Leadership, character and community service are the core tenets of high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, or JROTC. Those values are at the heart of the JROTC Cadet Creed that emphasizes working to better the cadet’s family, school and country.
The goal of JROTC programs, experts say, is good citizenship.
“Students get a sense of home, a greater sense of family, of unity,” says retired Navy Capt. James Boyer, senior naval science officer and recently retired Navy JROTC instructor at Spring High School in Texas. Students learn the values of citizenship, he says, by doing the right thing daily.
What Is JROTC?
The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard each operate their own versions of the program for high school students. According to a Congressional Research Service report, 552,990 students were active in 3,432 units across the U.S. and Department of Defense schools overseas in fiscal year 2020.
High school students and their parents should consider these aspects of JROTC before enrolling in a program.
There Is No Military Obligation for JROTC Cadets
Students who participate in JROTC are not required to join the military after high school, and the program is not a military preparation class.
“That is not the mission of JROTC at all; the mission is to prepare children to become better citizens,” says retired Maj. Trina Tilque, an Army JROTC instructor at Statesville High School in North Carolina.
But as the Air Force JROTC website notes, the program is regulated by the military and participation may improve rank upon enlisting.
Only about 20% of all JROTC participants go on to join the military, according to Col. Steve M. Smith, director of the U.S. Army JROTC, who adds that JROTC emphasizes “health, physical education, ethics (and) financial responsibility.”
JROTC programs are taught by retired service members, who Smith says undergo extensive background checks and classroom management training. And while JROTC instructors are full-time school employees, the military shares costs with the school to help pay the instructors to provide program leadership.
Coursework includes military history and customs — which is typically branch-specific — and students are required to wear a uniform that mirrors what military personnel wear in their respective branches.
“Typically, in most cases, they are going to probably wear (the uniform) once a week for a full day at school and receive a grade for proper wear,” Boyer says. Outside of the classroom, he adds, students are expected to wear uniforms to JROTC events.
Students also partake in physical fitness training, drill instruction, academic competitions and other activities.
“Each unit is slightly different, but the physical fitness for us, we’re going to go out and do some general exercises and calisthenics,” Boyer says. Marching drills are also incorporated, which he says help students understand how to operate as a group.
JROTC Teaches Life Skills and Leadership
In a JROTC class, students can build skills such as leadership, self-confidence and discipline — qualities that are necessary to thrive in any career. Personal skills are also emphasized: health, nutrition and financial management.
Students interested in joining should meet with their school counselor, Smith says.
The Marine Corps JROTC website declares that its program can “motivate students to learn, foster a disciplined and constructive learning environment, (and) instill essential skills like time organization, responsibility, goal setting, and teamwork.”
Students also have the chance to participate in projects, taking charge of programs in the school and community.
“There are so many things we do with community service,” Boyer says. “There are leadership roles.”
Smith notes the community service component may vary significantly by unit, with some cleaning up local parks, working in homeless shelters, assisting the elderly, volunteering in food banks or other efforts.
Student cadets are assigned ranks that correlate with the hierarchy of the respective military branch affiliated with that JROTC unit. To be promoted, a cadet must gain knowledge as he or she progresses through the program and demonstrates practical skills and leadership.
“The expectation is that when you attain this rank you should be able to help instruct those folks who are a lower rank, so you’re instructing and helping them to move up that rank structure,” Boyer explains, noting that his Navy JROTC cadets start with a rank of Ensign 1.
JROTC Can Prepare Students for Life After High School
According to the report: “Studies that examined academic outcomes found consistently positive associations between grade point average (GPA) and JROTC participation. JROTC participation was also consistently associated with lower dropout rates and improved attendance.”
Smith notes that JROTC programs are frequently in schools with large low-income populations or at-risk youth. He notes program participation is highly diverse across lines of race, ethnicity and gender.
Looking at nonacademic benefits, Rand reported that interviewees said JROTC provides students with a sense of community, particularly those not involved in other activities. There are also opportunities to compete for JROTC scholarships and attend service academies.
Boyer says the students in his large program have seen millions of dollars in educational benefits over the years through the scholarship component. He also feels that JROTC is viewed favorably by college admissions officers, to whom he frequently sends letters of recommendation.
Boyer encourages students to step forward and become a JROTC cadet. Who is a good candidate? In his eyes, any student.
“Everyone has something to contribute,” Boyer says.
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Update 05/07/21: This article has been updated with new information.