15 Best ROTC Colleges
August 2, 2023
If you attended college in the US, you likely had classmates in the ROTC. That’s because ROTC programs are near-ubiquitous—more than 1,700 colleges and universities in the US offer ROTC programs. The ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) enables students to take military courses while they earn their bachelor’s degrees. Upon graduating, students in the ROTC become officers in the US Armed Forces. But because ROTC colleges are so ubiquitous, finding one that fits your academic interests, career goals, and budget can be daunting. What follows is a far-from-comprehensive list of the best ROTC colleges in the country, chosen on the basis of cost, ranking, number of degrees available, and graduation and employment rates.
What is ROTC?
The ROTC can be traced back as far as 1819, to the founding of Norwich University in Vermont. However, the modern iteration of the ROTC has its roots in the National Defense Act of 1916. ROTC stands for “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.” Essentially, ROTC programs prepare students for future service in the US Armed Forces. The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps all have their own ROTC programs. Students enrolled in ROTC programs take military courses alongside the coursework required for their selected majors. When students receive their degrees, they also receive their officers’ commission.
Does ROTC pay for college?
ROTC programs can confer a number of benefits to those who chose to enroll in them. ROTC programs allow students to complete a major of their choice while also taking military courses. These military courses teach “soft” skills like leadership and teamwork. Enrolling in an ROTC program also gives students a structured career path after college.
But foremost among the benefits that ROTC programs offer are the scholarships that cover tuition, fees, room and board, and other living expenses. It’s crucial here to emphasize that ROTC scholarships confer these benefits in exchange for active military service upon graduation.
ROTC scholarships are not identical across the board, nor are they guaranteed. Students must apply for scholarships after graduating high school or as freshmen or sophomores in college. Each ROTC program has its own scholarship with its own requirements. For example, the Army ROTC four-year scholarship requires students to have a GPA of at least 2.5, and it covers full tuition, room and board, and offers stipends for books and living expenses. Other service branches require a GPA of at least 3.0 to qualify for a scholarship. All ROTC programs require students to pass a physical fitness test, conform to military standards regarding hair length and styles, and wear a uniform.
The 15 Best ROTC Colleges
1) Norwich University
As the birthplace of the ROTC, Norwich University is, arguably, the standard-bearer of ROTC colleges. Norwich University is a military college, like West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy. Located in Northfield, Vermont, Norwich University is one of eight ROTC colleges to win a General Douglas MacArthur Foundation Award in 2021. Some numbers at a glance: Norwich University is home to roughly 2,600 on-campus students and boasts a 16-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. Significantly, over 90% of its graduates were employed, pursuing a graduate degree, or in military service within 8 months of graduation.
2) University of New Hampshire
The University of New Hampshire is home to one of the top ROTC programs in the country. UNH offers Air Force ROTC and Army ROTC programs, and students can qualify for scholarships that pay for their entire tuition. UNH emphasizes that there are no restrictions on a student’s choice in academic major. And the school’s Air Force ROTC, for example, stresses that the program doesn’t just crank out future pilots. Yes, graduates will serve in the military, but they can pursue careers in engineering, medicine, communications, finance, maintenance, security, and more.
3) University of South Florida
The University of South Florida in Tampa is another recipient of a Douglas MacArthur Foundation award. Another accolade: the Military Times ranked USF 4th overall in its 2020 ranking of 4-year institutions in the US. USF is also one of just 50 schools that offer ROTC programs from all four branches of the US Armed Services (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force). The school distinguishes itself with its Office of Veteran Success, which offers academic support and career guidance while seeking to integrate military-connected students into USF’s overarching culture.
The 15 Best ROTC Colleges (Continued)
Is it any surprise that MIT, one of the most consistently top-ranked schools in the country, also has a strong ROTC program? MIT offers Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs. Many of the ROTC scholarships awarded cover the full cost of admission and fees. Since it was founded in 1865, MIT’s ROTC programs have produced more than 12,000 commissioned officers. MIT’s ROTC homepage provides solid overviews of the focus of each program. The Army ROTC curriculum, for instance, emphasizes leadership and management training.
5) University of Tennessee – Knoxville
The Army and Air Force ROTC programs at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are among the best in the country. One of UT’s distinguishing features is its “Lead Lab,” short for Leadership Laboratory. Run by junior and senior cadets, the Lead Lab teaches military customs and drill and ceremony. The Air Force ROTC program emphasizes the diversity it offers in terms of career paths. Not everyone who graduates becomes a pilot. In fact, graduates have around 120 career fields within the Air Force to choose from.
6) Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee is a private university well renowned for its academic rigor. The ROTC programs at Vanderbilt are distinguished as well. Vanderbilt has both Army and Navy ROTC programs. In addition to the standard curriculum, Vanderbilt ROTC programs offer summer development opportunities like Cadet Troop Leader Training and internships in public affairs, research, national nuclear security, and more. The Vanderbilt Army ROTC website offers a good look into the day of a typical ROTC cadet, which starts with physical training at 6 AM.
