Is JROTC Right for Me? How the Program Helps Students Pay for College & Prepare for Academic & Career Success

Meet the Expert & Author

Ronald D. Kness Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) 34th ID, MN ARNG Read bio

Many students tend to shy away from participating in a JROTC program because they have no intention of joining the military after finishing high school. But what many students may not know is that JROTC teaches skills that colleges and employers want but aren’t typically taught in a high school curriculum. Regardless of your military intention, JROTC helps cultivate skills that position you better for success inside and outside the classroom. Read on to learn what the program is all about and how it can prepare you for academic and career success, and even help you pay for college.

JROTC History, Mission & Vision

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) is a four-year program that was a result of the National Defense Act of 1916. America was preparing for World War I and needed a steady stream of qualified male teenage candidates that could enlist into military service as soldiers and officers in the U.S. Army. The program served the needs of the nation and various communities so well that it continued on and is still going strong today.

Under the 1964 Vitalization Act, Congress expanded the Army JROTC program to include all military branches – Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force. At this time, Congress also authorized the replacement of active duty personnel that served as instructors with retired military service personnel from active duty and the Reserves and National Guard instead. The next biggest change occurred in 1973 when women were given the opportunity to participate in JROTC programs.

The stated mission of JROTC is “motivating young people to be better citizens.” The vision of this Congress-mandated program is “to provide quality leadership, character, and leadership development, while fostering partnerships with communities and educational institutions.”

Many students think JROTC is a military-preparation program, but as you can see, its mission and vision doesn’t state that. Since the beginning, the purpose of the JROTC program has been to teach cadets leadership, geography, civics, health, global awareness, life skills and U.S. history. With this focus on leadership, core values, abilities and self-discipline, cadets are better positioned to function in life itself, even if they never go into the military.

Rank Structure

The rank structure of a JROTC battalion usually mirrors that of an active duty unit. For example, a model Army JROTC battalion could be structured as:

  • Cadet Colonel
  • Cadet Lieutenant Colonel
  • Cadet Major
  • Cadet Captain
  • Cadet First Lieutenant
  • Cadet Second Lieutenant
  • Cadet Command Sergeant Major
  • Cadet Sergeant Major
  • Cadet First Sergeant
  • Cadet Master Sergeant
  • Cadet Sergeant First Class
  • Cadet Staff Sergeant
  • Cadet Sergeant
  • Cadet Corporal
  • Cadet Private First Class
  • Cadet Private

A cadet battalion may contain additional positions and the list of duties for each position can vary. JROTC instructors determine the best positions and duties for each cadet based on the composition of the battalion. Cadets advance through the positions based on skill, abilities and experience.

Curriculum

The curriculum in a JROTC program is generally broken down into four modules called Leadership Education and Training or LET. Each military branch’s JROTC curriculum differs slightly. Below is an example from a U.S. Army JROTC curriculum to give you an idea of what’s covered in each LET:

Because the first-year mission is to motivate cadets to be better citizens, instruction focuses on citizenship, leadership and succeeding in high school and beyond. Community activities vary but typically include providing color guards at events, participating in community parades and being part of drill and rifle teams.

The mission of the second year is focused more on leadership. Courses include techniques of communication, leadership with a leadership lab, Cadet Challenge, first aid, map reading, history, American citizenship, career opportunities and the role of the U.S. Army.

Third-year cadets get more exposure to leadership situations by functioning as teachers and leaders within their cadet battalion. Cadets also pursue independent studies in communications, first aid, history, map reading, career opportunities and technology awareness.

In the fourth year, cadets perform the daily administration of the cadet battalion and rotate through Battalion Commander and various Staff Officer positions. They also further develop their leadership skills by serving as assistant instructors within their battalion and plan events such as graduation ceremonies, award banquets and military balls.

The JROTC cadet uniform must be worn at least twice a month, but many programs have their cadets wear it once a week while in school, as well as when out in the community. Cadets who complete the four-year program can enlist after high school and enter recruit training at a higher rank (E-3 Private First Class instead of an E-1 Private).

While JROTC is not a military-preparation program, it does have some military overtones. In addition to regularly wearing a military-inspired uniform, there are also classes in physical fitness, drill instruction, military customs and courtesy, and military history – all of which are taught by retired military personnel.

How Do I Know if JROTC is Right for Me?

Students join JROTC for various reasons – a personal goal, to follow in a family member’s footsteps, to help pay for college or to just be part of an organization that allows them to show their patriotism and desire to serve their country.

