As the newest students at the nation’s four U.S. service academies start their classes this month, they may not realize they had a slight advantage — they benefited from a shrinking pool of applicants.

All of the schools saw a drop in prospective students, with the Air Force Academy (search) experiencing the most drastic change — a 23 percent decline from last year. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point (search) fared the best with a 9 percent drop in applicants, according to figures provided by the academy.

The declines are notable because, with the exception of the Coast Guard Academy (search), the schools all experienced a jump in applications following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The numbers remained high during the U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And they come at a time when some branches of the military are experiencing their own manpower problems. The Army, for example, will fall short of its 2005 recruitment goals, although it will do better than expected with re-enlistments. Click here to read more about the Army's numbers.

Some analysts believe the drop-off at the military academies is because of extended military commitments or a perceived tapering of post-Sept. 11 patriotism. Others suspect a more likely cause is an improvement in the U.S. economy. But admissions officials told FOXNews.com it's a combination of many factors.

"All the services, especially the Army, have had daily coverage from the media on the war. This could re-instill someone's desire to serve, or it could drive someone — or their parents — away," said Col. Trapper Carpenter, director of admissions at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

A statement from the Naval Academy (search) in Annapolis, Md., said: "We do not know for certain why the total number of applications rise and fall from year to year. Various factors such as personal motivation and aspirations, the economy, the appeal of military service, and other issues potentially influence those applying to the Academy."

But the war in Iraq seems a likely contributor to the shortage of applications.

"This summer we surveyed a group of students who expressed interest in the Coast Guard Academy but ultimately chose not to apply to the Class of 2009. Eighteen percent cited concern about the war as a factor influencing their decision," said Capt. Susan Bibeau, director of admissions at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Bibeau added, however, that the academy had not asked this question in previous years, so officials had no comparative data by which to judge the survey.

Applications at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., have been erratic. The applications for the classes of 2008 and 2009 were close to a third of the typical number of applicants for each of the five years prior.

Cause and Effect

When each of the academies held its graduation ceremonies this year, the graduates of 2005 shared a unique bond — they were members of the first class to enter the elite schools following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Students applying to the service academies now were in seventh or eighth grade when the attacks occurred," Bibeau said. "Their memory and impressions of that event are relatively distant. Nonetheless, many academy applicants continue to write eloquently of their desire to serve the nation."

The tragedy of the 2001 terrorist attacks brought challenges not only in defense and homeland security, but also economic challenges. After several years of struggle, the economy improved in 2004 and 2005 and is showing the highest first quarter in expendable household incomes in more than seven years.

A weak economy can trigger a boom in military academy applications, said Carpenter. The military academies are the perfect solution to financial problems because they allow a free education — the Air Force Academy even pays its students — and students are guaranteed a job upon graduation, explained Carpenter.

Another financial factor that some said may be taking its toll on the academies is an increase in grants at Ivy League schools. More students than ever are eligible under the financial aid umbrella at Ivy League universities.

For example, Yale University, which costs $41,000 a year to attend, increased financial aid scholarships in March by waving tuition for students whose families make less than $45,000 per year and charging only half the cost of tuition for families making between $45,000 and $60,000 per year. In 2004 another Ivy League school, Harvard University, launched a program allowing students from families making less than $40,000 to go to school tuition-free.

"We attract the same students who look at a lot of the Ivy League schools," said Carpenter, "students attracted to the core things we stand for, like integrity and putting the team above yourself. …

"We're very comfortable with the number of our applications, and the quality of the class is reflected by the number of qualified applicants, and some of the elite schools are making it more competitive for us to get those qualified applicants."

A Black Eye

Bad publicity could also be taking a toll on the academies, officials said, pointing to several recent sexual harassment scandals.

"I think that the controversy over women and their treatment in various military academies has caused the number of applicants to decrease," said Carol Vandre, the guidance counselor at Indian Creek High School in Shabbona, Ill.

In a 2004 study of sexual harassment at the academies, 202 female students reported 302 incidents of sexual assault, including 94 instances of alleged rape and 176 cases of inappropriate touching and fondling between 1999 and 2004. The Department of Defense study surveyed 1,906 of the 1,971 women enrolled at the academies.

Scandals — like the reported rape of Jessica Brakey, an Air Force Academy cadet, one of 142 allegations of sexual assault at the academy between 1993 and 2002 — only highlighted the link between sexual harassment and the military academies.

Brakey claimed that she was raped by an upperclassman, First Lt. Joseph Harding, and was expelled from the academy while Harding escaped further investigation. More than four years after the alleged rape, the criminal case remains unsettled. In June, a military judge halted the rape case against Harding but he faces a general court-martial on a separate charge of indecent assault against another female cadet. That trial could start in October.

Air Force Academy officials said that the problems attributed to their institution and the other military academies are shared by other colleges and universities.

In 2000, the Justice Department published a report that found that over a seven-month reference period, 27.7 rapes occurred per 1,000 female students in the general college population. The study was based on a national sample of 4,446 women who were attending 2- or 4- year colleges or universities.

"It was called a scandal at the time and now I think the problems our school faced have been put in context," said Carpenter.

Perhaps surprisingly, the number of female applicants to the Air Force Academy has only increased for the classes of 2008 and 2009. One reason may be because the academy has held officers accountable and emphasized the importance of confidential reporting.

"We do have challenges and we are making changes to create a better environment," said Carpenter. Carpenter also said she feels that people admire the way the Air Force Academy handled the situation. "[People have] faith in our service academies that we are willing to take those challenges head on."

Tough Road to Acceptance

The academies pride themselves on their record of turning students into educated, physically fit, inspired and honorable soldiers. Students are not only required to prove academic, athletic and extracurricular excellence, but must also be nominated by a member of Congress and interviewed by the academy.

"Our focus is less on the total number of applicants who express interest in applying and more about attracting, admitting and ultimately graduating the very best-qualified individuals who wish to serve their nation as Navy and Marine Corps officers," said the Naval Academy's public affairs department in a press statement. Less than 10 percent of applicants are admitted, according to the academy.

Despite the drop in the number of applicants, SAT scores and the class rank statistics have either improved or remained steady at all of the academies. The number of students they are admitting has not wavered considerably, either.

"Even if academy admits were down, I don't ever think the academies will have to 'dummy down' for a class. The academies offer world-class education for free. I'm sure world events affect student decision-making but I couldn't tell how," said Susan Biemeret, the college consultant at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill.

The Sept. 11 Effect

Even though the academies are experiencing a drop in applications, most of the academies are back to their application rates before terrorists attacked the United States in 2001.

"I think what most people are seeing is that our application numbers are returning to the pre-9/11 numbers if you look eight or 10 years prior to 9/11," Carpenter said.

Bibeau describes the drop in applications as the natural flux of interest in military academies. "The role played by external factors waxes and wanes over years, not months," said Bibeau.

But the admissions departments aren't getting too comfortable with their ability to maintain a quality enrollment. Officials said they are still trying to improve their appeal to high school students across the country in order to fight the drop in admissions and keep the process competitive.

"Every admissions officer worth their salt stays focused on building their applicant pool. We plan to do the same," Bibeau said.