ROTC scholarship provides benefits, but demands commitment

Students shouldn't join ROTC just for financial benefits, officers say

When Garrett Stone, a sophomore Army ROTC cadet, graduates, he knows he’ll have a job in the US Army.

“If you are looking for money, it’s definitely a viable alternative,” said Stone, a history major. “ROTC gives you the opportunity to build skills, and you have a job waiting for you.”

With a struggling United States economy, an Army or Air Force ROTC scholarship offers a variety of financial incentives for young adults seeking a college education. Both ROTC programs at Syracuse University have reported increased interest from high school students as well as current SU students looking for financial help.
However, officials and current cadets warn that a commitment to service must come before financial interests when students look to ROTC because of the rigors of the programs.

Daniel Berry, a sophomore public health major and Army ROTC cadet, said that the financial assistance that comes with an ROTC scholarship definitely helped his decision to join.

“It wasn’t crucial, but it was definitely a positive factor, and I would obviously never turn down the money,” Berry said.

Berry said his Army ROTC scholarship covers his full tuition and room and board at SU, as well as $600 a semester to cover the cost of books and other supplies.

The benefits and financial opportunities in joining the Air Force ROTC work differently, according to Lt. Col. Suzann Hensley, head of the Air Force ROTC program at SU. Air Force scholarships are based completely on merit, and are categorized by type, according to Hensley and ROTC informational materials. For example, a Type-1 scholarship awards full tuition and fees, and $900 a year for textbooks. None of the Air Force scholarships, though, pay for room and board, and some scholarships are based on participation in majors or fields that the Air Force needs.

“If you’re an engineering major or something like that, for example, the Air Force can offer you money based on that, what they need basically,” Hensley said.
However, financial benefits come with a significant time commitment, both during school and after graduation.

“There is something to do pretty much everyday of the week for ROTC,” Berry said.

According to Berry, the average Army ROTC cadet has to wake up at 5 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for physical training sessions that last until 7:30 a.m. In addition, cadets carry a regular class load of at least 12 credits each semester, Berry said.

Lt. Col. Susan Hardwick, the head of the Army ROTC program at SU, said that Army cadets also have other significant time commitments. According to Hardwick, cadets must attend a two-hour leadership lab each week and an 80-minute, no-credit ROTC class. They also are required to perform five hours of community service, and they have a major field exercise once a semester. In addition, cadets must attend a five-week leadership training program known as “Warrior Forge” during the summer between their sophomore and junior years, according to the ROTC Web site,

 Hardwick said that for some cadets in the past who simply sought the financial benefits of the program, the commitment was too much.

“The commitment level just wasn’t worth it in the end and they ended up dropping out,” Hardwick said.

The most significant and time-consuming commitment, though, comes after graduation. For Army cadets, the first four years after graduation are spent on active duty, where the cadet most likely will serve as a platoon leader for about 40 men and women, according to Hardwick. Another four are spent on IRR, or Individual Ready Reserve. These IRR soldiers comprise a portion of the Army Reserves and can be called into duty should the Army require their services.

Maj. Eric Schaertl, assistant professor of military science and admissions officer at SU, estimates that 15 percent of IRR soldiers get called into active duty.
“Put it this way, if you have Arabic speaking skills, then you’re getting called in,” Schaertl said.

The commitments for Air Force ROTC cadets are different, but still quite stringent, according to Lt. Col. Hensley. She said that freshman and sophomore Air Force cadets have two days a week of physical training for a total of two hours, a one-credit academic course on the Air Force and a 90-minute leadership lab. In addition, Air Force cadets must report the summer before their senior year for a mandatory four-week field training session. The purpose is to prepare cadets for leadership roles in their junior and senior years, according to Air Force ROTC informational materials.

After graduation, Air Force cadets have a variety of options, according to Hensley. If a cadet wishes to become a full-time pilot, the commitment is 10 years, for example. The normal commitment, though, is four years.

Both Hensley and Hardwick emphasized that, as the cadets grow in rank, their responsibilities increase.

“For juniors and seniors, they become commanders, and their academic and leadership responsibilities increase as well,” Hensley said.

Yet the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq could dissuade students from joining, Schaertl said.

Berry, the Army ROTC cadet, warned that students should think long and hard before making a commitment to an ROTC program.

“Absolutely you shouldn’t join if finance is the only reason. You have to be the right kind of person for it,” Berry said. “A lot of people work really hard to get in, and people shouldn’t just join so they can get tuition paid and sit around all day. If you’re driven, it’s a good idea, as long as you understand the commitment. I probably would have done it without the money being involved.”

