What Is ROTC? Understanding the 3 ROTC Programs (2023)

What Is ROTC? Understanding the 3 ROTC Programs (1)

JROTC and ROTC programs designed to train future U.S. Military officers at middle schools, high schools, and universities across the United States. Some students join JROTC or ROTC because they want a career in the military, while others are more curious about how the program can help them pay for college.

It turns out that there’s a lot to learn about the benefits and requirements of ROTC programs! That’s why we’ve put together a complete guide to JROTC and ROTC.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a great understanding of JROTC and ROTC programs and whether they’re a good option for you. We’ll also answer frequently asked questions, like:

  • What is ROTC?
  • How are JROTC and ROTC different?
  • Who is a good fit for JROTC and ROTC?
  • Are there different types of JROTC and ROTC programs?
  • What are the pros and cons of joining JROTC and ROTC?

Now let’s get started!

Feature image: Sgt. Salvatore Ottaviano/Army Reserve Careers Division

What Is ROTC? Understanding the 3 ROTC Programs (2)

(Kemberly Groue/U.S. Air Force)

What Is ROTC?

ROTC stands for “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” and it’s a group of U.S. college- and university-based programs designed to train and commission officers of the United States Armed Forces.

In short, by participating in ROTC, you’ll be preparing for—and making a commitment to—serving as an officer in one of the branches of the U.S. Military once you graduate from college.

ROTC also offers a leadership training program at the high school level, called JROTC, or “Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.” Since many (but not all!) ROTC participants at the college-level initially become interested in ROTC through JROTC, we’ll start by telling you more about that program.

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(Melanie Rodgers Cox/U.S. Air Force)

JROTC: ROTC for High School Students

JROTC is a federally-sponsored program of the United States Armed Forces in high schools and some middle schools across the United States. A key difference between JROTC and ROTC programs is that JROTC participants—called cadets—cannot be commissioned as officers into the U.S. Military upon high school graduation. JROTC does, however, improve your entry-level rank if you choose to enlist after graduation.

The major goal of JROTC programs is to instill core military values in their cadets: citizenship, personal responsibility, service to the United States, and a sense of accomplishment.

In fact, the Department of the Army states the following goals for JROTC cadet training:

  • Developing citizenship and patriotism
  • Developing self-reliance and responsiveness to all authority
  • Improving the ability to communicate well both orally and in writing
  • Developing an appreciation of the importance of physical fitness
  • Increasing respect for the role of the U.S. Armed Forces in support of national objectives
  • Developing a knowledge of team-building skills and basic military skills
  • Ranking higher if participants choose to pursue a military career

The following branches of the military have JROTC units at middle schools and high schools across the U.S.: the Army, the Air Force, the Navy (which includes the Marine Corps), and the Coast Guard. The Army, Air Force, and Navy have the most JROTC units, while the Coast Guard only has two.

While JROTC isn’t meant to be a pipeline into an officer position in the military, JROTC participation can be a stepping stone to receiving an ROTC scholarship for college. Students who participated in JROTC in high school are often better prepared for the demands of ROTC participation at the college level.

Who Is a Good Fit for JROTC?

JROTC doesn’t involve any long-term commitments past high school, so even if you aren’t sure if you’d like to serve in the military, JROTC could still be a good extracurricular and/or leadership experience. (Remember, colleges want to see extracurricular participation on your applications!)

There are only two hard-and-fast requirements for JROTC participation: good physical fitness and being a legal citizen of the United States. Besides that, if you’re someone who is eager and willing to put in the time to build leadership skills, discipline, and self-confidence, JROTC might be a great fit for you.

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What Does Being in JROTC Entail?

JROTC requirements can vary between schools. Generally, if you participate in JROTC, your main requirements will include taking courses on military topics and physical fitness.

At many schools that offer a JROTC program, cadets take one elective JROTC course per semester. These JROTC courses will cover topics like leadership training, citizenship, military history, and other concepts specific to the parent branch of the JROTC program. One cool thing about JROTC participation is that it can fulfill your physical education (P.E.) course requirements during high school and count as an extracurricular!

