Updated: Jun 26, 2020
The eligibility requirements are very similar for both options. Both GPA and SAT/ ACT standards are high; there is a rigorous physical exam for both, and there is an active duty commitment after graduation for both programs. Whether graduating from an academy or an ROTC program, the graduate is commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army, Air Force or Marine Corps, or an ensign in the Navy.
Since the results are the same, what are the differences between attending one of the U.S. academies and attending a civilian college or university as an ROTC student? The obvious difference is the environment at each institution. Academy life is completely different than that of a military installation. A student in an ROTC unit essentially lives the life of a standard college student. The student lives in the same dorms as the other students, attends class with everyone else, and wears his uniform only for ROTC class and events.
A student can apply for an ROTC scholarship to a select number of colleges and universities. One of those selections must be the home state university. These scholarships range from 1 to 4 years, and from partial to full tuition coverage. A full ROTC scholarship can be as selective and difficult to receive as an appointment to an academy. As with the academies, there is an emphasis and preference for the engineering and tech majors. Those students who apply and opt for a business or liberal arts major may need to agree to specialized language study to qualify for a scholarship.
Those students who wish to serve after graduation and do not receive an ROTC scholarship may join a unit if there are available spaces as a non-scholarship cadet/midshipman. These students take the same military classes, have the same duties, and receive the same commission upon graduation as the scholarship students.
The service requirement is also slightly different. Academy graduates have a minimum 5 year commitment while ROTC officers have a 4 year commitment. Postgraduate training ( flight training, ranger training, etc) does not count toward either commitment.
The university and college options vary depending on the branch of service. The Army has the largest number of schools offering ROTC, followed by the Air Force, with the Navy having the fewest. Many colleges and universities offer “cross-campus” options. This is where a student attends one school and takes ROTC classes and training at a neighboring campus.
Any student who is interested in a commission in the armed forces should investigate both an academy appointment and the ROTC programs. The ultimate outcome- that of a position as an officer in the Army, Air Force, Marines or Navy- is the same. It is only the route to that goal that is different.