Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, often referred to as ROTC, is a college-level program offered by every branch of the military except the Coast Guard. For students who are interested in commissioning as an officer in the U.S. military, ROTC programs provide the opportunity to achieve a bachelor’s degree while simultaneously preparing for the rigors of military life. Students can attend a college of their choice while receiving significant financial aid (as long as the college offers an ROTC program or is affiliated with one that does), provided they agree to accept a commission and serve in the military for a period of time after graduation. If you think that you would enjoy the discipline and training associated with an ROTC program, and are interested in joining the military after receiving your degree, read on!
What is ROTC?
In 1819, Captain Alden Partridge, a former superintendent of West Point, founded Norwich University. His idea was to create an institute that would train students in both traditional subject areas and military science. These students would then be capable of acting in a military capacity when necessary, but also fully able to live a successful civilian life in times of peace. His program was to differ from a service academy in that students would elect to join the training program on top of attending school. (At service academies, militaristic training has always come first and foremost.) Ergo, Norwich University prides itself on being the birthplace of ROTC programs. It wasn’t until 1916, however, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act of 1916, that the military training that occurred at colleges and universities was brought under the control of the federal government and the ROTC program was given its name.
The main purpose of ROTC programs today is to train young men and women to become officers in the military. Officers must have a college degree, so it only makes sense that school and military training go hand in hand. After graduation, the students (called cadets or midshipmen while they are participating in an ROTC program) immediately begin serving in the military as officers. The Army has the largest ROTC program of any branch of the military, simply because it is the largest branch. The Coast Guard, being the smallest, does not offer any ROTC programs at any institutions. It does, however, offer the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative. Students who receive an ROTC scholarship and those who enroll in the Advanced ROTC course for the final two years of college are obligated to serve in the military for a certain number of years after graduation, usually eight.
ROTC programs are offered at three different types of postsecondary institutions:
- Senior military colleges (all branches of the military)
- Junior military colleges (Army and Air Force only)
- Traditional four-year degree-granting colleges and universities (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines)
Senior military colleges immerse students in a much more militaristic lifestyle than traditional institutions. Typically, at both senior and junior military colleges, cadets wear uniforms every day and live in barracks. In a traditional ROTC program, cadets are required to wear their uniforms a certain number of times each month and often live in dorms. Cadets at military colleges live regimented lifestyles. They are told when to wake up, when to eat, when to work out, and when to sleep. Traditional ROTC cadets enjoy much of the freedom that is experienced by their classmates, while still learning the discipline and leadership skills valued in military officers.
Traditional ROTC Programs
Traditional ROTC programs are four-year programs that students add onto their normal college obligations. While enrolled in school, a student’s time commitment to a military lifestyle is minimal (as opposed to the commitment at a junior military college, senior military college, or service academy). Students are only required to register for one ROTC class and its associated lab each semester. They may also have to dedicate extra time during the semester to physical training. Students should be prepared for field exercises and weekend and summer obligations as well, depending on their ROTC branch.
The nice thing about a traditional ROTC program is that cadets and midshipmen can have the same college lifestyle that regular, non-ROTC students are having. Students may live in dorms, wear the clothes they want (most of the time), take part in extracurricular activities, and eat with their non-ROTC friends at the dining hall.
Additionally, scholarships are relatively easy to receive, provided students meet all eligibility requirements. Accepting a scholarship does oblige you to serve in the military after graduation, however. Students without scholarships do not have to make a decision about commissioning until their junior year. This allows uncertain students to participate in ROTC for their first two years of college to get a taste of military training and the associated lifestyle before they must make a military commitment.
After graduating, new second lieutenants and ensigns will receive all the benefits associated with being in the military, including health insurance, a steady paycheck, paid vacation, and job security.
ROTC programs are offered at over 1,100 traditional colleges and universities in the United States.
Pros and Cons of Enrolling in ROTC
Regardless of the type of institution and the branch of the military you pick, enrolling in an ROTC program is not an overnight decision. Before signing up, even just for the Basic ROTC course freshman year, consider the benefits and drawbacks associated with an ROTC program. For further consideration, read about the pros and cons associated with joining the military in general.
- Financial aid: The military loves to help its members receive their education. As such, there are many scholarships available to ROTC cadets. Even if you do not receive a full four-year scholarship, many institutions offer financial incentives to ROTC students.
- Like-minded classmates: By enrolling in an ROTC program, you are guaranteed to meet a group of students who share your interests. It’s kind of like having instant friends! Not only that, but your ROTC instructors will be experienced officers and noncommissioned officers (highly experienced enlisted personnel), able to answer any questions you have about the military, the lifestyle, and the jobs.
- Education: You are getting an education and a career in one fell swoop. How cool is that?
- Rank: When you graduate, you will commission as an officer. Depending on your career aspirations within the military, you may be required to be an officer before you can pursue certain positions (pilot jobs, for example, are generally closed to enlisted personnel). You can also expect to be promoted regularly; with experience and time come higher ranks.
- Career stability: After completing an ROTC program, you will commission as a second lieutenant or an ensign. Having an officer’s rank means a higher paycheck, along with the benefits of a steady job, health insurance, and paid time off.
- Before committing, think about how a military career aligns with your overarching career goals. Even if it doesn’t directly compare, you’ll gain valuable leadership experience that will impress most potential employers in the future. You’ll also still be young enough after fulfilling your service commitment to begin a second career if you desire.
- More responsibilities in college: While in college, you will have more mandatory commitments than the average student. You must take the classes required for your ROTC program in addition to all the classes required for your major. You will have to participate in mandatory training events outside of class time; this may eat up a chunk of your summer vacation too. Additionally, if you receive a scholarship, you must maintain a minimum GPA to retain your eligibility.
- Service commitment: If you continue on with ROTC past sophomore year or receive an ROTC scholarship at any point, you must serve in the military for an eight-year period (both on active duty and in the Reserves). This is not just a way to get through college; the military will become your career and life after graduation.
- Financial aid: Yes, there are a wide variety of scholarships available. However, if you are thinking about participating in ROTC solely to pay for college, the program might not be right for you. If you accept any scholarship at all, you must join the military after graduation. Don’t participate just for the funding.
- Consequences of dropping out: What happens if you continue with ROTC for the final two years of college, but do not graduate or end up dropping out? You may be forced to serve as an enlisted soldier on active duty or required to pay back any scholarship money you received. If you think you are at risk of changing your mind, ROTC is not for you.
Page last updated: 01/2019