Commitments, however, have been increasing the past three years both at SU and in the entire ROTC program in Central New York.

Syracuse University acts as the host school for all of Central New York’s ROTC programs at neighboring universities. In the past, ROTC students at other schools would have to commute frequently to SU to take the required classes for the program. Now, however, students may take ROTC classes at SU, Colgate University or Utica College.

Currently, there are 16 schools participating in the Central NY Army ROTC program, according to the Web site. Schaertl said that figure will rise to 18 after SUNY Upstate Medical University and the New York Chiropractic College are added. A total of 10 schools participate in the Air Force’s program, according to its Web site.

Total scholarship enrollment in the ROTC program has risen from 27 cadets to 78 cadets from 2006 to February 2009. Schaertl said he believes that figure will reach 87 total scholarships by mid-April.

Each college within the Army ROTC program is given 23 scholarships each year to award to freshman cadets, and each school is given a quota to fill for contracts each year. Schools that reach their quotas are encouraged to pick up the slack for schools that do not. SU’s ROTC program has consistently met or exceeded its quota, and the Army has subsequently responded by raising it.  By 2012, the university will need to sign 24, Schaertl said.

According to Hardwick, the school gave out only 12 Army ROTC scholarships out of the available 23 for the 2008-09 school year. Currently, though, SU is on track to meet or exceed its quota of 16 contracts for the 2009-10 school year, according to Hardwick.
Although no numbers are available to gauge interest, Hardwick said there are general indicators of higher interest.

“We have a lot more current student walk-ins to our office, more phone calls, and more high school students are coming up to our booth at college fairs asking about the program,” Hardwick said.

The higher demand for scholarships will also enable the program to field higher quality cadets.

“Because we’re probably going to have demand exceeding the number of scholarships, we’re going to be able to be choosier and, yes, we’ll have higher quality cadets,” Hardwick said.

Schaertl credits a change in Army philosophy, as well as increased recruiting efforts from ROTC officials and cadets, for the program’s recent success in drawing in more commitments.

“The Army has put the money in our hands more than they used to,” he said. “The onus is on us now to dole out the scholarships, more so than it used to be in the past. Add to that, we’ve increased our presence at local career fairs, and our cadets are doing a lot more recently to attract likeminded individuals.”

Michele Weinstein, a sophomore exercise science major enrolled in the Army ROTC program, said she feels the financial incentives play a more important role than recruiting techniques in a time of economic crisis.

“As the (economic) situation gets worse, I think more and more students will look for financial aid, with the ROTC as an option,” Weinstein said.

Air Force scholarships are a bit harder to quantify, according to Hensley. Since the Air Force gives a number of different types of scholarships, including ones based on academics, getting a definite number is difficult, said Hensley. But she said the Air Force probably will award more money at SU.

“We’ve seen increased interest from walk-ins, students on campus, through phone calls and e-mail, so there’s definitely been more interest,” Hensley said. “We’ll probably end up giving out more scholarships than in the past.”

Nationally, an effort is being made by the Obama administration to combat the downturn in available funds for students. President Barack Obama outlined a radical overhaul of the government’s student lending policy in his recent budget proposal. Under the new provision, the government will no longer support federally guaranteed student loans made by banks and private companies, instead opting to lend directly to students in need, according to the White House Web site,

The new program will not take effect until 2010, giving the Education Department time to prepare for the new task of lending directly to students, according to the White House Web site. In the interim, students in need may look toward other avenues for funding, such as ROTC.

ROTC cadet Stone said, “If things get worse for financial aid and schools keep getting more expensive, we are definitely going to see an increase in the competition for ROTC scholarships. I think we already have.”
Even so, Schaertl expressed caution for those solely interested in ROTC for financial reasons.

“This program, and the Army in general, is not for everyone,” he said. “First and foremost, you have to possess the desire to serve your country because that’s really what this is all about. These kids are going to leave here and have a commitment to the United States Military.  But if you want to serve, then a free education only sweetens the deal.”

Hensley expressed similar sentiments about students looking to enter the Air Force.

“If you enter the ROTC program, and you find you don’t like it, boy are you going to be unhappy when it comes time for active duty,” Hensley said. “If your interest in the military part of the deal is less than the financial part of it, you should probably find something else.”

This article appeared as part of the Student Voice special project, Tough Choices, Tough Times, originally published in April 2009.


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