Published January 14. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 14. 2013 3:41PM
New London - While the state of the economy has caused hardships for many people, at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy it has had one surprisingly positive effect: cadets are sticking together more and taking care of one another.
The Coast Guard doesn't need as many new officers because record numbers of officers are staying in the service instead of venturing out into an uncertain job market. Last year only half of all captains were allowed to stay in the service.
Class sizes at the academy have been shrinking. The Class of 2016, which started at 248 and now stands at 223, is the smallest in more than a decade. The Class of 2017 is going to be even smaller, with only 235 spots available.
Cadets who break the rules or don't meet the school's standards often are not getting a second or third chance, as they may have in the past.
Knowing all this, Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz said, has brought the cadets closer. Stosz, the academy's superintendent and a 1982 academy graduate, said when she was a student, cadets were more on their own.
"When times get tough, and it can be because people know the outside is kind of hard, they start to bond together," said Stosz. "So I embrace tough economic times on many fronts. I see the opportunity in it. Our cadets are coming in and you see their behavior. They really want to be here and they help each other to make it."
Joe Sullivan-Springhetti, a senior cadet, said he noticed a change about a year ago.
Last fall cadets were told that they would be dismissed if they didn't pass the physical fitness tests; before, they had many opportunities to do so. Several seniors who couldn't pass were dismissed.
"The tolerance that was there is very much diminished today, and mistakes that may have been forgiven in the past can now be cause for disenrollment," Sullivan-Springhetti said.
Now, he says, people are going to the gym in groups to encourage one another. They're studying together often and looking out for one another more when they're off campus and could potentially get into trouble and jeopardize their standing as cadets, he added.
"Things we were doing, we do all the more because we are in this heightened, vulnerable state," said Sullivan-Springhetti, who is the regimental commander.
There is no target for the number of graduates in each class, said Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant. If 216 students graduate, there will be 216 jobs available, he said.
"There are plenty of good jobs for junior officers out there. And I don't see that being diminished just yet. We'll find a place to put them to work," said Papp, who was at the academy Wednesday to give his annual leadership address.
Air Force adjusts
The U.S. Air Force Academy's enrollment is capped at 4,000, yet for several years it grew to between 4,200 and 4,400 students. In tough economic times, that is changing, too.
The Class of 2016 had 1,045 spots available, which is down from 1,159 in the Class of 2015 and 1,293 in the Class of 2014, said John Van Winkle, a spokesman. Just as at the Coast Guard Academy, cadets who make mistakes are getting fewer chances.
"Keeping more than 4,000 cadets is not something we wanted to continue when the Air Force is facing fiscal austerity like the rest of the country," he said.
It made sense to try to keep people in the academies after Sept. 11, 2001, when the size of the military needed to grow, Stosz said. The number of officers in the Coast Guard went from about 5,600 in 2001 to 6,800 now. She became the superintendent in 2011, after nearly a decade of such growth.
"We still hadn't really just taken a breath and realized, 'Oh, now it's getting different,'" she said.
Stosz said she didn't create new standards; she enforced the existing ones.
"We're not making any efforts to shove people out," she said. "But on the other hand if they make the choice to get in trouble or not to comply with the standard, then they do it at their own risk because we don't have the service need to give them all those chances."
As the economy improves and more people begin to leave the Coast Guard for other jobs, Stosz said the class sizes at the academy will likely come back up.
Regardless of whether the Coast Guard needs to grow or shrink, Stosz said, she is firm with cadets who don't adhere to the service's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.
In the spring she called an admiral's mast, a disciplinary hearing, to deal with a senior cadet who was accused of stealing - the first time a superintendent had ever done so. The commandant of cadets normally holds the masts.
That cadet was dismissed. So, too, were a group of junior cadets who went to the Mohegan Sun casino this fall. At least one of the cadets under 21 was drinking, and others were caught lying during the investigation.
Nineteen seniors were dismissed last year because of their grades or a conduct violation. The previous year, only five seniors were dismissed for similar issues.
It costs about $382,000 to educate and train a cadet for four years, according to the academy's figures. About 75 percent of students graduate. The Classes of 2011 and 2012 were above average, with 85 percent and 77 percent of cadets graduating, respectively.
Other service academies make students who leave early repay their tuition. The Coast Guard Academy gave up the ability to require this years ago, Stosz said. She's currently looking to get "recoupment power" back.
Stosz said she's optimistic that 2013 will be a year "filled with promise and possibility."
"I always think if things are a little tough out there, that it just means that those people who are smarter and more innovative and more driven and determined are going to find a way through," she said. "That's the kind of attitude I think we need to take going forward."
Kathleen Romas, a senior cadet, said during this last semester before graduation her goal is not only to get her work done but also to make sure everyone else in her division is doing well.
"We all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard right now. Otherwise, we won't get the chance to do that in the fleet," she said. "It's important that everyone looks out for each other, especially now."
Sullivan-Springhetti said it has been painful to see some of his classmates leave early because he wants the entire class to be together to graduate. But, he said, the Coast Guard should be discerning.
"Having people work harder and commit themselves to the standards," he said, "will only lead to higher quality people throughout the Coast Guard."