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ROTC/NROTC Scholarship: Pitfalls and Promises

I was twenty when I received an ROTC scholarship and enrolled at San Jose State University (SJSU).

What are you really getting into with an NROTC or ROTC scholarship? There are some big surprises!

What are you really getting into with an NROTC or ROTC scholarship? There are some big surprises!

Basics of Naval ROTC Scholarship Contract

The United States Military routinely trains officers for service. A portion of them are trained at the military academies of the three main branches:

  1. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  2. The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland
  3. The United States Military Academy in West Point, New York

The majority, however, are trained in state and private universities and colleges. This program of training is called the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC).

The basic agreement with the Department of the Navy is to provide the following consideration: Payment of all tuition, payment of all fees related to education, “a stipend for books” (, and a subsistence allowance.

In 1990, this was $100 per month for all four years. Consideration given by the ROTC cadet is as follows: Graduate in four years, serve as an officer for four years, and attend drill once each week. The Navy offered the contract to me. I accepted it. A selection officer and I signed a contract at a processing center in California. The officer was assigned to represent the Navy in these matters. I was twenty at the time. I received this scholarship and enrolled at San Jose State University (SJSU).

How Does Navy ROTC Work?

I immediately learned that my time commitments were much greater than discussed during recruitment. The drill location was not at SJSU. Instead, it was conducted at the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. This increased the time I would have to commit to earning the scholarship. Instead of a walk across campus, I needed to drive to the BART station, ride the train into Berkeley, and then walk across campus.

In 2011, I reviewed the Navy’s ROTC page. The page states that a midshipman is required to attend drill a minimum of one time per week. They are letting you know that they will demand more of your time than they are disclosing when they charm you about what a great deal you will receive. The minimum for me meant Wednesday, as disclosed, and most Saturdays.

Hidden Requirements and Denied Promises

Quickly, the unit at UC Berkeley taught me that they were not much interested in providing their end of the contract.

Stipend Shell Game

The $100 check was truly given each month. However, unit rules required each midshipman (a Navy or Marine Corps cadet) to contribute $40 to the "midshipman fund". This fund theoretically paid for events to build camaraderie. Typically, this was a weekend gathering for pizza and soda. However, the cost to drive, park, and take the BART to the UC Berkeley campus from SJSU exceeded the cost of a meal.

As a starving student, I never saw that money. Simple broke-student economics dictated that I remain in San Jose for those pizza nights. Midshipmen from other non-Berkeley campuses felt the same as I felt.

Once, for the sake of fellowship, I made the journey. However, that particular Friday night, the organizers failed to show with the cash box. The other midshipmen pooled some cash and ordered a pizza. I had only my return BART ticket and loose change. So, I went home on an empty stomach.

In the Marines, we sang a cadence, "They give you a hundred dollars and take back ninety-nine!" We sang that one often. At the ROTC, the song manifested truer than ever before.

Time Demands and Constraints

A big concession for me, as an engineering student, was to commit to completing a bachelor's degree in just four years. Although accrediting agencies require campuses to show a four-year degree course schedule, my aerospace engineering counselor informed me that the reality is five years. Some engineering students finished in five and a half years, he told me. This impacted my time. Every hour had assignments, lectures, and lab reports calling to it.

Greater than a once-per-week commitment was demanded of me. Each Wednesday, I traveled to Berkeley to drill and meet with the unit. Each Saturday, I had to attend special meetings for the Marines.

Additionally, all midshipmen had to take military courses called "Naval Science". In my first semester, the military course was Naval History. So, the 90-minute drill stretched into more than three hours at the Berkeley campus. Plus, the travel time claimed most of Wednesday for "drill".

How Long Is Drill at NROTC Berkeley?

Wednesday drill is "about an hour and a half", I was told. The actual drill time is about 90 minutes. This is true if you only count the actual standing in formation, marching, roll call, ceremonies, and other functions.

After this, each cadet must also take a 3-semester hour course. Because it is just once per week, this class is 3 hours long. Additionally, administrative functions and mandatory (meaning none would attend this fun if it were not required) functions also stole more hours and major portions of days.

The Political Science and History majors did not seem to mind. However, the lost time will be felt by students in any engineering or other professional major.

Somehow, I always seem to get into the paper, everywhere I go.

Somehow, I always seem to get into the paper, everywhere I go.

