updated 6/16/2009 8:41:24 PM ET 2009-06-17T00:41:24

Applications have surged at the nation's three top military academies as tough economic times coincide with stepped-up recruiting efforts by the Army, Navy and Air Force schools, making the prospect of free college and a steady job look sweeter.

The recession has already helped drive higher military recruitment and retention. Stronger student response to recruiting campaigns by the three academies, who want to increase minority ranks in the officer corps, comes as the recession has reduced college scholarships and other financial aid.

As of this week, the U.S. Naval Academy was out in front with a 40 percent increase in applications compared with last year. Annapolis received about 15,300 applications for about 1,230 positions — the highest number of applications the academy has received since 1988.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., also have seen increases. Applications are up 10 percent for the class of 2013 at the Air Force Academy, from 9,001 to 9,890 for 1,350 positions.

West Point received 11,106 applications for the class of 2013, up from 10,132 the year before, or a 9 percent increase, said Col. Deborah McDonald, director of admissions.

Commissioned as officers
Students who graduate from the academies are commissioned as officers in the military. In their applications, students tend to highlight their desire to take command or gain leadership experience, McDonald said.

Students also mentioned economic reasons for wanting to attend, particularly in light of the recession's affect on college funds, McDonald said.

"It does pop up on the radar screen, but it's very minimal," McDonald said

In Colorado Springs, John Van Winkle, a spokesman for the Air Force Academy, said applications are at the highest point in five years. Van Winkle said the lengthy application process is geared more toward students who have wanted to attend for years.

Stephen Gast, an 18-year-old Hollywood, Md., resident who will be in the Air Force Academy's class of 2013, said he has wanted to attend the academy since his early teens because he sees it as the best way to serve his country and learn how to fly.

"I've always seen that as the best place to get a pilot's slot when I graduated," Gast said.

Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, the Naval Academy's superintendent, said a big part of the increase in applications in Annapolis is due to the school's summer seminar. The program brings students who have finished their junior year of high school to the academy for six days to show them what life would be like at the picturesque riverside campus. For 2,250 spots in the program, the academy received more than 6,000 applications this summer.

"I think the expansion there has been part of that overall factor in why we've been able to increase interest overall," Bruce Latta, dean of admissions, told the academy's Board of Visitors last week.

Math and science skills important
The Naval Academy also has been reaching out to students in seventh and eighth grades to emphasize the importance of developing math and science skills to help increase chances of admission.

All three academies have been focusing on increasing diversity in an effort to make the schools' student bodies representative of their respective branches of the Armed Forces.

The Naval Academy has increased outreach efforts in parts of the country that are underrepresented at the school, particularly inner cities. Minorities will make up 35 percent of the class of 2013 — the highest in academy history.

Lt. Jeanine Benjamin, a diversity admissions counselor at the Naval Academy who has been focusing on boosting interest in New York City, said she recently held a forum in Brooklyn, N.Y., to raise awareness of the academy's opportunities.

"We had over 100 different students from all over the five boroughs of New York City. We had students traveling up to two hours, coming from New Jersey, coming from upstate New York, coming from Connecticut, just to hear what we had to say," Benjamin said.

Naval Academy officials believe the overall application increase is more than a one-time blip. The academy already has 8,350 applicants for the class of 2014, 800 ahead of the number the school had during the same point last year, Fowler said.

"So I think this is going to continue, which will continue to give us this great pool," Fowler said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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