You can choose to be as involved as you want to be in JROTC outside of the core requirements. JROTC offers many optional activities, like field trips, summer camps, and military balls. There are also other teams you can join at some schools that are often associated with JROTC, like the drill team, color guard, and rifle team. All of these activities are optional, though JROTC encourages you to participate in JROTC activities outside of the required courses to get the most out of your experience.

If this sounds expensive to you, don’t worry: most JROTC programs are free, and all required materials like uniforms, supplies, equipment, and course materials are issued to cadets free-of-charge.

And finally, while receiving a college scholarship as a result of participating in JROTC is not guaranteed, there are college scholarships that you can start applying for as early as the second semester of your junior year in high school if you’re interested in participating in ROTC in college.

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(Staff Sgt. Ken Scar/U.S. Army)

ROTC for College Students

College students who are enrolled at or who intend to enroll at one of the 1,700 colleges and universities in the United States that offer an ROTC program are eligible to participate in ROTC. Students who participate in ROTC are eligible to receive a paid college education and are guaranteed a post-college career in the U.S. military. In exchange for this, ROTC cadets commit to serve in the military after graduating.

There are also different branches of the ROTC program that students can choose from: Army ROTC, Navy and Marine Corps ROTC, and Air Force ROTC. In addition to attending college like other students, ROTC students receive basic military training and officer training for their chosen branch of service through the ROTC program.

The 3 Types of Schools With ROTC Programs

ROTC programs are currently offered at three different types of colleges and universities in the United States: the senior military colleges, civilian colleges, and military junior colleges (MJCs). Keep in mind that the U.S. service academies, like West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy, don’t offer ROTC programs since every student graduates as a commissioned officer.

#1: Senior Military Colleges

There are six senior military colleges, also called military schools, in the United States. They are Norwich University, , The Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Tech, and the University of North Georgia.

What makes these schools different from other universities is that they have a cadet corps. Ray Rottman, the executive director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States, explains that the cadet corps is the primary difference between a senior military college and a civilian college with an ROTC program.

When you join the cadet corps, you live a military lifestyle 24-7. That means wearing your uniform, participating in a military command structure, and living the military lifestyle every single day while earning your degree. As a cadet corps member, you’re totally immersed in a military training program that emphasizes leadership, decision-making skills, and the core values of the United States military.

In some senior military colleges, like The Citadel, all of the students are members of the cadet corps. But at other schools, like Texas A&M, only a small percentage of the student body participates in the cadet corps program. Additionally, students who participate in the cadet corps at a senior military college aren’t required to enlist upon college graduation (unless they receive an ROTC scholarship, but more on that later). But because the cadet corps is designed to be an intensive training program for a military career, many students who attend senior military colleges and join the cadet corps decide to commission into the military as officers after graduation.

So why choose a senior military college? The major benefit, Rottman explains, is the rigor and intensity of the cadet corps. Outside of attending a service academy like West Point, the cadet corps is the most thorough training a person can receive before commissioning into the military.

#2: Civilian Colleges

Many civilian colleges across the U.S. offer ROTC programs. In fact, ROTC is available at more than 1,700 colleges and universities across the United States.

At these schools, the ROTC program is completely voluntary. In civilian ROTC programs, students take ROTC classes and participate in military training, but to a much lesser degree than they would if they attended a senior military college. Additionally, students participating in ROTC programs at civilian universities are still eligible for ROTC scholarships to help pay for their educations.

#3: Military Junior College (MJCs)

MJCs provide junior college education and typically grant associate’s degrees rather than bachelor’s degrees. While students finishing their second year and graduating as sophomores from MJCs can be commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army Reserve/Army National Guard, they will be required to finish their bachelor’s degree at another institution upon commission and while serving in their units. This is called an Early Commissioning Program (ECP), and the Army is currently the only military branch to offer this kind of program.

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A Guide to the 3 Different ROTC Programs

Like we mentioned earlier, there are three different “branches” of ROTC that you can join, and each one has slightly different requirements and benefits. It’s important to understand the differences to make sure you’re picking the ROTC program that’s right for you.


