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Updated November 18, 2020
Defense Primer: Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps
The Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps (SROTC)—
During the Civil War, Congress passed the Land Grant Act
more commonly referred to as the Reserve Officer Training
of 1862 (P.L. 37-130; also called the Morrill Act) to address
Corps (ROTC)—is an officer training and scholarship
a shortage of trained military officers. The act provided
program for postsecondary students authorized under
funding and land to establish public colleges in each state.
Chapter 103 of Title 10 of the United States Code
These colleges taught military tactics along with other
enrolling in ROTC, students can pursue an undergraduate
subjects. However, the implementation and quality of
degree while also training to become U.S. military officers.
military instruction across these schools lacked
The military departments — Army, Air Force, and Navy —
standardization. The National Defense Act of 1916 (P.L.
manage their own ROTC programs, which are hosted at
65-84) abolished the land-grant system for military
civilian universities and colleges. The Navy ROTC program
education and created an ROTC structure to standardize and
includes a Marine Corps option and the Air Force program
enhance military training for the Army. In 1925, under P.L
allows for commissions to the Space Force. The Coast
68-611, the Navy was allowed to participate in ROTC.
Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, does
Congress added a naval scholarship program in 1946 (P.L
not have an ROTC program, but does offer a College
Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI) that awards
In 1964, following a decline in ROTC enrollment, Congress
scholarships to students at minority-serving institutions and
passed the ROTC Vitalization Act (P.L. 88-647). The Act
placement in the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.
standardized the program across the Army, Navy, and Air
The military departments provide scholarships and other
Force, and authorized the department secretaries to pay for
forms of financial assistance to participating students. In
ROTC participants’ educational expenses, including tuition,
return, students commit to accept an appointment as an
fees, and books. It capped the number of participants who
officer in the U.S. military upon graduation.
could receive financial assistance at 16,500 (5,500 for each
The ROTC program is the largest single source of
department). The military departments lifted restrictions on
commissioned officers, producing more than 6,000 officers
full participation by women in ROTC programs in 1969
annually (see Figure 1Error! Reference source not
(Air Force) and 1972 (Army and Navy).
). Other major commissioning sources include
service academies (the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S.
Military Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy);
Historically, ROTC programs have been seen by military
Officer Candidate/Training Schools; and direct
and civilian stakeholders as an opportunity to augment
force structure and foster civilian-military relations. At
times, however, the presence of ROTC units and students
Figure 1. Officer Gains by Commissioning Source
on campus has been contentious. During the Vietnam War
era, student antiwar protests were widespread, and at
several universities ROTC programs were downgraded to
an extracurricular or denied access to on-campus facilities
and support. As a result, the military shuttered the ROTC
programs at some universities. For example, in 1969, the
Navy chose not to renew its contract with Yale University
following a faculty member vote to disallow academic
credit for ROTC courses.
In the 1990s, additional controversies around the ROTC
program arose due to the Department of Defense’s (DOD)
admission and separation policy for gay individuals. This
policy, known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), became
law in 1993 as part of the FY1994 National Defense
Authorization Act (P.L. 103-160, §571). Some faculty
Center for Naval Analysis, Population Representation in the
members and students criticized DADT for being
Military Services, Appendix B, Table B-30.
discriminatory and some universities barred ROTC
ROTC includes both scholarship and nonscholarship.
programs from their campuses, citing rules protecting
OCS/OTS/PLC includes Officer Candidates School (OCS), Aviation
LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.
OCS, Officer Training School (OTS), and Platoon Leaders Course
In 1996, as part of the FY1996 NDAA (P.L. 104-106,
§541), Congress passed legislation that denied certain
federal funding to any higher education institution that
prohibited or prevented the operation of ROTC units,
Defense Primer: Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps
recruiting activity, or student participation in ROTC on its
ROTC curriculum requirements vary, as enrollees study
campus. In 2010, DADT was repealed (P.L. 111-321), and
military department-specific topics. For instance, enrollees
ROTC programs began to re-appear.
in the Navy ROTC program are required to take naval
science courses, while Air Force enrollees take courses in
Establishing ROTC Programs
aerospace studies. Participants also attend summer training
Per DOD instruction (DODI 1215.08), institutions that wish
courses for further military instruction.
