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A Guide to ROTC Scholarships

As a high school student, you may have heard that the United States military will pay your college tuition if you enlist. Of course, the situation is not quite so simple — service-related scholarship programs vary based on many different factors, and not everyone is well-suited for a career in the Armed Forces.


However, it’s definitely true that if you’re planning on pursuing a military career, ROTC — short for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — can open certain doors for you in terms of options for financing your college education. ROTC participants who commit to a certain term of service as an officer in the Army, Navy, or Air Force can receive substantial assistance with paying for college, up to the full cost of attendance at certain universities.


Are you considering making military service part of your career plan, and wondering how this might affect your college funding options? Read on to learn more about the ROTC program, how to access ROTC scholarships, and what kind of commitment joining ROTC entails.  


What is ROTC?

ROTC is a program in which college students are educated and trained to become officers in the U.S. military. The Army, the Navy (which also trains for the Marine Corps), and the Air Force each operate their own ROTC programs, while the Coast Guard operates a similar program, known as the CSPI program.


The various ROTC programs end up providing a significant number of the commissioned officers in those branches of the U.S. military. 38.5% of new Army officers are trained through ROTC, and the figure for Air Force officers is 38.1%. The Navy ROTC provides 16.7% of new Naval officers as well as 1.8% of new officers in the Marine Corps.


During college, ROTC members undergo military training throughout the school year and the summer in addition to pursuing their bachelor’s degrees and taking academic courses on topics of military importance. Upon graduation, each student will serve as an officer for a period of time in that branch of the U.S. military.


Students can join the ROTC program either as an incoming college student or after they are already enrolled in college. While it’s possible to enroll in an ROTC course without committing to military service at some schools, each student will eventually be required to sign a contract stipulating the academic and military standards they’re required to maintain during college. Signing a contract is also required for a student to receive an ROTC scholarship, which we’ll go over in detail later in this post. 


Each student’s contract will specify the number of years of military service that the student will be required to complete after graduating from college. This requirement may range from three to twelve years of service, depending on the service branch and the particular position for which the student will be trained. 


Not every college offers ROTC on campus, and even schools that do offer ROTC may not offer opportunities for all three military branches. (It may, however, be possible for you to participate in ROTC through another college near yours, depending on your college’s policies.) If you’re interested in ROTC, you’ll need to do your research to ensure that your ROTC aspirations and your choices of colleges match up.


Unlike JROTC, with which you may be familiar from high school, ROTC is not an extracurricular activity. It’s a collegiate and career commitment that will shape your life for the foreseeable future. The term of service associated with ROTC enrollment represents a very serious agreement, and as we’ll discuss later in this post, you’ll be expected to follow through.


ROTC and Paying for College

The ROTC program is well known for the financial assistance it often provides to enrollees. While not every student in ROTC receives a scholarship, and scholarship offers vary, receiving a ROTC scholarship can have a major impact upon your ability to afford a college education.


Depending upon the military branch and the individual student, an ROTC scholarship may cover all or part of the student’s tuition. “Full” tuition benefits may be capped at a certain dollar amount, which may affect what school you’re able to attend. Some ROTC scholarships also include additional funds, such as a stipend for books and living expenses.


ROTC scholarships are competitive and merit-based, and have their own application process apart from the normal process of joining ROTC. You’ll be able to apply for a scholarship and be notified of your scholarship offer before you have to formally choose whether to join ROTC, so you’ll have some time to consider your options. Just applying for an ROTC scholarship does not obligate you to serve in the military.


In exchange for your ROTC scholarship funding, as noted, you’ll sign a contract agreeing to serve in the military in a certain capacity for a certain period of time, which may range from three to twelve years. You won’t necessarily be expected to be on active duty for this entire period, but the details depend on the individual role you’re being trained to fill.

Applying for ROTC Scholarships

For incoming college freshmen who want to join ROTC right away, the scholarship application process occurs during the senior year of high school. As with other college application tasks, if you’re interested in applying for an ROTC scholarship, it pays to get started early. You’ll need to choose which military branch to apply to, and make sure ROTC meshes with your other plans for college.