Army ROTC, or AROTC, is the largest ROTC program at U.S. colleges and universities. The program is offered at over 1,100 colleges and universities across the United States, and it’s the largest commissioning source in the U.S. Military! Graduating high school students are eligible to enroll in Army ROTC, but so are currently enrolled college students and enlisted soldiers who are interested in becoming an officer.

When you enlist in Army ROTC and begin college, you’ll take courses that promote leadership development, military skills, and adventure training both in the classroom and in the field—but you’ll still maintain a normal academic schedule! While different colleges and universities that offer Army ROTC programs adopt a slightly different curriculum, you can expect to take one elective class and one lab each semester, each year of college. During your freshman and sophomore years, you’ll take the Army ROTC Basic Course, and during your junior and senior years, you’ll take the Army ROTC Advanced Course. (Keep in mind that enrolling in the Army ROTC Basic Course does not come with a military service obligation unless you’re on scholarship.)

Army ROTC offers scholarships based on a student’s merit and grades (not based on financial need). Here’s what Army ROTC scholarships consist of:

  • Two-, three-, and four-year scholarship options based on the time remaining to complete your degree
  • Full-tuition scholarships
  • Room and board, if you should qualify
  • Additional allowances for books and fees

The Army provides more information about the different types of scholarships available on their website. You can enlist in an Army ROTC program without a scholarship as well. While many students who enlist in the Army ROTC without a scholarship might eventually earn one, receiving an Army ROTC scholarship doesn’t affect your eligibility for a successful career in the Army post-college.

Even if you don’t receive an Army ROTC scholarship, you’re still eligible to receive a $420 per month living allowance for your 3rd and 4th years of ROTC. That can be really helpful for students who are paying for tuition! You’ll also be receiving invaluable leadership training and preparation for the professional world with the added bonus of being able to put ROTC training on your résumé.

What happens when you successfully complete Army ROTC training and graduate from college? Well, if you received an Army ROTC scholarship or entered the Army ROTC Advanced Course during college, you’ll be expected to fulfill eight years of service with the Army. There are several different ways that you can meet the eight-year service requirement, so if you know you’re interested in joining an Army ROTC program, you might start looking into those options now!

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Navy ROTC Program

The purpose of the Navy ROTC is to educate and train qualified individuals to serve as commissioned officers in the Navy’s unrestricted line, the Navy Nurse Corps, and the Marine Corps. (So if you want to be a Marine, Navy ROTC is the program for you!) Navy ROTC participants are called midshipmen, and you’ll find them at over 160 college and universities across the U.S.!

The scholarship selection process for Navy ROTC is nationally competitive and cover full college tuition, a book stipend, educational fees and other financial benefits. (Not too shabby!) There are scholarships available for all four years of college, as well as shorter-term scholarships for students who qualify later in their collegiate careers.

The list of required qualifications for admission to the Navy ROTC program is long, and while you can view a full list of qualifications on the NROTC website, here are some important highlights:

  • U.S. Citizenship, a Naturalized U.S. Citizen, or in the process of becoming a Naturalized U.S. Citizen
  • Must be between the ages of 17 and 23 by September 1 of the year starting college
  • Must not have any tattoos or body piercings that violate Navy or Marine Corps policy
  • Students with 30 or more semester hours of college credit are not eligible for the Navy ROTC National Scholarship.

Navy ROTC awards 85% of available scholarships to students who major in some type of engineering or other science and technology-related field. NROTC breaks these majors down into three tiers—Tier 1 majors, Tier 2 majors, and Tier 3 majors—and provides a full breakdown of the three tiers on their website. So before applying for a Navy ROTC scholarship, think about whether your academic interests fit with the Navy ROTC scholarship recipients.

Regardless of your major, you’ll be required to take several naval science courses and complete the equivalent of two semesters of calculus before the end of your sophomore year, and two semesters of calculus-based physics before the end of your junior year.

So on the academic side of things, Navy ROTC programs are definitely demanding!

Those who win a Navy ROTC scholarship are required to enter military service after graduation. Navy Option midshipmen are required to serve a minimum of five years of active military service. Marine Corps Option midshipmen and Navy Nurse Corps Option midshipmen will be required to serve at least four years on active duty.

