taxpayers would help pick up the other $4,325 part of the total realized cost. Other possible costs to a university to host an ROTC program include funds for buildings, civilian staff, and administrative items. They should also be factored in as possible tax subsidized entities which were not covered by the Navy Supply School Study. Therefore, a four-year ROTC scholarship at Ohio State University would be about $63,000 before these costs. However, I think one would still be hard-pressed to find any public university, even after factoring in all funds provided by state taxpayers that approaches even the lowest estimates of the cost to taxpayers for a Naval Academy education.

Of course private schools like Villanova, where yearly tuition costs are in excess of $50,000, the bill to taxpayers for an ROTC scholarship is much more expensive. However, that bill is not subsidized by state taxpayers and the ROTC scholarship can only be worth a maximum of $180,000. In fact, it is commonplace for ROTC students at schools like Villanova to have to pay some money out of pocket.

When you average out the less expensive public school and the expensive private school scholarships at the more than 160 colleges and universities that offer ROTC, the cost to taxpayers in 2004, according to this study, was approximately $86,000 per graduate.  If you add 30% on top of that for every school to account for state tax contributions at public universities and even endowments at private ones, you come to a total realized cost of $111,800 per graduate.

One of the first questions to Fleming in my interview with him was about the Superintendent's rebuttal to his claim that a USNA education was considerably more expensive than an ROTC one.

I asked him about the $170,000 figure that the Superintendent mentioned in his rebuttal to his opinion-piece and he discarded it, calling it "irrelevant" because what midshipmen have to pay if they leave early is "completely negotiable." He also added that the $170,000 figure had "nothing to do with the cost to taxpayers for a four-year education."

"They will tell the students that they have to pay this much and then finally they end up paying that much. It varies to the individual student. But what the student might have to pay back has nothing to do with the cost to the taxpayer."

The professor's claim about the payment being negotiable is valid. In fact, in 2007 then Superintendent Vice Adm. Rodney Rempt had recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that former quarterback Lamar Owens not be billed for his education after being acquitted of rape charges but expelled from the school without a degree. Although the Navy valued Owens' education at $136,000, according to this Navy Times article, Navy Secretary Donald Winter reduced his debt to just over $90,000 for time served after his anticipated graduation date.

Another interesting twist I found when trying to figure out the cost difference between a Naval Academy and ROTC education are the so-called advertised costs. When it comes to an ROTC scholarship, news articles I was able to find all confirmed the price tag at $180,000 – the maximum amount one can earn. However, articles about the value of a Naval Academy scholarship are all over the map. From $170,000 as acknowledged by a Blue and Gold Officer in this story to $500,000 as reported in this local paper.  I contacted a reporter at The Daily Advance, a newspaper in North Carolina, to ask where she got the $400,000 amount as mentioned in this article.  The author of that story, Kristin Pitts, confirmed that the local high school had supplied the information; however she said that a few days after it ran, she received an email from the student's mom who said that the article had "short-changed" her son and that the Naval Academy scholarship was worth $425,000. 

I contacted two different schools mentioned in the above articles that said the cost of a Naval Academy scholarship was worth in excess of $400,000, and both said that their guidance counselors get those figures "directly from the colleges."

That's when it dawned on me that I never actually asked the three service academies how much it cost to educate a graduate at their institutions. West Point never responded to my repeated requests, but Air Force and Navy did. Here is what they said:

According to the Naval Academy public affairs office, for FY 2008, the cost of educating a midshipman for all four years is $378,697. They pointed out that this number includes everything – tuition, books, fees, stipend, food, medical care, etc.

According to the Air Force Academy public affairs office, the cost to graduate a member of the class of 2008 was $413,780. For their education alone (tuition and books) the cost is $163,549.

The Naval Academy did not break down their numbers for tuition and books alone, but if the factors are similar to Air Force, one could assume that these educational costs are roughly $149,682.

If you take just the cost of tuition and books for a 2008 Naval Academy graduate and compare it to the total realized cost of a 2004 ROTC grad, including a 30% adjustment for taxpayer or endowment subsidies, and accounting for inflation, the price of a 2008 ROTC graduate is $126,437.

Is it possible this is the same research that the Superintendent (and his staff) did prior to issuing his rebuttal to Fleming? If so, is it fair to completely throw out every other cost associated with producing a Naval Academy graduate other than tuition and books when comparing it to the total realized cost of a ROTC graduate?

Having had most of the above research and some of these questions in the back of my mind prior to my interview with Fleming, I decided that instead of spending a lot of time on the cost comparison, it would be more beneficial to the GoMids.com audience to just lay out the numbers and research and let the readers decide whose math made more sense. This allowed me to use the majority of the time with Fleming to discuss other parts of his argument including the difference in the quality of a Naval Academy education versus an ROTC one.

It's not very often that silence follows a question posed to Fleming, but that's exactly what you will see in Part Two of this story.  In fact, when it comes to what taxpayers get for their investment of a Naval Academy graduate, Fleming's ship-shape argument starts to take on some water.


David Ausiello is the senior writer for GoMids.com and a 1997 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. If you would like to contact him, send an email to offtheyard@gmail.com.

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