to establish an ROTC program can apply to a military
department, asking permission to host an ROTC
ROTC Participation and Scholarships
detachment. To be eligible for consideration, an educational
Postsecondary students can choose to participate in the
institution must be accredited, per 10 U.S.C. §2102, and
ROTC program in one of two ways: they can (1) formally
adopt “as a part of its curriculum, a four-year course of
enroll in the program and attend ROTC courses, or (2)
military instruction or a two-year course of advanced
remain unenrolled but attend ROTC courses like any other
training of military instruction, or both.” The institution
university course. Students who do not formally enroll in
must give the senior ROTC officer on campus the academic
the ROTC program do not incur a service obligation.
rank of professor and grant academic credit for ROTC
Students who choose to formally enroll in the ROTC
program can be either noncontract
enrollees or contract
Once these conditions are met, the military department
enrollees. Noncontract enrollees are not obligated to serve
decides whether to establish an ROTC program. That
in the armed forces, do not receive financial assistance
decision, DOD policy states, “will be based on the most
(e.g., scholarships), and generally can only take freshman-
efficient allocation of limited resources to meet the specific
and sophomore-level ROTC courses. Contract enrollees are
needs of the Military Department concerned.”
obligated to serve in the armed forces and accept an
appointment as a commissioned officer upon graduation.
According to DOD policy, ROTC programs may be
They are required to serve a specified number of years in
affiliated with institutions in one of four ways
the active and/or reserve component (per 10 U.S.C. §2107).
: all activities are located on that school’s
In return for their service, the military departments help to
cover contracted enrollees’ educational costs. However, if
an enrollee breaks the commitment, he or she may have to
: students are affiliated with another
reimburse the department for their educational expenses.
school’s host unit but participate in activities and classes
ROTC scholarships are merit-based, and help to cover all or
at their own institution.
a portion of tuition, fees, and other expenses (e.g., books,
and living expenses) for two to four years. High school
: students can enroll in courses at a
seniors can compete for ROTC scholarships at the national
host unit at another university.
level. Postsecondary students enrolled in an institution with
an ROTC affiliation can also compete for scholarships.
: several institutions come together to share
Typically, qualification for scholarships is based on GPA,
resources (e.g., facilities and staff), in order to maximize
test scores, and certain medical and fitness standards.
ROTC Funding and Enrollment
In recent years, the military departments have tried to close
some ROTC units—some of which commission as few as a
Congress appropriates money for the ROTC program
dozen officers per year. The proposed closures have been
through two accounts: Operation and Maintenance (O&M)
controversial. In 2013, the Army planned to close 13 ROTC
and Military Personnel (MILPERS). According to DOD
detachments. The Army’s decision generated pushback,
budget documents, enacted amounts for ROTC in FY2020
particularly from some Members of Congress and
were $819 million in O&M and $174 million in MILPERS.
university alumni. The Army announced it would postpone
O&M funding provides for scholarships, travel and per
the closures, and, in the Consolidated Appropriations Act
diem, contractual support, and other equipment or supply
for FY2016 (P.L. 114-113, §8032), Congress prohibited the
needs. MILPERS funding covers cadet and midshipman
use of funds made available by the act for the
pay and allowances (including monthly subsistence pay),
disestablishment of any existing Army ROTC unit. This
uniforms, and stipends. More information on ROTC
entitlements can be found in DOD’s Financial Manag
provision has been included in all subsequent annual
Regulation, Volume 7A, Chapter 59. ROTC military
instructors receive active duty pay and benefits based on
their rank and grade and are not included in the above
The ROTC program consists of a basic course and an
advanced course. The basic course includes training and
ROTC enrollment has remained relatively constant in
electives—including at least one military-related course per
recent years. The Army has the largest ROTC program with
semester—during a student’s freshman and sophomore
approximately 30,000 enrollees. The Air Force and Navy
years. If a student enrolls in the basic course, there is no
have approximately 15,000 and 6,000 enrollees,
service obligation. However, if a student accepts a
scholarship, then he or she incurs a service commitment.
After completing the basic course, some students continue
to the advanced course where they take additional electives
Kristy N. Kamarck
, Specialist in Military Manpower
and participate in field training.
Defense Primer: Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps
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