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What is ROTC?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC) is a college program that exists in many countries. Its purpose is to train students to become officers in the military force of their country, should they elect to serve after college. There are military colleges that offer ROTC programs, which are typically a requirement of all students, but private and public schools often allow voluntary participation in ROTC.

There are many countries that have ROTC programs, including Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Similar programs began in the US in 1819 at Norwich University in Vermont, which offered a military program. Officially, however, the US ROTC began in 1916 and is modeled after the British system for training officers.

The colleges offering ROTC programs in the US are of three types: civilian colleges, military colleges, and junior colleges. Students complete not only academic studies but also receive military training. Focus is on promoting leadership, encouraging honorable conduct, and preparing students to take an officer rank should they choose to participate in the military after college.

Training during college in ROTC organizes students into groups. Each group has a different name, depending upon which branch of the military the students expect to serve in after college. For example, the US Army creates battalions and brigades of trainees.

Students in civilian college who participate in ROTC are generally easy to recognize, since they are dressed in uniform. They usually have the official designation of cadet while in school; however, students training for the navy may be called midshipmen. Upon leaving college, they can enter the military force as a lieutenant, which means greater authority, and greater pay.

Those who study at a military college almost always have a guaranteed position in the armed forces after completing school. Those who participate in ROTC programs at civilian colleges may not have the same guarantee in place. However, when recruitment numbers are flagging, most who participate in a program are welcomed in the armed forces upon graduation.

Not all civilian colleges in the US have ROTC programs, and some schools have had academic policies that the program has chosen not to follow, leaving it to withdraw from the school. Many ROTC programs were also faced with mass protests on college campuses during the Vietnam war, focused not only on the war, but also on the fact that many colleges required participation of all able male students in the ROTC programs on campus. As a result, programs were made voluntary in most cases.

The ROTC model has produced many noteworthy officers such as General Colin Powell and General Hugh Shelton, who have both chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The programs have become increasingly specialized, depending upon which branch of the armed forces a student wishes to serve in after college. Some of the most popular colleges are those that offer opportunities to train as a pilot.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon297730 — On Oct 16, 2012

With military recruiters being so aggressive and glamorising it, what happens if someone signs up after high school and does ROTC for two or three years, while going to college and then changes their mind?

These postings make it sound like students can change their minds or has the option to sign up after they finish college. Is there a point of no return for someone signing up for the ROTC? Students are so impressionable at that age and really don't know what they want two or three years down the road. Sometimes things change over time. A lot can happen in that length of time that makes them realize it's not what they thought it would be or circumstances change.

I have a friend thinking of doing the ROTC program and I'm afraid after a year or two they may decide this is not for them and want to quit but not be able to. I'll check postings later.

By amypollick — On Nov 03, 2010

@anon123589: Look for schools that have an ROTC program where you're interested in attending. Call the battalion commander and let him or her know you'd like to look into joining the program.

I was in JROTC in high school, and learned more in my classes than I learned in most of my regular curriculum. We learned about military history, public speaking (which was extremely helpful in college), *real* field first aid, map reading, marksmanship and a lot of other things that really enriched my general knowledge base.

Take it for a year and see how you like it. Good luck!

By anon123589 — On Nov 02, 2010

how can i get involved in ROTC? I'm a junior in high school.

By FrogFriend — On Oct 07, 2010

@NightChef, I have to agree with you in that there needs to be some kind of regulatory body and oversight to make sure that potential recruits are being presented with truth and accuracy in the offerings.

Such serious business as committing one's life and sacrificing their very body for the defense of the country is a very admirable prospect, but to ensure the safety in making the right choice there should be some assurances.

Perhaps some type of statement of facts or simplified and standardized form of information that could be presented to both parents and recruits as an FAQ type of list. This document should have the approval the congress as to assure that the populace elected representatives have consented to the information contained.

By FootballKing — On Oct 07, 2010

The best part about an ROTC program is that it allows the student to actually attend college and get the benefits as a member of the United States armed forces. This means that things like health care and fitness training will all be provided and will cut down on the overall expense that a student can incur at a university.

This of course doesn't even include the best benefit of all, paid tuition. Does it get better then that for college student? I think not.

By fitness234 — On Oct 07, 2010

@NightChef, I can tell you that my personal experience with being recruited into the Marine ROTC was a very worthwhile and genuine process. There is a felling one can get that could be similar to coming into a large sum of money but that is actually often the case when a recruit desides to sign.

Soldiers can sometimes expect very large cash incentives to join into an armed force in the United State military. This of course depends on a large amount of variables that will determine if and how much this amount will be. Factors like job type, how many years the contract is for along with previous experience will be used in a formula to make an incentive offer.

Let's face it, cash is king and even soldiers, no matter how brave and committed they might be to the defense of this nation, still want to make money to not only live, but thrive.

After all, there are not many soldiers that will drive crappy cars as a new recruit as many can blow these upwards of $30,000 sign on cash on a vehicle.

By NightChef — On Oct 07, 2010

I can understand why joining an ROTC program at your prospective university might be a very appealing prospect, especially with the allure of a tuition paid for by Uncle Sam.

The only problem that I see with this is the way that students in high schools are influenced to join the ranks of a military branch and done so with exaggeration and grandeur in an effort to wow the prospective recruit. Military recruiting is a very heavily pushed part of the Air Force, Army and Navy ROTC programs and has heavy funding to keep the population of our armed forces at proper levels.

I wonder if there is any kind of regulation on the promises that have been made to prospective recruits. There have been several cases in the past decade of reported fraud and downright abuse by military recruiters. I know that we need these programs to survive as a nation I just hope that we conduct this business in a proper fashion.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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