In high school, Brieon Fonoti knew what attending a high-quality four-year college could mean for his life. “School was always the goal,” he says. But growing up in a poor neighborhood in Long Beach, California, where he attended “a lot of inner-city schools,” even the state’s well-funded public colleges felt unattainable. His mother, who raised him and his three siblings by herself, cycled between jobs—call centers, the post office—and struggled to make ends meet. Looking for a better life, Fonoti heard that the military often pays for higher education after a period of service. “I was trying to do something to make it easier on myself financially,” he told me. “And so, I joined the Army.”

After graduating from high school in 2017, Fonoti, whose mother is Black and father is Samoan, left Long Beach for a paralegal position with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, or JAG Corps, at Fort Riley in Kansas. “I was looking for a job that would transfer over to the civilian side,” he explained, and paralegal work held such promise. There, a senior officer recognized his talent. “You work hard,” he recalled the officer saying. “You’re really smart. Why don’t you go to school and become an officer?” The way to become an officer was through the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, so he applied.

Because of Fonoti’s middling high school grades, West Point didn’t accept him outright, but instead offered him a spot at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS), located at a nearby satellite campus. USMAPS allows promising applicants who need to catch up to their peers academically to spend a full school year taking small-group academic courses and preparing to reapply for West Point. The JAG Corps officer who recognized Fonoti’s talent had also gone through USMAPS, and encouraged him to accept the invitation. About 40 percent of the 240 or so would-be cadets who attend USMAPS every year are Black, and many, like Fonoti, come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Like other race-conscious admissions programs, West Point’s prep school helps promising recruits who may lag academically because of their socioeconomic background. But it does so in a way that civilian colleges seldom do—by building up those students’ academic abilities to match those of their more privileged peers.

Though he was at first hesitant to say yes because it meant investing a year of his time, once Fonoti started at USMAPS in the fall of 2020, he felt supported academically in a way he never had before. “I was touching subjects I had never taken in high school,” he said. “Like, I never took calculus, I never took physics.” He served as battalion commander, a leadership role similar to class president, for one semester, and finished 30th in his class out of more than 200. When he reapplied to West Point in the spring, he was accepted.

Fonoti completed his sophomore year at West Point this past spring. He’s majoring in law and is ranked about 800th out of 1,200 in his class—an impressive feat for a student of his background at West Point, a college that’s as selective as Georgetown. To have finally realized his dream can feel surreal, he told me. “Even now sometimes I’m walking around, like, damn, I kind of—kind of go here,” he said, incredulous, on a sunlit day this spring. We sat outside the campus’s formidable gray-brick dining hall, the Hudson River rushing below. A statue of Douglas MacArthur loomed nearby.

Fonoti’s remarkable story is far from unique at West Point: In recent decades, the school has used its long-running preparatory program, which about 42 percent of Black cadets go through, to build a more racially and economically diverse student body than most other selective schools. Black cadets make up about 15 percent of the West Point student body, double the percentage of most Ivy League colleges, and graduate at a similar rate as white cadets. Black West Point graduates also achieve the rank of major early in their career nearly as often as white graduates.

Like other race-conscious admissions programs, USMAPS is designed to help promising recruits who may be lagging academically because of their socioeconomic background. But it does so in a way that civilian colleges seldom do—by building up those students’ academic abilities to match those of their more privileged peers. In other words, students who excel at USMAPS prove through their performance that they are worthy of admission.

For colleges looking to find ways to achieve racial diversity after the Supreme Court’s June decision eliminating affirmative action in college admissions, USMAPS may provide an answer. In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and a sister case involving the University of North Carolina, the Court ruled it illegal for colleges to give minority students an advantage based on their race. USMAPS shows that a rigorous preparatory education can help students reach the regular admissions threshold on grades, test scores, and other entry criteria, potentially making such an advantage unnecessary.

In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, noted that the decision “does not address” the use of race-conscious admissions policies by service academies like West Point. He justified the exemption by referencing “the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.” But the move was widely seen as a political expedient—a way to outlaw affirmative action in civilian settings without antagonizing the military, an institution voters revere. In an amicus brief to the Court last fall, 35 former leaders of the armed services warned that prohibiting the use of “modest, race-conscious admissions policies” would “impair the military’s ability to maintain diverse leadership, and thereby seriously undermine its institutional legitimacy and operational effectiveness.”

In his June ruling forbidding race-conscious college admissions, Chief Justice John Roberts added a footnote exempting military academies. The move was widely seen as a political expedient—a way to outlaw affirmative action in civilian settings without antagonizing the military, an institution voters revere.