The 15 Best ROTC Colleges (Continued)
7) Iowa State University
Iowa State University in Ames has Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTC programs. It is consistently recognized as one of the top ROTC colleges in the Midwest. Each program is designed to instill leadership skills in addition to preparing students for careers in or out of the military. At the same time, students are immersed in the history, traditions, theory, and practice of their respective military branches. Naval ROTC students, for example, take a battery of courses including Naval Science, Navigation, Evolution of Warfare, Evolution of Amphibious Warfare, and Leadership and Ethics.
8) Michigan State University
Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, has a robust military tradition dating back to 1884. Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs are available at Michigan State. The Army ROTC program was ranked as high as 12th in the nation. In addition to the rigorous course of study, there are several extracurricular clubs and activities available to Michigan State cadets. These include marksmanship skill development and volunteer programs with local elementary schools.
9) Villanova University
Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has Army and Naval ROTC programs. The Naval ROTC program, which began in 1946, has produced 22 Admirals and Generals in the Navy and Marine Corps. All “midshipmen”—those enrolled in the Naval ROTC—may select any major, from engineering to business to nursing. Villanova is a school known for its strong academics, so ROTC students at Villanova have access to an exceptional liberal arts education outside of their military training.
The 15 Best ROTC Colleges (Continued)
10) Georgetown University (plus American University, George Washington University, and Catholic University)
In 2011, the Army ranked the Hoya Battalion—the combined ROTC program of Georgetown University, American University, the Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and the Institute for World Politics—the best in the country. Georgetown is one of the most elite institutions of higher education in the country, and GW and American both rank within the top 100 schools in the US. For those after a career in government, you can’t get any better than starting out your academic, military, and professional training in Washington, DC.
11) Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech hosts a full-time active cadet corps and has Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine ROTC programs. The Corps sees itself as a leader development program, and it emphasizes the development of practical and ethical leadership skills. For more than ten years, the Corps’ combined GPA has been above 3.0. To give a sense of the size and success of the program—in 2021, the Corps graduated 65 commissioned Army officers, 36 commissioned Navy officers, 48 commissioned Air Force officers, and 7 commissioned Marine Corps officers.
12) Texas A&M
Texas A&M is another ROTC college that consistently ranks among the top military training schools in the country. The ROTC program at Texas A&M is a big part of the school’s culture, with more than 2,000 members in its corps of cadets. The Hollingsworth Center for Ethical Leadership is the bedrock of the program’s academic focus. The curriculum focuses heavily on creating ethical leaders for careers both in and out of the military. The large size of the ROTC program at Texas A&M makes it a desirable destination for interested students. The Corps of Cadets is comprised of smaller units, or outfits, which students can join based on their interests, major, and ROTC choice. All 41 cadet outfits at Texas A&M live on campus, which makes the community especially tight-knit.
The 15 Best ROTC Colleges (Continued)
13) Virginia Military Institute
Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia has a reputable tradition as an ROTC college—in fact, ROTC participation is mandatory for all students. The school’s track record speaks for itself: 260 graduates of Virginia Military Institute have gone on to become generals in the US Armed Forces, despite the fact that the school is so small, with an enrollment of just over 1,500 students. A beautiful, intimate campus, small class size, well-defined culture, and a rich history make VMI one of the top ROTC colleges in the country.
14) Santa Clara University (plus Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and SJSU)
Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, has a well-established Army ROTC program. The Bronco battalion—that’s the combined Army ROTC programs of Santa Clara University, Stanford, San Jose State, and UC Santa Cruz—says it is “designed to develop management skills and leadership abilities for successful careers in both the corporate world and the military.” Each year in the four-year program acts as a learning module with specific aims. For example, year one is known as “Foundations in Leadership,” and students become acquainted with fundamental leadership skills like problem-solving, listening, and writing.
15) The Citadel
The Citadel (The Military College of South Carolina) is known as one of the best ROTC colleges in the country. It’s a privately-owned military college where ROTC participation is mandatory. The school’s track record is studded with accolades, among them: over 278 Citadel graduates have gone on to become generals in the United States Armed Forces. No wonder it’s often referred to as the “West Point of the South.”
the Best ROTC Colleges – Final Thoughts
The ROTC is a program of professionalization especially, but not only, for those interested in careers in the military. Of course, ROTC students can (in most cases) major in anything they want. And, with over 1,700 colleges in the US that offer ROTC programs, the choices in terms of field of study, campus size, and location are practically endless. A major benefit of ROTC programs is that they cover much, if not all, of a student’s tuition, room and board, and related fees. Keep in mind, though, that ROTC graduates must then serve in the US Armed Forces for a specific allotment of time—usually a 4-year period. Therefore, it’s a great springboard for those who want to pursue careers in the military, government, or national security—but also for those who want to develop leadership skills for application in the broader job market.