WASHINGTON – This is the fourth of an exclusive FOXNews.com daily series that takes a look at the college experience, from how to choose what school and course of study is right for you to finding innovative ways to pay the bills.
Michael Noyes knew his senior year of high school what he wanted out of college. What he wanted was to be in the Army.
Noyes, now 21, will be a senior this fall at the University of Alabama. The Scottsboro, Ala., native plans on graduating next spring with a double-major in nutrition and biological sciences, as well as a minor in military science — the result of his class work in the campus Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, program.
"I love it. If I didn't have this, I don't know what I'd do. I love it," Noyes said during a telephone interview from the Tuscaloosa campus.
Jenna Patterson of Monroe, N.Y. is heading off to college, but to which college, and how she and her family will pay for it, are issues Jenna and her parents have yet to resolve. In the fourth installment of this FOX series, Jenna's dad Joe questions the value of a degree, saying he doesn't think the workforce pays college graduates enough.
The decision to join ROTC is often a financial one, says FinAid.org editor and publisher Mark Kantrowitz. He said the program can often pay full scholarships or books, or a hefty portion of other costs. For instance, the Army ROTC advertises up to $300 for in monthly living allowances freshman cadets, up to $500 per month for cadets in their senior year.
"It's a pretty big lure. For some students it makes the difference between attending college or not," Kantrowitz said.
Noyes is among the thousands of cadets and midshipmen who are part of a steady drumbeat of prospective military officers who have enrolled in ROTC programs across the country. The programs are the main military recruitment tools on college campuses in the Defense Department's continued push to maintain its ranks of officers and decision-makers.
That nearly wasn't so earlier this year, before the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of military recruitment on college campuses. The court decided 8-0 that the federal government is allowed to withhold funding from schools that prevent military recruiters from having the same access provided to other recruiters. Few schools are expected to give up their government funds so the programs appear to be safe for now.
Defense officials said they did not change their efforts in the months before the court ruled in their favor, and no resulting changes have been planned since the military's court victory.
So as students consider higher education, and even once they enroll in college, they will be exposed to the prospect of military service packaged under the headings of patriotic service, stable career opportunities and enticing financial benefits. With that in mind, observers say both students and their parents need to be aware of the potential costs, which include the risk of injury and death as well as lifestyle and financial restrictions.
Targeting Students for Service
Navy Capt. Chris Arendt, deputy director of the Defense Department's recruitment policy office, said recruiting at the college level goes beyond ROTC to include job-fair informational efforts, the military academies and Officer Candidate School, which is a fast-track option for college students who are close to graduating, have graduated or have begun civilian careers. Still, ROTC is the single largest effort in college-level recruiting.
In the Fall 2005 semester, 272 campuses hosted Army ROTC programs; 59 carried Navy and Marine programs; and 144 had Air Force programs. Other schools had partnerships where a cadet could enroll at a non-host campus and participate in a program at another institution.
"What we're looking for is the opportunity to get our message out there so that all the students in America are aware of what their opportunities are besides just the private sector. Really, we'd be looking for candidates in any of the colleges and universities out there [who] have [military] service as their objective for their life's work," Arendt said.
Arendt said that most efforts aimed at recruitment before college target those who would join the enlisted forces — generally ground forces and supporting roles. Enlisted forces make up about 83 percent of the overall active duty force.
College-level recruitment is focused generally on recruiting officers, who comprise about 17 percent of the force and hold decision-making and leadership roles as well as administrative support positions for commanding officers.
Entering their respective services as officers can afford candidates some privileges over enlisted members, and positions them for leadership and decision-making roles, sometimes all the way to the top ranks.
With that end in mind, total enrollment in all ROTC categories in fiscal year 2004, which ended Sept. 30, 2004, was 52,133, according to the most recent available data provided by the Defense Department. Army ROTC enrollment that year was 39,618; combined Navy and Marine enrollment was 6,146; and Air Force enrollment was 16,369.