The service academy loophole also allowed Roberts to sidestep an inconvenient fact: USMAPS proves that it is possible to craft race-conscious college admissions policies with rigorous and fair standards. For the most committed opponents of affirmative action to acknowledge that would undermine their whole strategy.

But by the same reasoning, the success of USMAPS poses a challenge to liberal supporters of affirmative action as well. If military academies can use the preparatory school model to achieve diversity while upholding admissions standards, why can’t elite civilian colleges and universities do the same? In USMAPS, West Point is making the investment necessary to help highly capable but underprepared Black and Hispanic students succeed. Ivy League schools, by contrast, have taken the easier path. Rather than tap their immense endowments and powerful fund-raising capacities to train up large numbers of talented lower-income students of color, they hit their race targets by lowering the bar for admissions or enrolling better-prepared minority students from affluent families. Just 3 percent of all students at Harvard come from the bottom 20 percent by income, as Richard Kahlenberg noted in the Washington Monthly, and almost three-quarters of Black students are from the top socioeconomic fifth of the Black population.

The prep school model of race-based admissions is not the easy target for conservative activists that Harvard’s more conventional version proved to be. If affirmative action has a future after SFFA v. Harvard, introducing programs like USMAPS at civilian colleges could be what saves it.

The origins of military prep school can be traced to 1916, when an act of Congress authorized enlisted men to apply to West Point, spawning informal academic programs for soldiers stationed at home and abroad to prepare for the academy. USMAPS was born when West Point consolidated these programs into a formal preparatory school for enlisted soldiers in 1946.

After 1948, when President Harry Truman banned segregation in the military and integration began, Black service members received few opportunities for promotion to the officer corps. By the late 1960s, frustration over this pattern of discrimination, made worse by large numbers of Black draftees serving under white officers in the brutal combat of Vietnam, led to racial tension and violence. Recruiting more Black officers became imperative for maintaining order, and in the 1970s and ’80s, military leaders responded with aggressive affirmative action plans. That included establishing Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at historically Black colleges and universities and requiring minority representation on officer promotion boards. The military also leaned heavily on USMAPS and similar prep schools in the Navy and Air Force to bring more Black candidates up to the academic level of the service academies. As a result, the Black student populations grew substantially. By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, a Black four-star general, Colin Powell, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military was widely lauded as the most successfully integrated institution in the country.

That success presented a major problem for conservatives in their long war to outlaw affirmative action. In 2003, the Supreme Court took up a case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan Law School, that most experts predicted would spell the end to race-conscious admissions policies. Instead, a group of retired senior military leaders delivered an amicus brief testifying to the vital role affirmative action had played in the rebuilding of the nation’s armed forces after Vietnam and warning of dire consequences to military readiness should those tools be taken away. Legal experts called the brief a “showstopper,” and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, drew heavily from it in an opinion that would protect affirmative action for another two decades.

Meanwhile, in 2011, USMAPS relocated from Eatontown, New Jersey, to a single enormous glass building just a few miles up the road from the academy’s main campus on the Hudson River. There, promising West Point applicants whose grades and test scores fall short of the academy live and study for 10 months without distractions. “USMAPS is a very close facsimile of what they’ll experience at West Point,” Colonel Carl Wojtaszek, the chair of the West Point economics department and coauthor of a major recent study of USMAPS, told me. In addition to underrepresented racial groups, USMAPS serves prior-enlisted service members, who make up 20 to 30 percent of the USMAPS student body, and student athletes recruited to West Point, who make up about 40 percent. “Prepsters” are put through a gauntlet of military drills and physical training, but the school’s main emphasis is academics. The curriculum focuses on three core subjects—math, science, and English—and features a full-year study skills course that emphasizes time management and information literacy. “Learning how to just prioritize and time-manage—that was the biggest key at Prep that they would stress to us,” says Jemel Jones, who attended USMAPS in 2018 and graduated from West Point this spring after playing quarterback all four seasons at the academy. Jones says those study skills helped him keep pace with students who were admitted directly to West Point when he arrived at the academy.

Civilian colleges across the country have also long struggled with the fact that first-year students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack the academic preparation they need to succeed. Their efforts to correct the problem, however, have been much less effective. Most colleges funnel underprepared new students into remedial education courses that rehash material the students failed to learn in high school. Students who are put in remedial classes at four-year colleges are often overburdened by the extra class time and schoolwork, and are more likely to drop out, according to the organization Education Reform Now. More than half of Black students at four-year colleges are in such programs.

