The Citadel: Some go home

Citadel freshmen, known as 'knobs,' change classes Wednesday.

Wade Spees

Not everybody is meant to be a Citadel cadet.

When classes started Wednesday at the state's military college, 659 freshmen, known as knobs for their extremely short haircuts, stepped into classrooms. That's 62 fewer than showed up earlier this month for the rigorous military training that precedes the first day of class. That number, 8.6 percent of the class, is up 1.7 percentage points from last year, when 49 cadets, or 6.9 percent of the class, decided to leave.

Every year the school loses some freshmen cadets during the early phase of the program, particularly during the week of military training unofficially known as Hell Week, though school leaders bristle at the term.

The highest percentage of freshmen leaving the program before classes started in the last 10 years happened in 2001, when 9.7 percent of the class decided not to continue. The low came in 2003, with 6.4 percent.

Col. Leo Mercado, the commandant of cadets, said he's not alarmed by the slight increase this year. And the freshman class this year was the largest in 34 years, he said, so it's not surprising that more students left.

He said also that the freshman class this year is particularly strong, with an average high school grade point average of 3.36 and SAT score of 1,090.

But, he added, although the increase in the number dropping out isn't a problem for him, he's always concerned about those who decide to leave the program. This year, "62 young men and women have missed an opportunity," he said. "What keeps me up at night is what we could have done better to make sure they stayed."

Mercado said it's important to focus on retention more than on attrition, adding that The Citadel has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the state.

Cadets' first week of military training sets the tone for their time at The Citadel, Mercado said, and it's a tough week.

Students engage in rigorous and draining activity and take on an extremely regimented lifestyle. In addition, they must learn to be followers, the first step, school officials say, in the process of learning to be principled leaders.

Citadel officials said the top three reasons cadets this year gave for leaving were: the military lifestyle and fourth-class system; lack of motivation; and pre-existing medical conditions.

Mercado said the regimented lifestyle is a challenge for many young people, especially when they talk to their counterparts at other colleges who have much more freedom.

"It's reality that a lot of these kids have never seen the sun rise," he said.

But he stressed that officials and cadet leaders work with students who want to leave to try to encourage them to stay. "We go through a prescribed process," he said.

Mercado also said that the initial military training makes up only one week of a long-term program. "Let's look at this as a holistic process, not a snapshot in time," he said. "This is a four-year process."