Not all ROTC programs are created equal

junior rotc senior
All ROTC programs are not created equal

In today’s post, I’d like to examine the differences among ROTC programs, both across different military branches and even within the same branch.

In review, ROTC programs are offered in the:

  1. Army
  2. Navy*
  3. Air Force 

*Aspiring Marine Officers would elect the Marine Option within Navy ROTC. 

As you might guess, there are differences among different ROTC programs just like there are differences among the branches themselves.

As you begin to explore your ROTC options, you certainly want to take into account the differences in what each of the Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs offer.

You’ll find differences in the number of scholarships available (Army offers the most), the selectivity of the programs, the flexibility in what you can major in, the financial benefits, and the cultural differences, to name a few. 

I’m not sure the differences among ROTC programs are so significant that someone would choose one branch of service over another (e.g. Navy over Air Force), but it’s possible. For example, if financial support is one of your primary drivers, you may favor the Navy because it offers the most generous financial package for its ROTC candidates.

The Navy typically pays your full tuition for four years. For my twin sons, this was a big bonus. They are both attending Yale on Navy ROTC scholarships, which covers their $70K/year tuition bills. This comes out to a $280K scholarship over the course of 4 years - each.

The total scholarship value between the two of them is about $560K.

On the other hand, Army ROTC programs offer the most flexibility in what you choose to study. Maybe that’s the most important thing for you?

If you are not focused on a particular branch of service yet, you should dig into the details of the different ROTC programs to see if one stands out to you.

In addition to differences among the military branches, there are also differences within the same branch of service.

Once you figure out your preferred branch, let’s say it’s the Navy, then you should think about what “type” of Navy ROTC Unit you would prefer.

A Navy ROTC Unit at Texas A&M might be far different from a Navy ROTC Unit at Brown University. This is something you should consider as you start to narrow down your wishlist of schools.


First, you should find out which of your target colleges have Navy ROTC programs on their campus (these are often called “host units”) versus colleges that are affiliates.

Affiliate programs don’t typically have a big physical presence on campus (in terms of buildings and facilities), so they travel to their nearest host unit and conduct their training there.

Holy Cross is a host unit. Brown University, an affiliate school, travels to Holy Cross for their training.

MIT is a host unit. Harvard and Tufts, affiliate schools, travel to MIT for their training.

Rutgers is a host unit. Princeton, an affiliate school, travels up to Rutgers for its training.

This may or may not be a big deal for you.

At the end of the day, would you make your final college decision based on whether or not the ROTC program was hosted on its campus or not?  Maybe, maybe not.

It depends on how many options you have. It could be something to consider.

As you can imagine, each ROTC unit also has its own personality and culture much like different fraternities and sororities.

Some ROTC programs have been around for a hundred years and have long-standing traditions and rituals — other programs have only been on the scene for a decade and are still building their reputations.


Some ROTC programs are super-motivated, gung-ho, and highly-disciplined. Others are more laid back and take themselves less seriously.

You’ll want to think about which environment you prefer.

How do you find out what each unit is like?

Similar to what you’re doing for the traditional colleges you’re applying to, you should research the ROTC programs at those colleges.

As always, the internet is a good place to start. Within a few minutes, you should be able to get a good sense of what the programs are like. You’ll certainly be able to determine whether the units are host units or affiliates. 

Then, you should by all means visit the campus if you have the ability to do so. You should try to meet the leadership at the units themselves - either in person or on the phone. You should do your best to reach out to current ROTC students at those schools and ask their opinion.

Usually, the ROTC staff is willing to provide you with names of some current students who would be willing to speak to you.

My sons were unable to visit the ROTC units during their application process because of COVID, but they definitely spoke to the ROTC leaders at their target schools (by phone or zoom) and reached out to multiple ROTC students at those schools to get a good lay of the land.

Every person was forthcoming and had a lot of good advice.

Pro tip: Information gleaned from current ROTC students will help prepare you for your ROTC interviews and application. This type of deep and local knowledge will put you well ahead of other candidates who assume that all ROTC programs are created equal.

Do your research, make the appropriate trips, or phone calls, and figure out what seems to be the best fit for you. 


If you're enjoying this content, consider enrolling in our online mentoring program, where I teach lessons like this every week (starting in 9th grade) to students who aspire to attend service academies and ROTC programs. There's not better way to prepare for the rigors of the application process.

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