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Understanding ROTC

Jace R.W. Johnson

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Have you ever been on a college campus and wondered why some students wear military uniforms? They are part of a cohort of students taking advantage of the U.S. military’s wide variety of efforts to develop its future leaders with only part-time exposure to the military.

The U.S. military offers unique educational opportunities for students planning to pursue a degree. Many options offer paid tuition, fees, a monthly stipend, and a guaranteed job upon graduation. Today I’m going to give you an up-close look at college ROTC programs (as opposed to the other commissioning sources for the military: federal service academies or direct commissioning).

Each service branch (Army, Navy, and Air Force) has their own take on ROTC participation at various public and private schools along with the senior and junior military colleges and maritime academies (learn more about military colleges and maritime academies at the end of this post). No prior military service or Junior ROTC (in high school) experience is required.

Participation is voluntary with most programs offering officer commissions to those who go on to serve on active duty, in the reserves, or with the National Guard. Full-tuition scholarships are also offered in exchange for a period of obligatory service commitment after graduation.

All programs aim to educate, train, and inspire participants so that each commissioned graduate is a leader of character committed to their respective program’s values and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to our Nation as an officer in management, staff, and higher leadership positions. Choice of a career field/job and first duty station is dependent upon merit upon successfully completing a program and graduation.


The Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC), as it exists today, was formally inaugurated over 100 years ago with the National Defense Act of 1916, which served to modernize the organization of the military prior to U.S. entry into World War I. Civilian colleges and universities had been conducting military training as early as 1819, but the National Defense Act more formally organized this training under one federal entity.

ROTC technically began in 1819 with a West Point graduate and former superintendent, Captain Alden Partridge. Partridge wanted to take advantage of his experiences to create an institution solely dedicated to producing “citizen soldiers.” He established the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in Norwich, VT. His vision was to develop a process through which college students would receive military training while attending institutions of higher learning. Benefits to the Nation would be two-fold. Trained military leaders would be available on short notice when necessary. When national defense circumstances didn't require as many officers, they could then continue to pursue civilian occupations. The institution is now known as Norwich University.

Between 1819 and 1861, several other state-supported (public) and private schools focusing on military training and preparedness were established. Notable institutions include the Virginia Military Institute, The Citadel, and Marion Military Institute. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 saw the proliferation of colleges with a military focus or component. Many have evolved or survived as private or public schools, and many have maintained their military roots with robust and renowned ROTC programs.

Today’s ROTC

Today ROTC remains a college-specific program offered at over 1,400 colleges and universities. It continues to be the primary, single largest source of officers for all branches of the military.

Program goals track similar to that of the federal service academies: develop leaders of character and prepare graduates for a career of service and excellence. ROTC cadets and midshipmen must be working on a bachelor's degree to participate. ROTC courses offer a mix of classroom and field work providing leadership, military skills, and career training. There is no need to be on scholarship to participate and earn a commission.

In exchange for paid college tuition (scholarships) and a guaranteed post-college career, cadets and midshipmen commit to serve after graduation. Service commitments are as varied as the programs for scholarship and non-scholarship participants (solely active-duty or reserve or a mix of both). Scholarships and aid are awarded nationally and locally at specific programs.

If a candidate is competitive for a service academy appointment, then they are extremely competitive for ROTC scholarship offers. Grants include annual/semester book and uniform allowances, and national scholarships are not geographically constrained like service academy appointments. Monthly stipends during the academic year are controlled locally and vary from freshman to senior year. Most public and private schools also offer a wide variety of additional local aid (room, board, books, fees, etc.) for participants in ROTC.

Participation requires students to be at least full-time (minimum of 12 credit hours) taking one ROTC course (elective) class per semester for four years for a total of 24 hours. Typical students take at least 15–18 credit hours per semester and are required to wear a uniform only one day a week. There are almost no opportunities for early graduation.

Top students earn additional majors/minors or graduate credit during their four-year journey. Many students apply ROTC elective credits towards academic minors (military studies, national security, aerospace studies, naval science, etc.). The Navy Marine Option requires additional classes in national security policy and military history.

ROTC programs allow for much more academic flexibility than the strict four-year service academy structure when it comes to changing a major or needing more time to graduate (common with many engineering disciplines). Programs also allow for most summers off, but also offer challenging military training and active-duty exposure for those who want to participate. ROTC programs also offer pathways to nursing, medical fields, and legal careers.


If you are accepted into a college or university with an ROTC program, then you can easily participate after passing basic medical and physical requirements. Programs are not necessarily any more regimented than most school sports or extracurricular activities such as the performing arts. If students thrived in those activities, then they will thrive in ROTC. Students can join ROTC after their first year, but programs have a four- year requirement.

There are various scholarship eligibility requirements (age, GPA, health, fitness, etc.). However, scholarship eligibility does not equal competitiveness. Scholarship applications can all be easily completed online with a face-to-face interview typically required locally or at the primary school of choice.

Applicants are required to select five schools — one must be an in-state public school with that particular ROTC program. To formally accept scholarship aid, students must also be accepted into a particular school and academic program. In general, unless on scholarship, first- and second-year students incur no service obligations. ROTC courses that were taken simply count towards general education or elective credits. Third- and fourth-year students are typically “contracted” and are on track to commission with some level of service obligation upon graduation (active, reserves, national guard, or combinations).

Notable Differences Among the Programs

As the largest service branch, Army ROTC programs are the largest with the most participation. Programs are offered at over 270 host universities/colleges and over 1,100 partnership schools. Due to its history as a former branch of the Army, you typically find Air Force ROTC programs wherever you find an Army ROTC program.