More importantly: even those Midshipmen who pay their own educational expenses and aren’t funded by the Navy and participate in the Naval ROTC College Program will be required to serve at least three years on active duty.

That means upon graduation, all midshipmen who successfully complete all academic requirements in the Navy ROTC program are commissioned as Ensigns in the Navy or Second Lieutenants in the Marine Corps!

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Air Force ROTC

The last type of ROTC program is the Air Force ROTC. The purpose of Air Force ROTC is to prepare leaders to fulfill the Air Force mission and represent its core values. Like Army ROTC, Air Force ROTC participants are also called “cadets.” You can find these future Air Force officers working hard in Air Force ROTC programs at over 1,100 U.S. colleges and universities.

While participating in Air Force ROTC during college, you’ll be required successfully complete the General Military Course (GMC) during your first two years. This curriculum includes required aerospace studies courses and leadership laboratories. During the second year of GMC, cadets compete for a place in the Professional Officer Course (POC).

As you complete the Air Force ROTC academic requirements, you’ll be expected to maintain a 2.5 GPA if you’re on an ROTC scholarship or a 2.0 GPA if you aren’t on scholarship. Like the other ROTC programs, you’ll also participate in physical training sessions several times a week and be required to wear a uniform two to three times weekly.

Like Army ROTC and Navy ROTC, Air Force ROTC offers scholarships for graduating high school students and current college students. There are three different types of high school scholarships that pay full or partial tuition, depending on the type of school you choose to attend. All recipients will also receive a monthly living expense stipend and an annual textbook stipend.

In order to qualify for an Air Force ROTC scholarship, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or obtain U.S. citizenship by the end of the first semester of your freshman year in college
  • Pass a Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board medical exam
  • Complete a physical fitness exam
  • Achieve an SAT composite score of 1240 or ACT composite of 26
  • Finish high school with a cumulative unweighted GPA of 3.0 or higher

If you accept an Air Force ROTC scholarship, you’ll be expected to enroll in the specific academic major for which the scholarship is offered. You’ll also have to enroll in Air Force ROTC for the upcoming fall term and complete a thirteen-day summer field training camp in Alabama between your sophomore and junior years. Failing to meet academic or military retention standards or using illegal drugs can result in termination of your Air Force ROTC scholarship.

What about your obligations after you graduate? If you accept an Air Force ROTC scholarship, you’re expected to accept a commission as an Air Force officer and serve at least four years on active duty. There are actually many career options available for Air Force officers, depending on what you majored in, and you can learn more about those career options on the Air Force ROTC website!

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Who Is a Good Fit for ROTC?

It might seem like students who participated in JROTC in high school would be the best recruits for college ROTC programs. JROTC participants will certainly be prepared for ROTC service by knowing the history of ROTC programs, the chain of command, and general expectations.

But JROTC participation isn’t required to enter ROTC on the collegiate level or to earn ROTC scholarships.

Additionally, a history with JROTC isn’t the most desirable trait for potential ROTC participants! The military is more interested in good grades, respectable standardized test scores, and leadership skills developed in high school. For instance, showing leadership on athletic teams or in the marching band is great evidence of your potential contributions to the ROTC program and, later on, to the military.

High moral character, competence, and commitment to constant learning, self-assessment, and service are also traits that are all highly valued by ROTC programs. If you think this sounds like you, ROTC might be worth looking into!

On a more practical level, there are also some hard-and-fast requirements for ROTC, mandated by the branches of the U.S. Military. In order to be eligible for ROTC, you must demonstrate the following:

  • The ability to pass a physical fitness exam (each branch administers a different one)
  • The ability to complete and pass certain courses, attend summer training, pass a qualifying exam
  • Must be completely drug-free and, in some cases, be able to pass a drug test.

You have to continuously meet these standards to keep your scholarship. In other words, being able to get into ROTC and win an ROTC scholarship is great, but you should also consider whether you can meet the requirements for keeping your scholarship throughout your college career.

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What Does Being in ROTC Entail?

