Difficult decision: Air Force Academy, elite colleges come calling

On the list of good problems to have, having two of your top college choices battling for your enrollment ranks pretty near the top. Just ask newly-minted high school graduate Gavin Teague, 17, eldest son of Todd and Michelle Teague.

Teague enjoyed that very scenario recently, culminating a college search that began with a dozen hopefuls and wrapped up in May, shortly before he accepted his diploma as a member of Conway High School’s Class of 2020.

“Early in the fall I was pretty open to where I’d go to college. I applied to 12 schools in total, including my dream schools of MIT and Stanford and UCLA, plus the Air Force Academy,” he said. “There were also a range of other schools that had successful engineering programs that I thought I’d be okay attending.”

His top two schools – Stanford and MIT – rejected him outright. UCLA waitlisted him and three other universities accepted him immediately, including the University of Arkansas. But all three of these paled in comparison to his fourth acceptance letter.

“I got accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs,” he said. “That was really good because that was fairly high up on my list, No. 4.”

“I started telling people that’s where I was headed to school in the fall. I bought T-shirts and hoodies. I went and bought myself combat boots to start running in to train for basic. Everything started panning out the way it’s supposed to for going to the Air Force Academy.”

As May arrived, Teague figured the matter was settled, given how late it was getting for collegiate offers. He figured wrong. UCLA moved him off the waitlist to accepted status. What’s more, the school allowed only a short time window for him to accept the spot in the 2020 freshman class.

Recent Conway High graduate Gavin Teague – who scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and was a National Merit Scholar finalist – had a tough decision on where to attend college. (Mike Kemp photo)

“It was a very difficult decision,” he said. “Service academies rarely have any competition if you get in, but UCLA was always ranked higher than the Air Force Academy on my list. I toured UCLA last summer and fell in love with it. Everybody I spoke to on campus was absolutely fabulous. I was completely enthralled with the prestige of education they could offer.”

“I only had a couple days until the end of May before I had to accept it or deny it so I just went with the flow and decided California was the state I wanted to be in and UCLA was the school I wanted to be in. I accepted it, rejected the Academy and threw the whole thing in reverse. That was a major upset.”

Given both schools’ exclusivity and high entrance standards (acceptance rates for the Academy and UCLA are only about 11 and 14 percent, respectively), Teague’s high school academic and extracurricular performance was paramount to getting in. He scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and was a National Merit Scholar finalist. A competitive swimmer from an early age, he lettered for three years in high school and was part of the Wampus Cats’ state championship team as a senior. Band, Quiz Bowl, National Honor Society, Key Club and Beta Club led a laundry list of other extracurricular activities.

Teague said not everyone is as enthusiastic over his decision to change colleges as he is. His father, for instance, thought the discipline of the service academy would be an asset to keeping his son on task.

“He’s warmed up to it,” the younger Teague said. “A little bit.”

As it turned out, the 17-year-old future engineering student landed the best of both worlds. While he won’t be attending the Academy itself, he’s attending UCLA on a near-full ride scholarship through the Air Force ROTC, meaning he will have a military commitment following graduation and many of the same career opportunities as if he’d gone to Colorado Springs.

“After college, I’ll be pretty well lined up for the experimental test pilot or the fighter pilot program, both of which are good options after college and really good experience in the air,” he said. “Both of them give me the kind of experience they look for to be an astronaut candidate. Depending on how my time in the Air Force goes, I may pursue the astronaut program after that. Or I might try to start a business.”

“Entrepreneurship, owning some big company and inventing things, that’s kind of stuck with me since I was little. I think everyone has that little bit of [Tesla founder] Elon Musk in them where they want to invent something crazy and change the world.”

Dwain Hebda