Navy ROTC programs (with a Marine option) are offered at a more limited number of campuses with over 75 host campuses and over 100 partnership schools.

Due to its size, Army ROTC offers over 2,000 annual, mostly full-tuition scholarships. The Air Force and Navy offer about 1,000 or fewer. You can major in any academic discipline to earn a scholarship due to the Army’s dedication to background diversity goals for its future leaders. Your major may have more to do with what your alternate specialty will be.

The Navy and Air Force generally require scholarship recipients to major in a STEM or language discipline with extremely limited options for changing majors. Changing out of a scholarship major will normally require that aid previously received be repaid. The Army and Navy also offer room and board options for students that have the opportunity to double-dip with other academic aid received or where urban room and board is significantly more than tuition. Students need to remember that all room and board aid received from a ROTC scholarship is considered taxable income. Air Force scholarships do not offer this option unless granted separately at a particular school.

As with West Point, Army ROTC is more physically demanding than Navy and Air Force with mandatory physical training three to four times a week versus two to three for the others. All programs offer a wide variety of ways to fulfill mandatory service obligations after graduation and completing other higher levels of training (such as flight school, etc.). The Army is the only service that allows its ROTC scholarship recipients to fulfill their service commitment entirely in the reserves or with the National Guard.

The Navy’s NUPOC (Nuclear Propulsion training program) offers substantial salary and benefits while earning a BS or MS including annual bonuses after initial service obligations have been met. They also have a CECP (Civil Engineering Collegiate Program) for aspiring engineering and naval architecture students that offers salary and other benefits while earning BS or MS degrees.

Keys to Success

Share these with your student who is considering ROTC!

  • Understand what you are getting yourself into, why the U.S. has a military, and why the separate service branches operate their own ROTC programs.
  • Understand why our nation’s military needs diverse leaders of character who can solve problems.
  • Search online for the various programs and scholarship opportunities.
  • Be proactive throughout the process and finish your file early — early completion of your application reflects a drive to be part of ROTC.
  • Your contact details should be the ones on file, not your parents’. Recruiters want to communicate with you directly as this must be your commitment and not something someone else wants you to do.
  • Prepare, train, and practice for requirements (Physical Fitness Assessment, SAT and/or ACT).
    Take both the SAT and ACT at least twice each due to super-scoring opportunities.
  • Keep retesting into college when applying or reapplying for ROTC scholarships after high school.
  • Communicate promptly and politely with recruiters.
  • Consider reapplying for scholarships after a year or two of college. Many aid recipients went to college, university, junior college, community college, etc. before earning an ROTC scholarship for the first time; not everyone has a linear route to earning a commission.
  • Make the decision that is right for you (not your parents, immediate family, other relatives, etc.).

There are several resources online to learn more. Talk to family and friends who have served in the military. Search for official ROTC websites of the various service branches or visit local ROTC recruiters. They are trained to help decide what is best for you and can connect you with local cadets and midshipmen for local campus tours.

Most programs have dedicated recruiters who also serve as formal academic advisors — also a good place to start when visiting a campus. Recruiters and advisors serve as your advocate to help you understand program requirements and move through obstacles to meet your goal of becoming a successful officer.

Another Route: Military Colleges and Maritime Academies

Military colleges have unique public and private pedigrees, and also offer a combination of higher education and military instruction. Similar in culture to Service Academies, they also have storied programs with famous graduates and a legacy of leadership.

All cadets must participate in ROTC, but only those cadets who receive an ROTC scholarship are required to enter military service upon graduation. Many non-scholarship graduates go on to serve.

Senior Military Colleges (4 year), also known as the Big 6

  • Norwich University (1819), Northfield VT – oldest private military college and birthplace of ROTC
  • Virginia Military Institute (1839), Lexington VA
  • The Citadel (1842), Charleston SC
  • Virginia Tech, Corps of Cadets (1872), Blacksburg VA
  • University of North Georgia, Corps of Cadets (1873), Dahlonega GA
  • Texas A&M, Corps of Cadets (1876), College Station TX

Military Junior Colleges (2 year), also known as the Big 4 JCs

  • Marion Military Institute (1842), Marion AL
  • Georgia Military College (1879), Milledgeville GA
  • New Mexico Military Institute (1891), Roswell, NM
  • Valley Forge Military Academy (1928), Wayne, PA

Other options include state-supported maritime academies. Programs include opportunities for Direct Commissioning into the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine (both of which do not have ROTC programs).

The U.S. Merchant Marine is the fleet of civilian-owned merchant ships that carry cargo and passengers on behalf of US. In times of war, the Merchant Marine is an auxiliary to the Navy and can be called upon to transport service members and supplies. Maritime academies produce shipboard officers for vessels integral to shipping and transportation needs, but a service commitment is not always required.

  • State University of New York Maritime College (1874), New York City
  • Massachusetts Maritime Academy (1891), Buzzards Bay MA
  • California Maritime Academy (1929) (Cal State University System), Vallejo CA
  • Maine Maritime Academy (1941), Castine ME
  • Texas Maritime Academy (1962) at Texas A&M Galveston, Galveston TX
  • Great Lakes Maritime Academy (1969) at Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City MI
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Jace R.W. Johnson is a 1981 graduate of West Point, and currently serves as a state coordinator for West Point Admissions in Colorado. He hails from a Navy ROTC family and has been active with discussing service options with high school students for over 40 years. He also serves on various scholarship and fellowship review committees every year. Jace is a long-time expatriate in corporate finance and consulting having spent most of his adult life abroad. He has lived in four countries and traveled to over 60 countries.
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