Some students, however, may be on the fence about joining. If you’re thinking of participating in your school’s JROTC program but aren’t certain, take some time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Would I be dedicated to the JROTC program?
  • Am I patriotic to the United States?
  • Am I driven to succeed regardless of the obstacles I encounter?
  • Am I disciplined enough to reach goals I set for yourself?
  • Do I want to learn valuable skills that can help me succeed in the real world?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you may be a good candidate for the JROTC program. But regardless of whether you go into the military afterwards, the training you’ll receive while in JROTC is unmatched in public high schools and will serve you well for the rest of your life.

How to Join JROTC

With more than 3,000 JROTC programs scattered across all military branches, there’s a good chance there’s a program at your high school or at one nearby. To join JROTC, look for it as an elective in your school’s class offerings. High schools without their own JROTC program often have reciprocity agreements with nearby schools that do offer JROTC, so students at a school without a program will be allowed to participate in a nearby school’s program. To see where JROTC programs are available, visit the websites below for more information:

How JROTC Prepares You for The Real World

The biggest benefit of participating in JROTC is that it teaches valuable life skills that many high schools don’t emphasize, and for some cadets, these skills aren’t taught at home either. For some cadets from the inner city, their instructors may be the only role models they have.

And because JROTC is funded by the military branches, it’s free to join (without any military obligation when finished). Even uniforms are provided for free. At no cost at all, JROTC cadets can gain:

  • Leadership skills
  • Self-confidence
  • Discipline
  • Communication and collaborative skills
  • College financial planning skills
    (e.g. how to fill out the FAFSA, how to find and apply for scholarships and grants)

  • Community service skills
  • Accountability
  • Time-management
  • Problem-solving skills

These experiences can then be used while serving in the military, while in college or in almost any career in the real world.

JROTC can also help high school students stay focused and on track for graduation. According to 2014 data from the U.S. Army, JROTC cadets in Chicago, Detroit and rural Hawaii had higher graduation rates compared to their overall senior class:

Hubbard High School in Chicago graduated 96% of its JROTC cadets compared to 81% of the senior class overall

Renaissance High School in Detroit graduated 92.8% of its JROTC cadets compared to 65.5% of the senior class overall

Waianae High School in rural Hawaii continued its streak of graduating 100% of its cadets, while the overall class graduation rate was just 67%

Using JROTC to Pay for College

Another big benefit to joining JROTC and ROTC is the financial aid these programs offer. Cadets can take full advantage of various scholarships to cover the cost of college. There are two main ways JROTC can help you pay for higher education:

School-Specific Scholarships

JROTC cadets can start earning school-specific scholarships as early as 9th grade. These scholarships cover the cost of an education at 260 different colleges. Select schools offer up to $6,000 for each year in a JROTC program. Cadets in leadership roles can get an additional $3,375 per year. And the best part – there isn’t an application process. The funds are automatically added to the student’s financial aid package for the selected participating college.

Students can also apply to outside scholarships, and because of the program’s leadership training, JROTC cadets have an advantage over other applicants. JROTC graduates are better prepared to study, take tests, set goals and focus on the task at hand – all qualities that colleges are looking for in scholarship recipients. And because these scholarships are awarded by the schools themselves, there’s no service commitment (e.g. no military service requirement or any requirement to join ROTC in college).

ROTC Scholarships

ROTC, the next step after JROTC, also offers tuition assistance. These scholarships are awarded by the military branch of the ROTC, which means they’re not restricted to a specific ROTC unit or college. They do, however, carry a military service requirement. All military service requirements incur an eight-year commitment, part of which is equal to the length of the scholarship. For example, acceptance of a four-year ARMY ROTC scholarship requires serving on active duty in the Army for four years. The remaining four years of the eight-year commitment is in the Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR).

Scholarship Requirements

Because ROTC wants to spend their scholarship money wisely, and is looking for the best of the best, they have some requirements for students applying for their scholarships. As an example, Army ROTC Scholarship applicants must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be between the ages of 17 and 26
  • Have a high school GPA of at least 2.50 (based on a 4.0 GPA system)
  • Graduate from high school or have a diploma equivalent at the time of college entrance
  • Score a minimum of 1000 on the SAT in math and verbal or 19 on the ACT, excluding the required writing scores
  • Meet physical and height/weight standards
  • Agree to accept a commission in the Army on active duty or in the Selected Reserves (Reserves or National Guard) to be determined at the time of commitment

Applying for a ROTC Scholarship

Most of the branches have a specific scholarship application process. If in doubt, see your high school counselor and visit the individual branch’s website for more information. As an example, ARMY ROTC uses an online application for its scholarships, and applicants must start by creating an account at goarmy.com. A ROTC scholarship usually covers full tuition and fees, an allowance for books and a monthly stipend. The monthly stipend can range from $300 a month for a college freshman to $500 a month for a senior. The monthly stipend is capped at $5,000 per year, but with 9-month academic years, the cap likely won’t be reached in any one year.

