The Student Guide for ROTC Programs

ROTC can help you fulfill your personal and professional goals and pay for college. Check out our guide to learn more.
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Updated on April 20, 2023
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  • ROTC stands for "Reserve Officers' Training Corps."
  • ROTC trains college students for future service in the Army, Navy, or Air Force.
  • Students join ROTC for professional opportunities, service, scholarships, and other reasons.
  • ROTC prepares you to start your military career at the officer level.

For many interested college students, ROTC provides an effective way to pay for college and advance toward professional and personal goals. More than 1,700 colleges across the nation offer ROTC programs, which prepare graduates for officer roles within the Army, Navy, or Air Force.

Students can begin ROTC even earlier, as many high schools offer Junior ROTC (JROTC) programs. In addition to leading to officer positions in the military, these programs teach soft skills like leadership, teamwork, and dedication. Even if you don't plan on a lifelong military career, these skills can increase your odds of success in almost any field.

What Is ROTC?

The acronym stands for "Reserve Officer' Training Corps," and the program was created after the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916, which created both the ROTC and JROTC programs. This allowed high schools and colleges to obtain military training instructors and funding from a single ROTC organization.

The goal of ROTC 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 programs offered at the high school level.

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 ROTC programs out of patriotism and a desire to serve their country.

ROTC programs offer prospective and current college students several benefits, including:

  • An opportunity to develop technical and leadership skills
  • A structured path to a career after college
  • Specialized professional training for military officer positions after college
  • Scholarships that cover tuition, fees, books, and other student necessities
  • Long-term career guidance and continued professional education

It is important to note 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 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.

School certifying officials can help you determine if your involvement in the ROTC program will affect your planned major. From there, academic advisors will be able to show you when most classes in your major are offered. It may be that ROTC training times interfere with some of the courses you need, but academic advisors should be able to help you figure out a solution.

An ROTC recruiter, on the other hand, will be able to answer all of your questions about the rigors of the program. They, along with certifying officials, will be able to provide more information on the scholarships available and the time you will need to commit to the program to meet their requirements.

Types of ROTC Programs
Program Detail Army Navy and Marine Corps Air Force
Availability* More than 1,000 colleges and universities 77 colleges and universities More than 1,100 colleges and universities
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 Minimum four years, depending on scholarship acceptance Between 3-8 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, U.S. Army Medical Corps Submarine, explosive ordnance disposal, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy Nurse Corps Air battle management, aircraft maintenance, cyberspace operations, piloting, and tactical air control

Source: Today's Military, U.S. Department of Defense

ROTC in High School

Many U.S. high schools offer JROTC programs run by various military branches. These programs last 2-4 years. 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 program, along with details about co-curricular activities you can participate in as a high school cadet.

  • Army: Raider Fitness Challenges, drill formations, air rifle competitions, and first aid for emergencies
  • Navy: Navigation instruction, communication electronics, drill ceremonies, ship handling, naval science
  • Air Force: Flying model programs, drill formations, flight science, management principles, astronomy
  • Marine Corps: Color guard, drill formations, air riflery training, volunteer service, color guard ceremonies
  • Coast Guard: Nautical science, drill formations, calisthenics activities

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.

ROTC in College

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.

Below you can explore some of the admission and program requirements for each type of ROTC program.

College ROTC Admission and Program Requirements
Requirement Army Navy and Marine Corps Air Force
Physical Fitness Scholarship cadets must pass an Army Physical Fitness Test with at least 60 points awarded through three events. Pass the Applicant Fitness Assessment 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. Must earn a C- grade or higher in aerospace courses, pass leadership labs, and complete the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test during your junior year.
Alcohol and Drugs Illegal drug use is not tolerated. Legal alcohol consumption is permitted. A previous medical history of illegal alcohol and drug use disqualifies applicants. No illegal drug use is permitted. Legal alcohol consumption is permitted while off duty. No illegal drug use permitted.


Initial acceptance into an ROTC program does not guarantee continued scholarship benefits. Students must adhere to strict academic standards 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 Army ROTC (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 Navy ROTC (NROTC) and Air Force ROTC (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.

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. 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 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.

Frequently Asked Questions About ROTC Programs

What are the five courses under ROTC?

ROTC curricula vary by college and by military branch. For example, while courses are different at each school, the four possible stages of Army ROTC are basic course, basic camp, advanced course, and advanced camp.

Basic levels are for first-year and sophomore students, while advanced levels are for junior and senior students. Courses are extended learning experiences over the course of multiple semesters, while camps are intensive experiences completed over the course of 31-35 days at specific military locations.

Do the Marines have ROTC?

There is no dedicated ROTC program for prospective Marines. However, students who aspire to enter the Marines can participate in the Navy ROTC program. These learners must complete regular academic requirements, the Navy ROTC curriculum, and additional courses in the history of American military affairs and national security policy.

Does ROTC count as military service?

Your years in ROTC do not count toward retirement. Your first two years of an ROTC program count as a college elective, not military service. However, if you accept a scholarship for your final two years of the program, you also sign up for a military commitment.

What GPA do you need for ROTC?

To qualify for ROTC scholarships, you need a minimum 2.5 high school GPA for ROTC. You must also maintain a 2.5 college GPA.

Additional entry requirements include being at least 17 years old, scoring at least 19 on the ACT or 920 on the SAT, and passing your military branch's physical fitness test.