With more students worried about paying for college, one beneficiary may be the Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs. ROTC has long recruited undergraduate students by offering them four-year scholarships in exchange for a commitment to train as undergraduates and a promise to serve in the military upon graduation. After seeing declines in enrollments over the past few years, this year has proven to be one of marked increases.
ROTC is split into Army, Air Force and Navy programs. Army ROTC had over 2,000 more students this past academic year than in the one before it, bringing its enrollment total to 30,721 students nationwide, according to ABC News. Air Force ROTC saw about 1,000 more students join its program, with a total enrollment of 13,343. Both represent an 8 percent increase. The Navy program had 5,486 applications for scholarships this past year compared to 4,689 applicants the year before, an increase of 17 percent, according to Todd Willebrand, deputy public affairs officer Naval Service Training Command.
A renewed interest in ROTC -- which parallels a growth in applications for all of the national military academies -- seems easily attributable to a dire economy, but other military personnel, program directors, and ROTC students say that's only part of the picture. "While we no doubt believe the economy has some impact on the decision of students to join NROTC, the program itself is the real selling point," Willebrand said.
Timothy Coolidge, commanding officer and professor of naval sciences at the University of South Carolina, reports that his program has seen increases in the number of students over the past year. He said that the Navy decided it needed more officers four years ago, so it allocated additional funds for scholarships at his school. This may be the case for multiple other colleges and universities around the country, he said.
He stressed that one of the main motivations for people to join in the first place is that they have a connection through friends or family.
"Most all of the students come in having military ties. Whether it's a parent, brother or uncle, they have been touched by the military in some other fashion," he said.
This holds especially true for Kaiti Norman, a rising freshman who will join the Army ROTC program at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania in the fall. ROTC will pay for her entire tuition, as well as room and board. Having a naval officer for a father has led her family to live in military bases across the world, which she says gave her a great respect for those who serve their country.
"Being in the military is the biggest honor you can offer your country, and so many people support you," Norman stated in an e-mail. "My decisions had nothing to do with the economic downturn, because if I didn't get a scholarship, I was going to enlist in the Navy then. So no matter which way I went I wanted the military to be a part of my life."
According to Gary McAllister, human resources administrator for ROTC at Widener, the program has not seen significant increases in interest this year. However, he agreed with Norman's sentiments, saying that 90 percent of the people who join ROTC at Widener do so for patriotic rather than economic reasons.
For Derek Buehler, who will enter the Army ROTC program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the resolve to apply was strengthened by his brother, who graduated from West Point and served in the Army for six years.
"The economic downturn didn't have any effect on my choice, because becoming an officer in the military has been something I've wanted for a long time," Buehler stated in an e-mail. "However, I do know of people applying because they need the money that scholarships offer, so I would assume the state of the economy is having some effect on the number of people applying."
For the first time in the past few years, Minnesota's Naval ROTC program is filled to capacity, said Jonah Shermer, who has been helping out at the Minnesota office since graduating from its Naval ROTC program this spring. He speculated that for many cadets, the scholarships are an important reason for joining, but student need exists no matter what the economic situation.
"I would say that probably half of them join because they couldn't pay for college otherwise," he said. "That's why I joined."
Another reason, he said, could be that enrollment has generally been up since the September 11 attacks. Further, with violence in Iraq now less pronounced than it has been, the threat of signing up to go to war by enrolling in ROTC could be smaller.
Army ROTC at Minnesota has increased steadily over the past four years, according to Ryan Curl, enrollment and scholarship officer for the program. Curl agreed that these could all be valid reasons for heightened interest in the program, but said that enrollment increases may be attributable to the nature of the current crop of college students.
"It's indicative of the generation," Curl said. "This generation grew up working as a team, and the camaraderie of the Army is one aspect of that. They want to do something more than themselves -- that's been a focus of the millenial generation."
Where economic factors are a major reason to join ROTC, it may be that a scholarship merely helps students carry out their preexisting plans.
"I have always wanted to join the service," stated Dan LaJoie, a soon-to-be freshman who is enrolling in Army ROTC at Central Michigan University. "Without the scholarship I would not have been able to afford college and would have ended up enlisting in the Army or Air Force."
But not everyone sees an increase in the rate of student ROTC enrollment as a good thing. Jonathan Williams, a coordinator for the Student Peace Action Network, thinks that ROTC promotes discriminatory practices and diverts funds away from other education purposes.
"I think it has negative implications for the future of our educational system. Higher enrollment rates are somewhat indicative of a larger problem," he said. "11.4 percent of the lower pay grades [in the military] are Latinos, but only 5 percent of the commissioned officer core is Latino. The general pattern in the military -- some people say it's indicative of a lower education success rate."
His reasons for the increase in ROTC enrollment: "If I were to offer speculation, I would say it's a whole host of factors -- scholarships, the war in Iraq, the economy, the war in Afghanistan is heating up even more. The new administration could be part of it."
Whether the economy is playing into the enrollment numbers, whether it's many different factors all converging at once, or whether students are altogether more patriotic than they once were, the increased number of ROTC students inevitably means more officers joining the military. But students seem more than willing to do their duty.
"If they gave me orders to go to Iraq, I would go without complaining," Norman said. "It would be my job and my honor to fight for our country."