Why Conservatives Should Oppose ROTC

I do not consider myself a conservative, at least not in the usual sense. I strongly identify with the antiwar movement, for example. But I agree with some principles that conservatives espouse. Let’s start with a few principles I associate with conservatism:

  1. Taxpayer money should not be wasted.
  2. Government should not control people’s choices unnecessarily.

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) pays scholarships for undergraduates in exchange for training and a commitment to pursue a commission as an officer. In addition to a four-year degree, ROTC students get training from military instructors. Most of the costs of ROTC training are borne by the Federal Government, in addition to the cost of providing scholarships.

Studies by the Congressional Budget Office in 1990 and at the Navy Supply Corps School in 2004 compared the costs to graduate and commission an officer from ROTC versus two other possible commissioning sources: a service academy and an Officer Candidate School (OCS). OCSes exist for each branch of the military, and make it possible for degree holders to become commissioned officers after 10-16 weeks of training after graduation from college. Stanford graduates are eligible to attend an OCS. Therefore a Stanford undergraduate does not have to go through ROTC to become a commissioned officer.

Both of these studies show that OCSes are significantly cheaper for the government than either the service academies or ROTC. Does spending more for ROTC produce significantly better officers? This question has also been studied, and the answer is no. The CBO study did not find major differences across the three commissioning sources in either performance or retention of officers, and later studies also found small or mixed differences between ROTC- and OCS- trained officers.

From these data, it appears that the military would spend less money training officers, with no sizable loss in officer quality or retention, if it trained all of them in OCSes, at least after the initial increase in capacity for these schools. Since ROTC training costs more than OCSes even without a scholarship, the government could also pay for the same number of general-purpose undergraduate scholarships as ROTC currently provides, on top of OCS training for all of those currently trained in ROTC, and it would still save money. And these scholarships could all be need-based, unlike ROTC scholarships, giving more students the opportunity to attend college. Thus a good case can be made that ROTC is wasting taxpayer money, violating conservative principle #1 above.

An ROTC scholarship comes with many strings attached for the student who has one. Scholarships generally require approval of a student’s major before money is awarded (with changes also requiring approval), and may restrict the recipient to a narrower range of majors than would otherwise be available to them. Students are often restricted in their summer activities as well. After one or two years (depending on the branch), ROTC scholars must commit to between four and eight years in the military following graduation, thus eliminating or significantly delaying the freedom to pursue other career options.

The existence of OCSes shows that restricting the freedom of undergraduates in this way is unnecessary. Students could wait until after they graduate, go to an OCS, and receive a commission. Thus, their decisions about both their majors and their careers could be made later, at the same time as their fellow students, and without limiting other options. Competition to get into an OCS appears to have increased recently, so that ROTC may currently provide a surer path to a commission, but this is a function of priorities among commissioning sources and is not immutable from a policy standpoint.

We can compare ROTC as it presently exists with an alternative in which less government money is spent, providing the same number of scholarships and the same number of opportunities to become a military officer, without requiring premature commitments to majors and a career by undergraduates. ROTC uses the power of the government to restrict student choices unnecessarily, and it therefore violates conservative principle #2.

All this suggests at least some elements of a policy position for Stanford: (a) that ROTC programs be replaced by Officer Candidate Schools in all of the branches; and (b) that money which is currently allocated to ROTC scholarships be reallocated to need-based, general-purpose grant aid for undergraduates.

One of the things I have always admired about some conservatives is their willingness to rethink what it means to be conservative. A discussion of ROTC’s overall justifiability is one good occasion for doing that, as is a discussion of the rest of the military budget.

Todd Davies ’84 is Associate Director of and Lecturer in the Symbolic Systems program. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Symbolic Systems program.

Note: This is a shortened version of an article that is posted on the Web at http://www.stanford.edu/group/antiwar/conservatism-and-rotc.html. Please visit the full article for references and a more extended argument than space permits here.

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