There’s no question that participation in ROTC can be demanding. ROTC is a serious, long-term commitment, so you should think through how ROTC and active military service fits into your future goals before you sign your ROTC contract. (And yes, there is a contract!)

The biggest thing to be aware of before you make a commitment to ROTC is that you are legally required to serve in the military for a specific number of years if you accept a scholarship and/or enter the program. If you fail to complete your ROTC academic program or don’t fulfill your active duty commitment, you can face repercussions. These repercussions could include being held to additional years of active service in the military or the compulsory repayment of any ROTC financial assistance (like your scholarships).

Once you fulfill the requirements and successfully complete your degree, your period of military begins. As an ROTC graduate, you’ll enter military service at the officer level instead of having to work your way up through the ranks. Once you complete your active duty commitments to the military after college, you can leave the military to explore other career options or continue your military career for years to come!

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2 Pros and 2 Cons of Being in ROTC

Depending on your personality and your future plans, there could be aspects of participating in an ROTC program that might seem more (or less) appealing than others. So let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of participating in ROTC to help you make the decision that’s right for you.

Pro #1: You Receive Financial Aid for Your College Education

One of the most obvious benefits of enrolling in an ROTC program is that you’re eligible to receive full or partial tuition for your college education. Not only that, but each of the branches of ROTC provides varying amounts of financial support to cover additional fees, textbooks, room and board, and even additional living expenses.

In other words, if you participate in an ROTC program, you’ll probably get some financial assistance.

Pro #2: You Get High-Quality Leadership Training and Career Preparation

Since ROTC trains recruits for a future as officers in the military, providing high-quality leadership training is a key part of all ROTC programs.

Specific leadership skills you can expect to gain through ROTC include mental agility, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, learning to delegate, and practice making decisions under pressure. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! There’s also the option to participate in summer leadership training programs offered by the different ROTC program branches. Additionally, as you progress through the ROTC program, you’ll have opportunities to use your experience to lead and train underclass participants.

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Con #1: College Life Is More Demanding for an ROTC Student

If you choose to participate in an ROTC program during college, there’s no question that your life might be a bit more demanding on a daily basis.

For one thing, ROTC is an extracurricular commitment. It means that, in addition to going to class and studying, you’ll also have training sessions and other events to attend outside of class. There are other demands on your time that you might not have thought of either, like keeping your uniform in pristine condition so you can pass inspection or attending regular physical training sessions.

The standards for participation in ROTC activities are high as well. For example, you should plan to be early to ROTC events. Furthermore, while community outreach like volunteering isn’t required, it’s definitely expected. Put another way, there are “official” and “unofficial” requirements for ROTC, so you should weigh them all before deciding to participate.

Con #2: Your Life After Graduation Is Already Planned

You know by now that ROTC is a big commitment. If you get an ROTC scholarship, you have to successfully complete your program of study and graduate with a degree. That’s a two to four year commitment, depending on what kind of college or university you choose to attend.

But the commitment doesn’t end there. Like we mentioned earlier, you’re required to serve a number of years on active duty in the military branch that corresponds with your ROTC program. This equates to anywhere from three to eight years of service.

For some people, making an almost decade-long commitment to something is an easy choice! Even if making the commitment feels like a no brainer when you’re first looking into ROTC programs, it’s important to thoroughly consider the demands of ROTC and decide if a military career is a good fit for you both now and in the future.

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What's Next?

ROTC is just one program that can lower the cost of earning a college degree. If you’re looking for ways to reduce your tuition rates, start by checking out this comprehensive guide to paying for college. We also have more specific resources for students who are trying to pay for college without their parents’ help.

One way you can reduce the cost of college is by applying for federal financial aid packages. But figuring out how to get financial aid is tricky! Here’s a primer to the application process, and here are two additional resources on how to apply for financial aid and the schools with the best financial aid packages.

It’s also a good idea to apply for scholarships to help lighten the financial load of going to college. Luckily, we have tons of scholarship resources available for you! We’ll teach you how to find scholarships yourself, easy scholarships you can apply for, and lists of full-ride awards that will pay your way through college. To access all of our resources, just search for the term “scholarship” on our blog!

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Ashley Robinson

About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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