But the number of newly commissioned officers coming out of those programs frequently fluctuates. According to Defense Department figures, in fiscal year 2002 the Army commissioned 5,948 recruits out of all its programs: Officer Candidate School, West Point and elsewhere. Of that total, 2,437 came from ROTC programs.
In the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2005, annual Army ROTC officer production rose to 2,706. But projections call for a decrease to between 2,100 and 2,400 officers per year through 2008.
As for the Navy, it commissioned 1,017 officers from ROTC programs in fiscal year 2002. In 2008 it expects to commission 800 ROTC graduates. The Marines commissioned 164 ROTC graduates in 2002; in 2008 it plans to commission 225 ROTC recruits.
The Air Force has the most drastic planned changes in officer recruiting. In 2002, the Air Force commissioned 7,191 officers, but in 2008, it expects to commission 2,683 fewer officers. The ROTC numbers reflect that shift, from 2,518 officers commissioned in 2002, down to 2,089 expected in 2008.
A candidate who completes ROTC and receives a commission generally starts out as the lowest-ranked officer, for instance, a second lieutenant in the Army. The most common roles for that rank is platoon leader or administrative support for a commanding officer, said Army Maj. Jeff Leopold, who teaches military science at the University of Alabama.
The military also looks to higher-education institutions for its more training-intensive jobs, such as doctors and lawyers, which are in high demand right now, said Defense Department spokeswoman Lt. Col Ellen Krenke. Arendt noted that engineers are also desirable as technology development continues to stress the job market.
The data provided by the military show that in 2008, the Armed Forces hope to turn more than 3,000 doctors and lawyers into military officers.
Supreme Test of On-Campus Recruiting
Though the military's officers are generally college graduates, recruiters have not always been welcome on campus. Conflict between academia and military recruiting reached the nation's highest court last December when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights.
The case focused on a complaint by two different associations of law school faculty members and staff, and three individual law school students who claimed they were harmed by military recruiting policies.
FAIR, a group consisting of leading law schools and their faculties, said the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents openly gay servicemen and women from joining the military violated university equal employment opportunity policies. They also argued that complying with the 1994 Solomon Amendment, which pegged federal funding to recruiter access, violated First Amendment rights to free speech.
Boston University law student Tim Famulare was president of the school's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender law student group last spring. He said he had two uncles who served in Vietnam, a grandfather who fought in World War II and he lost another relative in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Because of his family history, he had thought seriously about a military career even before he started law school in 2004. In law school, financial assistance that can pay for most of a costly legal career made it even more enticing. But because he's openly gay, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy forced him to decide otherwise.
"For me, it takes out a potential career opportunity," Famulare said.
He said the financial assistance and prestigious legal careers available because of the military make it a great career opportunity, but for now, the Supreme Court's decision means that the military can openly discriminate based on sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, he recommends most students consider military service as an option.
"I would say, generally, to definitely consider it. I know it has a lot of benefits," he said, but "I think that if you are a gay or lesbian student, I would think twice if that is long-term the kind of life you can live [because] of the secrecy it requires."
Famulare said he kept his homosexuality secret from his family until he was 25.
"I know the angst and the daily stress that that [secrecy] causes. I don't think that, mentally, a person who is dealing with that and trying to [live with] that fear [of being caught] at all times could be an effective soldier. It's not something that is asked of any straight solder or service member," Famulare said.
Sue Clark, a student at Chicago-Kent College of Law who was chapter president last year of her campus LGBT student group, said that military service is a viable option for several of her classmates, but schools should not have to bend their non-discrimination policies for the military.
"I believe that it's basically coercion by the government. We have to exempt an employer who discriminates in order to not lose funding, whereas ... if a private employer said they were openly discriminatory, they would be banned from campus, and that would be it," Clark said.