Even if you are offered an ROTC scholarship and choose to accept that offer, keeping your scholarship through all four years of college is not a given. Each branch of the Armed Forces has slightly different standards that you’ll have to meet in order to remain enrolled in ROTC and continue receiving scholarship funds.


As with many other scholarships, if you receive an ROTC scholarship, you’ll be required to maintain a certain level of academic performance, and to continue making appropriate progress toward your bachelor’s degree. In most cases, ROTC programs require that you finish your degree within four years.


Where ROTC scholarships differ from other scholarships is that you’ll also have to meet requirements that are specific to your suitability for military service. In order to continue receiving your scholarship, you’ll have to adhere to military standards of physical fitness and maintain a certain level of performance in your ROTC training.


Students who join ROTC are also expected to follow certain rules regarding their behavior, even when they’re not actively engaged in training. Dishonesty, cheating, failing a drug test, or otherwise getting into trouble can lead to disciplinary action and jeopardize your ROTC scholarship. (You’ll also need to be careful about what pictures of you end up on social media.)


If you don’t continue to meet these standards, you risk receiving disciplinary action, being placed on probation, or even being “disenrolled,” or removed from the ROTC program. As we’ll discuss in the next section, whether you leave ROTC by choice or are disenrolled, the consequences of ending your participation in ROTC are quite significant.


Making a Commitment to ROTC

As we’ve mentioned, participating in ROTC requires that you sign a contract agreeing to serve in the U.S. military in a particular role, for a particular period of time. Depending on your service branch and other factors, this commitment may last up to twelve years and may include a varying amount of active-duty service.


Since contracts are signed when you enter ROTC or accept an ROTC scholarship, rather than after you’ve received your training, it’s important that you plan carefully when deciding whether to sign an ROTC contract. That contract will determine your lifestyle and career options for the foreseeable future.


Signing an ROTC contract represents an extremely serious — and legally binding — commitment to serving in the armed forces, and it’s quite difficult to get out of this commitment. In certain cases — for example, if you encounter an unexpected physical health issue — you may be able to drop out of ROTC without significant repercussions, but this is not guaranteed.


If you fail to meet the program’s requirements and are disenrolled, or if you leave the program by choice, you can expect to face major consequences. Leaving ROTC, willingly or not, is a complicated legal process which can involve a formal investigation and a hearing in front of officials from your military branch. You may even need to hire a lawyer to help you prepare your case.


Typically, through this process, you’ll be asked to pay back any scholarship funds you’ve received, which can add up to a substantial amount of money. You might also be asked to repay your debt in military service, but without the officer status conferred upon those who successfully complete the ROTC program. Some students are given a choice; others have that choice made for them.


Clearly, joining ROTC is definitely something that you should not do just for financial assistance with college, especially with the intention of dropping out of the program later. Getting out of ROTC is not easy, and on the other hand, going ahead with military service when you aren’t really committed to being there does a disservice to your fellow military members.


So should you join ROTC? That’s a question you’ll have to ponder deeply before you sign any contracts. Military life is obviously not for everyone, and its demands are high. However, some people certainly find that they flourish in the structured military environment and take great pride in serving their country in this way.


If you’re considering joining ROTC, gather information and seek out advice wherever you can in order to make an informed decision. Talk to your parents about whether they think you would succeed in a military setting. Talk to current members of the military and to veterans about their experiences. In the end, however, it’s you who has to decide if enrolling in ROTC is the best path for you.


The bottom line is that you shouldn’t join ROTC or accept an ROTC scholarship unless you are sure you want to pursue a military career, with or without that scholarship. If you’re informed about and prepared for the commitment, however, enrolling in ROTC and seeking out ROTC scholarships can significantly help with your college costs while also giving you a head start in your chosen career.


Here are some resources for learning more:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.