Guide to Understanding ROTC Programs

portrait of Staff Writers
by Staff Writers
Published on October 27, 2020

You may hear people allude to the ROTC while in high school or when entering college, but if you’re unfamiliar with the program, you’ll probably glean very little about what the ROTC actually is. The acronym stands for “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” and its goal is to train college students for future service in branches of the U.S. military; the Army, Air Force, and Navy each have their own ROTC programs. Students interested in U.S. Armed Forces service at an early age can also gain exposure to the rigors of military training through JROTC (Junior ROTC) programs offered at the high school level.

The JROTC and ROTC programs share a point of origin: the National Defense Act of 1916. The passage of this legislation united military training resources under a single federal umbrella. This allowed high schools and colleges to obtain military training instructors and supply funding from a single ROTC organization. Title 10 Section 2031 of the U.S. Code describes how JROTC programs provide students with at least three years of military instruction, along with access to uniforms, academic materials, and instructors who have served as U.S. Armed Forces officers. According to numbers published by the U.S. Army, over 274,000 high school students serve as JROTC cadets.

Once students reach college, they can explore specific military branches by enrolling in ROTC programs provided by the Army, Navy, or Air Force. While the U.S. Coast Guard does not have an ROTC initiative, interested students can explore a similar training program, the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI). The goal of these college-level programs is to train future officers to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. To students who qualify, the ROTC programs offer scholarships that cover the cost of their education. In exchange, there is an expectation that students fulfill active duty services in their chosen branch of the Armed Forces.

Types of ROTC Programs

  Army Navy and Marine Corps Air Force
Availability 1,100 campus programs 153 campus programs 1,100 campus programs
Example Training Topics Army leadership, military tactics, principles of war, and combat survival training Summer cruise training, surface warfare orientation, flight time on navy aircraft, and maritime self-defense Laws of armed conflict, international security, aerospace studies, and field training
Service Obligations 3-8 years, depending on scholarship acceptance Between 3-12 years of active military service, depending on scholarship acceptance and degree level Between 4-10 years of active duty, depending on contract cadet appointment
Example Career Specialties Infantry, Military Intelligence, Civil Affairs, Medical Corps Submarine, Explosive Ordinance Disposal, US Marine Corps, Navy Nursing Corps Air Battle Management, Aircraft Maintenance, Cyberspace Operations, Piloting, and Tactical Air Control

Why Join an ROTC Program?

There are many reasons to explore JROTC and ROTC programs. Some students join to fulfill the personal goal of following in the footsteps of a family member. Some join for the professional opportunities they have upon graduation. Others are drawn to the ROTC programs out of a sense of patriotism and a desire to serve their country.

Those interested in joining a branch of the ROTC should be:

ROTC programs offer prospective and current college students a number of benefits, including:

It is important to remember that ROTC scholarships provide these benefits in exchange for mandatory active duty service after you complete your bachelor’s program. So you should carefully examine these commitments, along with your other future goals, before accepting a scholarship or entering a program. Academic advisors and ROTC recruiters can answer your questions so you can make a more informed decision.

Academic advisors are able to help you determine if your planned major will be affected by your involvement with the ROTC program. They will be able to show you when most classes in your major are offered. It may be that training times with the ROTC interfere with the courses you need.

A ROTC recruiter, on the other hand, will be able to answer all of your questions on the rigors of the program. They will be able to provide more information on the scholarships available and the time you will need to commit to the program in order to meet their requirements.

How Does the ROTC Program Work?

For High School Students

Many U.S. high schools have 3- to 4-year JROTC programs run by various branches of the military. You may be eligible to enroll in your school’s JROTC program starting in 9th grade. We’ve provided links below to the detailed curriculum offerings for each type of JROTC, along with details about co-curricular activities you can participate in as a high school cadet.

As a high school student, you can still prepare to enter a college ROTC program, even if you haven’t participated in JROTC. Start researching prospective ROTC programs early so you have time to apply for training and scholarships.