No Books Given

The “stipend for books” did not exist. Instead, the unit had a library. Each midshipman had to “check out” books from the library. This meant students did not have books to use as references during later semesters. Worse, it meant a long process to actually acquire the books.

I quickly learned that the custodian of the library was six months short of retirement and cared less if he kept his appointments with me. Several times, I traveled to Berkeley to find he had left early. When I finally met him, the books I needed were not in the library. Instead, I had to go to the SJSU campus bookstore, get the ISBNs of the books, and submit paperwork for the NROTC unit to add them to their library.

After this, the unit ordered the books to be delivered to them. Even after they arrived, the soon-to-be-retired chief failed to make one phone call to let me know I could retrieve them.

More than One Month to Receive Books from NROTC

Books critical to learning were delivered after the opening lecture day. A reasonable person of ordinary prudence would expect to have these books prior to the first day of the lecture. In the first semester, I received my textbooks at the end of the fifth week. By then, I already had a “D” on my first Chemistry test. Chemistry is one of my strongest subjects. I placed second in the Northern California Chemistry championships in high school. In the second semester, I received my books during the four weeks of class. In fact, for many of my first exams, I still had no textbook!

Substantial performance requires the Navy to “in good faith, execute all of the promised terms and conditions of the contract with the exception of minor details that do not materially affect the intent of their agreement.” Failure to provide the promised stipend for books more than materially affected my university experience and my professional learning. Basically, the Department of the Navy did not provide a substantial performance.

Potential remedies included talking with my commanding officer. I did this. He insisted I continue to attend drills. After two more months, I ceased cashing the stipend checks and refused to attend any drills.

In the last weeks, I used the time to elevate my D and F grades to B’s and C’s. I studied and worked in labs unceasingly. Each morning, I rose early. I utilized every hour of open lab time to complete projects. I slept for just 4 hours and thirty minutes each night.

Drop on Request (DOR)

At the end of the year, I executed a DOR, a “Drop on Request” form. As I showed my turnaround to the Marine Corps officer, he simply pointed out that I dropped my Calculus class. True, I had to cut back to 18 semester hours to pass!

Even in the end, the unit leadership lied to me. I had been released from active duty Marine Corps to accept the ROTC scholarship. My commander told me that I had to write a letter requesting an immediate return to active duty. If I did not, I would be in limbo for up to a year, he said. He lied. I later learned that a student in good standing can simply quit ROTC and remain a student. That would have been my best course. However, I knew nothing. I sought no council, either.

My best course would have been to counsel with an advisor on the SJSU campus. And, to then get a total of at least three sessions of advice from people familiar with transiting out of ROTC.

In my youth, the United States Navy and the Department of the Marine Corps took advantage of me. However, it seems the abuse continues. Those who complete their programs and then fulfill their promised consideration, typically a four-year term of service, are forced to continue serving beyond their contract terms.

How Many Years of Your Life Must You Trade for the NROTC Scholarship?

In a letter to the editor of Notre Dame’s The Observer, Jonathan O’Reilly (2006) explains he was told that the Army can keep him until he is 50! The Army told him this after rejecting his resignation letter several times over two years. The same Navy ROTC web page says that the commitment in exchange for the scholarship is a minimum of five years.

That wording, apparently, applies to more than the possibility of an 8-year contract requirement. In O’Reilly’s case, and for others as well, it means you’re done when the military says you are done.

Other Options to ROTC and NROTC

When I received my honorable discharge from the Marines, I moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. I was stunned when I learned the university—and every other school of higher learning—just discounts the GI Bill stipend from a student's need and then funds the remainder of costs with grants and loans.

I was the first one in my family to attend college. Nobody ever told me the school itself would ensure financing to accepted students. I didn't need to join the Marines in order to go to college! The information miffed me. (Still, for the record, I wouldn't trade my Marine Corps experience for college right out of high school.)

Tips on Getting a Scholarship

  • Get yourself a book of scholarships, and make it your job to apply for as many as you can.
  • Write up a few application essays, and send them out.
  • Modify for each particular scholarship's requirements, and apply for as many as you can.
  • Recruit mom or a group of friends. Make a "scholarship application event" with pizza, envelopes, and printers. Groups focus better than isolated individuals.


But, before you sign a contract with the military, understand that they are deceiving you on nearly every issue.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.