Many colleges, including highly selective ones, have taken a more promising approach: placing incoming freshmen with lower grades and test scores in two- to six-week summer preparatory programs. The few studies of these programs’ effect on student attainment suggest that they are modestly more successful than regular remedial classes. For instance, a 2010 study of 2,222 incoming freshmen at a selective technical college found that students who attended the college’s summer bridge program were 3 percent more likely to graduate than a control group of students with similar high school GPAs and household income.

But for students who grew up in the most adverse circumstances and attended low-performing high schools, only so much can be accomplished in just a few weeks. No civilian colleges have expanded on the success of the summer school preparatory model and developed a full-year program like USMAPS.

That’s because ordinary colleges don’t have the same incentives as the military to invest in their students’ success. “A normal college, when they bring somebody in, they’re thinking at best it’s a graduate that leaves and they don’t have to worry about again, but we are obligated to have our graduates go into the Army and lead,” Wojtaszek said. “We can’t have failure on the human capital side, because that person is going into our ranks and will lead 39 sons and daughters. Just getting him across the stage isn’t enough.”

Another crucial difference is that, unlike summer school students at civilian colleges, USMAPS students haven’t already gotten into West Point. At the end of the year, they reapply for the academy. About 83 percent get in. This gives would-be cadets a clear goal: gaining entry. “This aligns the incentives,” Wojtaszek and his collaborators pointed out in their study, which was published this spring.

That incentive structure helped Marisa Reyes, a 2018 West Point graduate and former prepster, find motivation to succeed. Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, Reyes lacked a sense of purpose and struggled to keep up with her high-achieving sisters in high school. “There was an honors breakfast where both my sisters were getting recognized for being A-plus students,” she says. Her dad turned to her. “He asked me, ‘Don’t you want to be up there someday?’” After her older sister was accepted to the Naval Academy, Reyes applied to all three service academies and was rejected. But West Point offered her a spot in the preparatory program. There, for the first time, she found purpose: getting in. “The saying was, ‘Getting you ready to go down the hill,’” Reyes told me. “That was constantly referenced.” Now that she was surrounding herself “with people that were always motivated,” she said, she thrived.

Prestigious colleges and universities certainly can come up with the money to run high-quality preparatory academies. They haven’t because they haven’t needed to: Until now, they could meet their diversity goals simply by lowering admission standards and recruiting better-prepared minority students from affluent families.

It’s a winning formula. USMAPS students who are admitted to West Point increase their SAT scores, on average, from 1099 to 1164 over the course of the preparatory year. That figure is within the normal range for directly admitted West Point first-year students and only 122 points shy of the 1286 mean score for direct-admits. West Point assesses applicants with its College Entrance Examination Rank (CEER), an academic ability metric based on a student’s high school class rank (adjusted for school quality) and SAT scores. According to Wojtaszek’s study, Black prepsters who were accepted to West Point after completing USMAPS saw a 29-point gain on CEER’s 800-point scale, and Hispanic prepsters saw a 36-point gain. These improvements mean that Black and Hispanic prepsters accepted to West Point upon reapplying have academic credentials equivalent to those of lower-performing applicants who are admitted directly to the academy.

But academics are only one measure used at West Point. Admission is determined by the Whole Candidate Score (WCS), a comprehensive measure of abilities, 60 percent of which is based on CEER. A candidate’s leadership potential, which is calculated based on high school faculty recommendations and extracurricular achievements, is another 30 percent, and the final 10 percent is a physical fitness test. Over the course of USMAPS, Black prepsters who were accepted to West Point improved their leadership score by 24 points and physical score by 6 points on an 800-point scale.

Just as impressively, since 1951, USMAPS graduates have made up 11 percent of the student body, yet they have held a quarter of the student leadership positions at West Point. Since West Point’s goal is to prepare future leaders, not future academics, this figure is an especially encouraging indicator of USMAPS’s effectiveness and of the wisdom of allowing its graduates into West Point ahead of some other students with higher SAT scores.

USMAPS also helps students with the cultural acclimation necessary to succeed at a rigorous college. Reyes, the 2018 West Point graduate, described the proactive academic mind-set she learned at the prep school. “USMAPS did a good job of teaching you [to] always ask for help,” she said. That confidence and sense of belonging is critical at a prestigious college like West Point. Despite the academy’s strides on diversity, the school is still culturally dominated by white legacy students. “This place is way outside the norm of what I’m used to in California,” Fonoti told me this spring while we walked across the vast central quad, a group of mostly white cadets playing volleyball nearby. “There are a lot of kids here with, like, really oddly important parents,” he added. “They all went to private schools.” That’s not true for many former prepsters. As Fonoti put it, he can’t call his parents and say, “‘Super-important mom and dad, shit hit the fan. I need help.’ They’re the ones asking me!”

