While ROTC graduate officers serve in all branches of the U.S. military, the U.S. Marine Corps, The U.S. Space Force, and the U.S. Coast Guard do not have their own respective ROTC programs; rather, graduates of Naval ROTC programs have the option to serve as officers in the Marine Corps contingent on meeting Marine Corps requirements.
In 2017, ROTC graduates constituted 58.5 percent of newly commissioned active-duty U.S. Army officers, 3.0 percent of newly commissioned U.S. Marine Corps officers (through NROTC), 21.4 percent of newly commissioned U.S. Navy officers and 31.1 percent of newly commissioned U.S. Air Force officers, for a combined 36.9 percent of all active-duty officers in the Department of Defense commissioned that year. Under ROTC, a student may receive a competitive, merit-based scholarship covering all or part of college tuition, textbooks and lab fees, in return for an active-duty service obligation after graduation (or completion of a graduate degree under an approved education delay). ROTC students attend college like other students, but also receive basic military training and officer training for their chosen branch of service through the ROTC unit at or nearby the college. The students participate in regular drills during the school year and off-campus training opportunities during the summer.
Army ROTC units are organized as brigades, battalions and companies. Air Force ROTC units are detachments with the students organized into wings, groups, squadrons and flights. Army and Air Force ROTC students are referred to as cadets. Naval ROTC units are organized as battalions and also include NROTC students under "Marine Option" who will eventually be commissioned as officers in the Marine Corps. Marine NROTC students may be formed in a separate company when the program includes sufficient numbers. All Naval ROTC students are referred to as midshipmen. Some of the summer training that is offered to cadets in the Army ROTC program are: Airborne, Air Assault, Mountain Warfare, WHINSEC and other related schools. In addition to their mandatory pre-commissioning Field Training (FT) at Maxwell AFB, Alabama (4 weeks for 4-year program cadets; 6 weeks for 2-year program cadets), Air Force ROTC cadets are also eligible for Airborne training under the tutelage of the Army at Fort Benning, Georgia. Naval ROTC midshipmen will participate in summer cruise programs every summer, either afloat or ashore, similar to their U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen counterparts.
The concept of ROTC in the United States was created by Alden Partridge and began with the Morrill Act of 1862 which established the land-grant colleges. Part of the federal government's requirement for these schools was that they include military tactics as part of their curriculum, forming what became known as ROTC. The college from which ROTC originated is Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. Norwich was founded in 1819 at Norwich, Vermont, as the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy. The university was founded by former West Point instructor Captain Alden Partridge, who promoted the idea of a "citizen soldier"—a man trained to act in a military capacity when his nation required, but capable of fulfilling standard civilian functions in peacetime. This idea eventually led to the formation of Reservist and National Guard units with regimented training in place of local militia forces.
Another root of the modern ROTC program comes from the "Plattsburg Idea". In 1915, Major General Leonard Wood instituted the Citizen's Military Training Corps, the first series of training camps to make officers out of civilians. For the first time in history, an attempt was made to provide a condensed course of training and commissioning competent reserve line officers after only a summer of military training.
In 1916, the provision to formally establish ROTC was advocated to Congress by a delegation from Ohio including William Oxley Thompson, President of the Ohio State University. On February 7, 1916, Ralph D. Mershon, a graduate of Ohio State, testified before the committee as a professional engineer. Present to testify as an advocate of a Reserve Engineers Corps, he expanded his remarks to argue in favor of the "Ohio Plan." Mershon noted:
Over 5,000 men arrived at Plattsburgh in May 1917 for the first of the large training corps. By the end of 1917, over 17,000 men had been trained. By the eve of its entry into World War I, the U.S. had a prepared corps of officers including one of the earliest Plattsburgh graduates, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Until the 1960s, many major universities required compulsory ROTC for all of their male students. However, because of the protests that culminated in the opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, compulsory ROTC was dropped in favor of voluntary programs. In some places ROTC was expelled from campus altogether, although it was always possible to participate in off-campus ROTC.
As of 2021, more than 1,700 high schools have Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) programs.
In the 21st century, the debate often focused around the Congressional don't ask, don't tell law, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and in force until 2011, which forbade homosexuals serving in the United States military from disclosing their sexual orientation at the risk of expulsion. Some schools believed this legal mandate would require them to waive or amend their non-discrimination policies.
In recent years, concerted efforts are being made at some Ivy League universities that have previously banned ROTC (including Columbia) to return ROTC to campus. The Harvard ROTC program was reinstated effective March 4, 2011 following enactment of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010.
Under current law, there are three types of ROTC programs administered, each with a different element.
One difference between civilian colleges and the senior or junior military colleges is enrollment option in ROTC. ROTC is voluntary for students attending civilian colleges and universities. However, with few exceptions (as outlined in both Army regulations and federal law) it is required of students attending the senior and junior military colleges. Another major difference between the senior military colleges and civilian colleges is that under federal law, graduates of the SMCs are guaranteed active duty assignments if requested with the approval of the school's professor of military science.
The Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (AROTC) program is the largest branch of ROTC, as the Army is the largest branch of the military. There are over 20,000 ROTC cadets in 273 ROTC programs at major universities throughout the United States. These schools are categorized as Military Colleges (MC), Military Junior Colleges (MJC) and Civilian Colleges (CC). Army ROTC provides the majority of the Army's officer corps; the remainder comes from West Point, Officer Candidate School (OCS), or direct commissions.
AROTC offers scholarships based on the time of enrollment in the program. Newly graduated seniors in high school can enter the program with a full four-year scholarship while college students can enroll later and earn a scholarship that would cover the remainder of their college career.
The two-year scholarship is available for students with two academic years of college remaining. An applicant for a two-year or four-year scholarship must meet the following requirements:
The applicant must agree to accept a commission and serve in the Army on Active Duty or in a Reserve Component (U.S. Army Reserve or Army National Guard).
The four-year scholarship is for students who receive it out of high school or before entering college. The four-year scholarship can be extended with the same conditions to a 5-year scholarship if the major is in Engineering.
The two-and-a-half-year scholarship is available for students already enrolled in a college or university with three academic years remaining.
An applicant for a two-and-a-half-year scholarship must meet the requirements for a two-year scholarship and also have a minimum SAT score of 920 or ACT score of 19.
Once an applicant has shown interest in the AROTC program the cadre can select him for a scholarship if he/she excels in the three major pillars:
Prior to 2015, a cadet had to have passed LDAC between their summer of becoming a senior. LDAC (Leadership Developmental and Assessment Course) was held at Fort Lewis, Washington until its final year at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where each cadet would be evaluated on leadership skills. The course was set up for a month of training with other peers and evaluated by prior servicemen.
From 2015, cadets attend Advanced Camp between their junior and senior year at Fort Knox, Kentucky. For 2015 and 2016, the training was not evaluated and simply pass/no pass beginning in 2017 Advanced Camp will become evaluated again. Cadet Summer Training (CST), including Advanced Camp and basic camp, is the U.S. Army's largest training event.
The Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program was founded in 1926 and the U.S. Marine Corps joined the program in 1932. The naval NROTC program is offered at over 150 colleges nationwide. The Nation's first Marine Corps oriented NROTC was established at The Citadel in 1970.
The first Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (then Air ROTC) units were established between 1920 and 1923 at the University of California, Berkeley, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Washington, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University. After World War II, the Air Force established ROTC units at 77 colleges and universities throughout the United States.
The Solomon Amendment denies federal funding to any university with a "policy or practice" that prevents the military from "maintaining, establishing or operating" ROTC on its campus. Such universities are allowed to require that ROTC adhere to the same policies as the university's other academic programs. According to Diane Mazur of the Palm Center, the military has withdrawn ROTC from a number of universities rather than adapt to those policies or accept extracurricular status. In her analysis, both the military and academe (as of the fall of 2010) preferred not to dispute the public perception that elite universities had banned ROTC programs. She wrote:
The military may be more comfortable when it retreats to parts of the country ... where universities don't ask a lot of questions .... [C]olleges may also be more comfortable when they go along with the fiction of banning ROTC, because then they don't have to answer to people upset about "don't ask, don't tell." Everyone buys into the myth, but at the expense of military readiness. The military needs to return to the colleges it walked away from, and everyone needs to stop pretending that ROTC programs ended because of a ban.
Others argue that universities effectively ban ROTC by erecting procedural hurdles motivated by anti-military sentiment and objections to discrimination based on sexual orientation that only serve to "discourage their own presumably egalitarian, intelligent, and enlightened students from joining".
ROTC programs were subject to the military's ban on service by open gays and lesbians known as "Don't ask don't tell". LGBT students occasionally protested ROTC as a proxy for the policy. An act to repeal the policy was signed by President Barack Obama on December 22, 2010, and implementation took effect September 20, 2011.
Other national armed forces in countries with strong historical ties to the United States have ROTC programs.
Other countries have also institutionalized reservist training programs. Reserve Officer Training in Russia began in the 1920s. Brazil has had the CPOR and the NPOR since 1928, the difference being that officers trained by the CPOR choose their area of specialization, while officers trained by the NPOR learn from their local army base.
During World War I, the United States created the Student Army Training Corps in an effort to encourage young men to receive both a college education and train for the military simultaneously. Those young men who did exceptionally well in the SATC classes were recommended for classes in the ROTC.
On February 10, 1918, the War Department created the Committee on Education and Special Training. The purpose of this committee was to assess the needs of the military branches and attend to said needs. Seeing a drastic need for trained soldiers, the Student Army Training Corps was created to provide "special training for men entering the service through voluntary induction". Training camps were held in the summer of 1918 to prepare institutions with at least one-hundred male students for the induction of the SATC that fall. Training started July 18 and lasted for sixty days.
The SATC officially began on October 1, 1918. It was located on 525 educational institutions and inducted 200,000 total students on the first day. Unlike the Selective Service Draft, enrollment in the SATC was completely voluntary. However, doing so gave you the rank of private in the United States army, therefore this was not a way of avoiding enlistment. While attending the SATC did allow for young men to stay on the home front, the ultimate goal of this was creating trained soldiers for the military.
The SATC was short-lived. With the Armistice being signed on November 11, 1918, the Army's need for more soldiers ended. The SATC was disbanded in December 1918.
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