If you have yet to receive an undergraduate education, and you are interested in commissioning as an officer in the Military, there are multiple programs at your disposal to earn your bachelor’s degree for free.
Service Academies will pay full tuition, board, books, and all other fees in exchange for an active duty service commitment (5-8+ years). 1,200+ Colleges nationwide host a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) unit, which can offer merit-based scholarships that can cover all or some of your tuition and fees. Those attending Officer Candidate School (OSC) won’t earn any scholarships, but they will be paid approximately $2,600 per month while attending the training.
Military Education Benefits for Military Officers
Paths to Becoming a Military Officer
In order to commission as an officer in the military, you must possess two things:
- A Bachelor’s Degree
- A Commision
Simple enough right?
While the vast majority of people are familiar with 4-year degrees, few understand the different pathways to earn a commission, and how much financial assistance each option offers.
It is worth reiterating that as a finance-centered site I will keep the conversation centered around the financial assistance each commissioning source offers, and not which one is ‘best’.
At the end of the day, each program will graduate good and bad military officers. Your performance as an officer will depend on the effort you put in, and not the institution you come from, so in no way should you correlate the amount of financial assistance to the prestige of the program.
Service academies are government 4-year college programs where your military training and college education are combined.
When compared to ROTC and OCS, the service academies will provide the largest financial benefit. If accepted into a service academy, the government will pay your entire tuition fees, living costs, books, flights to-and-from training, and will pay you a monthly stipend (paycheck) anywhere between ($150-$500+) at the end of each month.
However, the abundance of financial assistance also comes at a cost.
While these programs offer free education, you will have drastically less freedom than your ROTC and OCS counterparts. From a nightly curfew, limited weekend availability, and daily formations, you will be forced to be in a quasi-military environment nearly 24/7 throughout the four years.
For some students, the structured military environment is their desired lifestyle, but others may find the environment suffocating. As a graduate of the US Naval Academy, I personally loved my time at USNA, however, no one should feel bad if they decide a service academy lifestyle isn’t for them.
Each of the four service academies’ admissions/academics information is listed below. Keep in mind I am choosing to leave out the US Merchant Marine Academy, as not all graduates will commission as officers in the DOD, and the school does have tuition, unlike the others.
United States Naval Academy (USNA)
Located in Annapolis, Maryland. The United States Naval Academy graduates roughly 1,000+ Navy and Marine Corps officers each year.
- USNA offers 26 majors
- There is a 8:1 student to faculty ratio
- 92% of those accecpted graduate
- Acceptance is competitive with an 8% acceptance rate
United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)
- USAFA offers 28 majors
- There is a 6:1 student to faculty ratio
- 85% of those accecpted graduate
- Acceptance is competitive with an 11% acceptance rate
United States Military Academy (West Point)
Located in West Point, New York, The United States Military Academy graduates roughly 1,000 Army officers each year.
- USMA offers 56 majors
- There is a 7:1 student to faculty ratio
- 85% of those accecpted graduate
- Acceptance is very selective with an 12% acceptance rate
United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA)
Located in New London, Connecticut, The United States Coast Guard Academy graduates roughly 200 Coast Guard officers each year.
- USCGA offers 8 majors
- There is a 7:1 student to faculty ratio
- 89% of those accecpted graduate
- Acceptance is very selective with an 21% acceptance rate
Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)
ROTC is a program offered at over 1,700+ colleges nationwide that provides the necessary training in order to commission officers upon graduation.
ROTC students have the chance to compete for merit-based scholarships that can cover all (or part of) school tuition, textbooks, and fees, in exchange for an Active Duty service commitment upon graduation. The scholarships vary in years of coverage from 2 year to 4-year scholarships and are given based on student qualifications plus the needs of the military.
Overall, ROTC offers an opportunity to receive financial assistance, while maintaining the flexibility and freedom of a normal college experience. If you learn you want to commission as an officer in high school, or during the first part of college, but have no interest in a strict service academy environment, ROTC is an awesome choice.
Officer Candidate School (OCS)
Officer Candidate School (OCS) is an opportunity to take civilians, or previously enlisted personnel, through the necessary training to commission officers.
The training differs greatly from Service Academies and ROTC as it is packed into 9-17 weeks rather than spreading out over multiple years. The training also occurs after one has already obtained a bachelor’s degree, rather than being taught alongside your undergraduate education. This means people who learn they want to become an officer after finishing college still have the opportunity.
While OCS does not offer any education benefits like loan reduction/repayment, they will pay you at minimum E-5 pay ($2,610/month) throughout training, or a higher rank if you were enlisted above E-5 upon entering.
There are a total of five different Officer Candidate School’s available:
- United States Army: located in Fort Benning, Georgia (12-weeks)
- United States Marine Corps: located in Quantico, Virginia (two 6-week sessions, or one 10-week session)
- United States Navy: located in Newport, Rhode Island (13-weeks)
- United States Air Force: located in Montgomery, Alabama (9-weeks)
- United States Coast Guard: located in New London, Connecticut (17-weeks)
Picking the Right Choice for You
Each of the commissioning sources has its’ own pros and cons. Generally speaking, below are the types of individuals who should thrive in each commissioning source.
Service Academies: You are someone who knows that you want to commission as an officer, and would like to begin a 24/7 military lifestyle as soon as possible. You are either a high school junior/senior, an enlisted service member, or someone not too far removed from high school (since the age cap for incoming freshmen is 23 years old.) While you understand that your freedom will be greatly restricted, it is worth it to you to be surrounded by others following the same path. You will receive essentially an ‘all-expenses-paid degree’, with a 5-8+ year service commitment.
ROTC: While you do know you want to be an officer, you would still like to have a normal college experience that compliments the military. This gives you the flexibility to choose from thousands of schools to pick from across the nation, and ultimately remain in your degree program even if you later decide to drop ROTC. You have the ability to receive 2-4 year merit-based scholarships that will cover some or all of your tuition.
OCS: You are someone who learned you wanted to serve as an officer after you had already received your degree. You may be a fresh college graduate looking for a job, an individual who is looking for a career change, or a current enlisted member looking to transition to the dark side.
For the majority of individuals, if you know you want to become an officer before attending college, Service Academies & ROTC make the most financial sense. One exception to this would be if your dream school doesn’t have an ROTC unit (or an ROTC unit for your intended branch), or you simply do not wish to receive military training at the same time as your college education.
Making the choice to pursue a career as an officer in the military is not an easy one, but those who consider it should be well aware of all the financial assistance available to them. Also, keep in mind that it is not just officer candidates that have the potential to get financial assistance towards their education, active duty service members as well as their spouses will also find themselves eligible!