In civilian higher education, this cultural dislocation can be insurmountable. Often, low-income students of color struggle with the adjustment to their new surroundings, failing to find a support network and toiling at their schoolwork in isolation. They drop out at higher rates than their peers. It’s a different story at West Point. Former prepsters I spoke with described a culture of mutual support rooted in their prep year together. “We do have a really deep sense of camaraderie,” Fonoti said. “A lot of us are first-generation college students.” Jones, the quarterback who graduated this spring, said this affinity among former prepsters was a source of strength at West Point. “We take pride throwing up the ‘U’ for ‘USMAPS,’” he said, beaming, and made a “U” with his thumbs and index fingers. Jones, who will fulfill his five-year active-duty service as a tank platoon leader at Fort Bliss in Texas, said that as an upperclassman he made a habit of mentoring younger former prepsters.

Prepsters have a lower-than-average academic class rank at the academy, but 58 percent of students who entered USMAPS between 2005 and 2008, the last time the figure was made publicly available, eventually graduated from West Point. The rate was even slightly higher for Black students than white—60 percent compared to 58 percent—and is especially impressive considering that West Point is tougher to get through than most elite colleges. The overall West Point graduation rate is 84 percent; Harvard’s is 98 percent.

Almost 25 years ago, the journalist and Air Force veteran Debra Dickerson made the case in U.S. News & World Report that elite civilian colleges should follow the military’s example and create their own preparatory feeder schools. This spring, Wojtaszek came to the same conclusion. “Selective colleges and universities can potentially benefit from the experiences of West Point since they face similar challenges in attracting low-income and minority students who are often not sufficiently well prepared for the academic rigors of advanced undergraduate education,” he and his collaborators argued in their study of USMAPS.

One lesson elite institutions of higher education can take from the military’s experience is that viable prep schools can’t be run on the cheap. The Army doesn’t disclose the cost per student at USMAPS, which is free for attendees. But it is a fair bet that it’s close to the cost of West Point itself, which is about $62,500 per cadet per year. The government picks up 100 percent of that, too. Every Ivy League college has an endowment north of $6 billion; Harvard’s is $53 billion. Prestigious colleges and universities certainly can come up with the money to run high-quality preparatory academies. They haven’t because they haven’t needed to: Until now, they could meet their diversity goals simply by lowering admission standards and recruiting better-prepared minority students from affluent families.

Traditional affirmative action has long been unpopular with the American public. But voters might be more sympathetic to a civilian version of the military’s prep school model. If so, conservatives will attack it at their peril.

That’s not going to be so easy in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June decision banning race-conscious admissions policies. Elite schools will still have some inexpensive workarounds, like making standardized tests optional, an already-spreading practice that has been shown to advantage Black and Hispanic students, and giving credit to students who write in their admissions essays about how race has affected their lives (another carve-out Roberts wrote into his opinion). Still, racial diversity on elite college campuses is expected to go down unless those colleges are willing to try new strategies.

USMAPS-style prep schools should be high on the list, especially because they have a strong chance of passing muster with the Court. Or, at least, they will for a while. In SFFA v. Harvard, Roberts, a patient longtime foe of affirmative action, left open the possibility that the Court might someday revisit the military academies exemption. Conservatives elsewhere are already gunning for it. In July, soon after the ruling, House Republicans added a provision in the annual defense authorization bill that would do away with all affirmative action programs in the military. That language is likely to be stripped out of the legislation during negotiations, with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House. But that situation won’t last forever, either.

Even if the civilian prep school strategy might someday be vulnerable to challenge by politicians or the courts, liberals should still encourage elite colleges to pursue it. Not only would it benefit lower-income minority students, more of whom would be admitted into prestigious schools; it could also prove to be the innovation that saves the very concept of race-based admissions.

The hard truth is that traditional affirmative action has long been unpopular with most voters. But those voters might be more sympathetic to a prep school version if they came to understand that minority participants invest a year’s worth of sweat equity to earn their place by rising to the academic standards of elite colleges. And if the American public comes to support this model of affirmative action, conservatives will attack it at their peril.

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Will Norris is an editor at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at West Wing Writers, The Boston Globe, Boston magazine, and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) and graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2022.