Transitioning to ROTC

Students who are interested in joining ROTC but don’t want a contract and military commitment can do so for the first two years. Whether you complete the full program or not, the benefits of participating in college ROTC include:

  • An opportunity to further develop leadership skills
  • A more structured path to a career after college
  • More career guidance than typically offered in a college curriculum
  • Continued professional education

For high school graduates who completed a JROTC program, getting into ROTC will be a familiar process. Like JROTC, ROTC is an elective you can enroll in when signing up for college classes. Once enrolled, you’ll be issued a military uniform and are required to wear it at specific times – usually at least once a week and at special events. However, unlike JROTC, ROTC cadets must adhere to rigorous and regimented physical fitness, grooming and behavioral standards that are similar to military requirements. ROTC cadets who aren’t on a scholarship program can participate up to two years without incurring any military obligation.

If not already committed on scholarship by their junior year, ROTC cadets are usually asked to commit to a legal binding contract that incurs a military commitment. Most commitments require a minimum of three or four years on active duty service with the rest of the 8-year total commitment in the IRR.

For Coast Guard JROTC cadets, the process of transitioning to ROTC is a little different. While the Coast Guard has a JROTC program, it does not have an official ROTC program. Instead, it has cadets go through a College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative or CSPI. Highly motivated students that demonstrate a high caliber of academic and leadership abilities can apply for this program. Applicants must be accepted to a bachelor’s degree program at a qualifying college.

Once accepted, students enlist into the Coast Guard and complete basic training during the summer. In return, they receive full funding for up to two years of college. This aid covers tuition, fees, books, housing, medical benefits and a full-time Coast Guard salary for the two years while in the program. After graduating and completing CSPI, students are commissioned as an Ensign (O-1) and receive their first duty assignment.

FAQs About JROTC & Transitioning to College

Many students have questions before committing to a JROTC or ROTC program. Below are a few of the most frequently asked questions and answers:

Am I committed to military service by participating in JROTC?

No, not in any way, shape or form. The training received will help you if you do decide to join ROTC or go right into the military after graduating from high school, but you are in no way committed to serve in the military if you join and participate in a JROTC program, even if you complete the full four years.

The answer is no here too, but with a caveat – if you accept a ROTC scholarship, then you have entered into a legally binding contract that requires a defined amount of time served in one of the military branches, depending on the ROTC selected. Otherwise you can join ROTC in college and attend up to two years without incurring any military commitment.

Each branch has its own online application method. Below are links to each ROTC scholarship application site:

  • Army
  • Navy and Marines (Note: The Marines do not have their own application procedure. The Marine option can be selected from the Navy ROTC application.)
  • Air Force

Each application can be downloaded, filled out and submitted, or can be filled out and submitted online. Dates for when applications are accepted and/or due for a specific academic year are posted on each site. Instructions and requirements are also posted online and applying will require a large block of time. Reading through the application first and gathering all required information beforehand will help make the process go quicker and smoother.

Generally speaking, no. However, cadets not yet on a scholarship contract can take the first two years of ROTC in one military branch and then switch to a different branch ROTC before committing. Once the commitment is made, you’re required to stick with the selected military branch.

No. Cadets are considered non-deployable assets until after they have graduated and are commissioned as officers. Even then, new officers are usually sent to a Basic Officer Leader’s Course before being assigned to a unit and being eligible for deployment either individually or with their unit.

No. During the last year of ROTC, cadets go through an accessions process that assigns them to a job that ROTC leadership thinks would be best based on assessment.

Yes, definitely. Although ROTC is more militarily-driven, if you’ve completed JROTC, you’ll be familiar with the structure of the program. JROTC personnel also help guide college-bound cadets – they ensure students are taking the right high school courses to graduate and get into college and assist with the financial aid application process.

Yes. However, since it’s a different program, the process of joining is also a little different. National Guard personnel enter a program called the Simultaneous Membership Program or SMP. They continue to drill with their unit but are placed in an officer leadership position within their unit to gain more leadership experience. They also wear a patch on their National Guard uniform that shows they are SMP cadets.

After completing ROTC, there’s no additional commitment to serve on active duty for two years; there’s only the commitment that was already in place with the National Guard. Note, however, this route is a longer process since there are additional requirements for newly commissioned officers.

Absolutely! The years you missed of the four-year ROTC curriculum can be condensed. In this case, you’d take a month-long ROTC Basic Course that would replace the first two years of ROTC.