In College

  Army Navy and Marine Corps Air Force
Physical Fitness Scholarship cadets must pass an Army Physical Fitness Test with a minimum of 180 points Pass the Applicant Fitness Assessment (AFA) before enrolling in this ROTC program Scholarship cadets must score at least 75 points on the Physical Fitness Test twice a year. Non-scholarship cadets must take the test, but do not need to pass.
Academics Complete one Army ROTC elective and lab each semester Complete required calculus, physics, English, national security, cultural studies, and naval science courses. Attend Summer Cruise Training. Must not receive below a C- grade in aerospace courses, pass Leadership Labs, and complete the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) during your junior year.
Alcohol and Drugs Drug use is not tolerated. Legal alcohol consumption is permitted. A previous medical history of alcohol and drug abuse disqualifies applicants. No drug use is permitted. Legal alcohol consumption is permitted while off duty. NRTOC members are subject to periodic urinalysis tests. No drug use permitted. Limited legal alcohol consumption is permitted except in Field Training, Professional Development Training, and Leadership Labs.


Initial acceptance into an ROTC program does not guarantee continued scholarship benefits. Students must adhere to strict academic standards in order to receive continued funding throughout their degree programs. Each military branch has its own rules and regulations regarding your course balance, major selection, and grade minimums. Generally, the AROTC has the least stringent scholarship programs, providing students with the freedom to explore nearly any major and take two ROTC courses of their choosing each semester. The NROTC and AFROTC are more selective about funding majors in specific fields. These military branches tend to prioritize scholarships for students exploring STEM majors or foreign languages. Check out this page for a list of the top military-friendly colleges.

Disenrollment Repercussions

Once you accept an ROTC scholarship, you are legally required to serve in the military for a specific number of years, as defined by your scholarships, degree program, and career path. Before you sign this contract, it is extremely important you take time to think about how military service fits into your life and future goals, and whether it’s a long-term commitment you are willing to take on and see through. If you fail to fulfill your ROTC academic program or active duty commitment, you could face ROTC disenrollment. If you fail to perform your active service duties, you could face serious repercussions. U.S. Code Title 10 Section 2005 explains that disenrolled students may be held to additional active duty order determinations and repayment of ROTC financial assistance.

Military Service Commitments

Once you obtain your undergraduate degree, your period of military service begins. ROTC prepares you to start at the officer level, so that you do not have to work your way up through entry-level military positions. AROTC graduates start active duty as Second Lieutenants, while NROTC graduates become Navy Ensigns or Marine Corps Second Lieutenants. AFROTC graduates also begin their service as Second Lieutenants. Many students confuse active duty obligations with an actual long-term career in the military. However, once you complete your military service commitments, you have the option of leaving the military to explore other career options. Also, select AROTC graduates have the option of pursuing outside career options right after graduation while fulfilling their service commitments with the Army Reserve instead. Keep in mind that reserve members may be shifted into active duty based on the needs of the military branch.

ROTC Scholarships and Financial Aid

Check out this page for more information on financial aid for military students.

Army ROTC Scholarship Options

Navy / Marine Corps Scholarships

Air Force Scholarships

Is the ROTC Right for Me?

JROTC and ROTC programs can provide teenagers and adults with excellent ways to jumpstart their careers. Some of the benefits of these programs include extensive academic funding, specialized military training, leadership development, fitness maintenance, professional development and team-driven experiences. However, students must agree to long-term service commitments with military branches, which range from 3 to 12 years, depending on scholarship acceptance, career choices, and the types of degrees you pursue. When it comes to the ROTC, you are essentially deciding whether or not you’ll devote a significant portion of your early adult life to military service and goals.

Pursuing a ROTC scholarship or training program comes with a legally binding contract that obligates you fulfill the requirements of active duty service upon graduation or dropping out of the ROTC program. Think about this decision very carefully, ask questions, discuss your plans with your family, and weigh your options with academic advisors. ROTC programs are not for everyone, but those who have the dedication, drive, and discipline to make it to graduation will benefit from a stable route through college, diverse career opportunities, and a service experience certain to impact them for the rest of their lives.

Germany's public universities are free to students from anywhere in the world — but enrollment and visa requirements take some navigating. As students increasingly use TikTok to discuss the ins and outs of the college experience, some are becoming influencers with large followings. College applicants have to juggle a lot of deadlines, making it difficult to keep track. Learn what to do if you miss a college application deadline.