Ultimate Guide to College ROTC

Written by Matt Cates
Published on February 5, 2023 · Updated on May 28, 2023

Ultimate Guide to College ROTC

Written by Matt Cates
Published on February 5, 2023 · Updated on May 28, 2023

What is ROTC?

The military offers many exciting job opportunities that can pave the way for a long-term career in the service or act as a stepping stone for a great-paying civilian position. There are two main paths a person can pursue in the military — officer or enlisted. 

Enlisted troops make up the majority of workers, while officers serve from day one in management and leadership roles. This means, in addition to needing their bachelor’s degree completed, officers must be highly trained and ready to assume heavy responsibilities as soon as they arrive at their first duty station. 

Where do they receive this in-depth advanced training? Most would-be military officers begin their journey by enrolling as cadets in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program (ROTC). 

Who is ROTC for?

To clarify, as we talk about ROTC we don’t mean high school Junior ROTC, just college ROTC. 

And before we break down how college ROTC works, let’s review the different branches of the military: 

For the sake of ROTC enrollment, Marine cadets will attend Navy ROTC programs, and Space Force hopefuls will attend Air Force ROTC. The Coast Guard doesn’t have an ROTC program but instead has its College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative

In addition to Active Duty roles in the military, there are also Reserve components, and the rules around ROTC participation for these vary greatly. The components are:

  • Army National Guard
  • Army Reserve
  • Navy Reserve
  • Marine Corps Reserve
  • Air National Guard
  • Air Force Reserve
  • Coast Guard Reserve

How does ROTC work?

A person who participates in an ROTC program is both a college student and an ROTC cadet. As a student, they enroll in their college of choice that hosts an ROTC unit or has a crosstown agreement with one. That student typically selects a specific major, such as Civil Engineering, for example. 

Along with the chosen major, students will need to enroll as cadets in the ROTC program and take college classes taught by military instructors. These ROTC classes count for college credit, and in many ways are just like other courses. However, ROTC has unique requirements above and beyond any college program, including rigorous physical fitness program participation, leadership exercises, and a few weeks of military training during one summer. 

As a cadet, the student is in a pipeline aimed at producing military officers. As cadets finish their college and ROTC programs, they graduate and can then (usually the next day) swear in as commissioned officers, activating their service commitment with their respective branch of service. 

The length of this commitment depends on the career field they’ve been selected for, which is based on a mix of their personal choices, the jobs they qualified for academically and medically, and the current needs of the service. 

How do you get an ROTC scholarship? 

One of the primary ways to get an ROTC scholarship is to apply while still in high school. Each branch has its own website listing complete application details. 

High school counselors, officer recruiters, and parents of high schools can work together to ensure the student understands all the requirements and turns in a competitive package. Receipt of a scholarship offer does not obligate the student to accept it. If the student is accepted into a college program and takes the ROTC scholarship, then they’ll basically go through the steps outlined above in the “How does ROTC work” section. They’ll register for ROTC classes and participate in ROTC extracurricular activities. 

Students who don’t receive an ROTC scholarship offer in high school can still compete for in-college scholarships. Again, each branch has its own criteria, and funding may vary from year to year. Certain majors may receive additional consideration, based on the projected future needs of the military branches. For instance, a student who is majoring in a STEM field and hoping to join the Space Force could be more likely to be offered a scholarship than a liberal arts major...even if the liberal arts student has a higher GPA.  

Does Every ROTC Cadet Get a ROTC Scholarship?

No, it is a common misconception that any student who signs up to be an ROTC cadet automatically qualifies for a scholarship. Most do, but not all. Meanwhile, those who do receive a scholarship must follow strict ROTC policies, including maintaining a minimum GPA, to keep that funding active. 

Each branch handles its own scholarship programs, and some are more generous than others (based on how badly they need recruits to sign up that year!). For example, the Army may offer better scholarship deals than the Air Force. That’s because statistically, more high school grads and college freshmen express interest in joining the Air Force, based in part on career options and assumptions regarding quality of life issues. Thus, some branches rely more heavily on scholarship enticements than others.

What Does an ROTC Scholarship Cover?

ROTC scholarships can cover in-state or out-of-state tuition costs. They also come with a textbook and monthly cash stipend to help offset costs so cadets can focus on academics and applicable ROTC commitments (which can be quite time-consuming). 

ROTC Scholarship Contracts

To activate an ROTC scholarship, the student must sign a contract agreeing to all the applicable terms and conditions. This contract is sort of a placeholder; it does come with a military service commitment, but since the cadet doesn’t have a degree yet, they must sign a temporary enlistment contract instead. 

At the time of graduation — and subsequent commissioning as an officer — the previous contract becomes invalid. But, if the cadet fails for some reason to meet the terms of their scholarship agreement (for example, if they fail classes, repeatedly fail physical fitness tests, or commit a crime or serious ethical breach), they may have to either pay back the money or potentially serve in an enlisted position for a certain period. 


ROTC isn’t the only route to becoming an officer. There are also the Service Academies (i.e., military colleges) and Officer Training School (a short crash course on officership for select college graduates with majors in highly-sought-after fields, or for eligible enlisted personnel hoping to switch to an officer role). ROTC is, however, the most prominent pipeline for students to enter the military branch of their choice as commissioned officers. 
Being an officer opens many doors for those who work hard. Indeed, ROTC graduates have gone on to amazing civilian positions after their service — as successful entrepreneurs, commercial pilots, NASA astronauts, Congresspersons...and President of the United States!