Washington, D.C.-based attorney Gary Harris worked on a friend-of-the-court brief that was submitted along with the FAIR case to the high court. The brief, on behalf of Columbia University School of Law faculty, argued that the Solomon Amendment only required equal treatment of the military, not equal outcomes.
That being the case, if a university bars a shoe manufacturer because of discriminatory policies against gays, it can bar the military for similar policies, Harris argued.
Harris said the court's decision ruled in favor of equal outcomes. So if a shoe manufacturer is able to get a room on campus to recruit for job candidates, the military also should be able to get the same treatment.
With six months behind him since the Supreme Court's decision, Harris declined to say whether he thought the military's recruiting policy should be changed, but suggested that one should make an educated decision about one's career.
"Particularly with undergrads, they need to come to college with open minds on military recruiting — and just about everything else. That's the purpose of going to college, is to explore ideas and help each individual become finer people and citizens," Harris said.
Arendt, the Pentagon's recruiting policy official, said the right to recruit on campus is a valuable one for the military.
"Allowing recruiters on to college campuses is more than just trying to fill our ranks. I think it's fair that we expect for college students to make informed decisions about their careers, and I think it's important to afford them" the same access available in the private sector so they do "not miss opportunities," Arendt said.
To Join or Not to Join
The decision for students to join the military can be a complex one that involves weighing the desire to serve, a sense of patriotic duty, concern over one's safety, a modest salary and oftentimes moving one's family from base to base, among other factors.
The steadily rising casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan remind many of the physical risks associated with being in the direct line of fire. Total U.S. military deaths from Operation Iraqi Freedom through Aug. 10 were 2,591, according to the Pentagon. Another 320 American deaths occurred in Operation Enduring Freedom, the ongoing action related to Afghanistan, through the same date.
Publicly available databases show that while the vast majority of casualties are enlisted soldiers and sailors, college-educated officers are not immune from injury or death.
Because of the risks, parents often play a heavy factor in whether a student decides to join the military. Arendt called on parents to encourage their children if they're considering national service, though he understands why many parents do not follow that advice.
James Boyle, president of the Arlington, Va.-based College Parents of America, said he believes most parents understand the military's right to recruit on campus, and it's just one of the many matters parents should discuss with their children before they head off to college.
"The same parents who are worried about whether their child has a safe route to an evening class to their place of residence [are] likely to be extremely worried about whether that child is going to sign up to a career that might take them in harm's way in a conflict overseas," Boyle said
"I'm much more concerned about the credit card marketers on campus than military recruiters," he added.
Noyes, the Alabama cadet who also is the student body's vice president of academic affairs, said his parents, who were Navy officers, discouraged him from joining the Army because of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm still their son," he said to explain their concerns over safety. In the near future, his chances of seeing combat are slim, but he says, "I wouldn't have a problem with it if I did."
Noyes said he intends to get his officer commission next summer, then enroll in a master's program that would allow him to become a military nutritionist. Once he's done with that, he said he thinks he will apply for the Army Rangers, who now have a program that brings a nutritionist to all deployments. If he succeeds in that, he would have a high likelihood of being placed on a battlefield.
Noyes said he weighed a number of factors before choosing his path. But his patriotic, financial, career and scholastic goals all seemed to point in one direction.
"I had noticed, as far as what the Army paid ... and the training I received, and lifestyle I would have lived is just much, much better than anything" available in civilian life, he said. "And if I can help my country, serve my country while doing what I want, that's amazing to me."
Kantrowitz, however, warned that those who take money to pay for school, but later decide they do not want to join the military, could end up owing a hefty amount.
Kantrowitz said his own brother had to repay about $20,000 in scholarship money after backing out of a military commitment.
"You should be pretty certain if you're going to make the commitment that you definitely want to make this your career," he said.
On the other hand, he said students do have some time to make their decision. Freshman-level ROTC courses gives students exposure to the military, but they do not need to commit to the program immediately.
"Clearly, a 17 year old doesn't really know what they want to do with their life, but for some people, the military can also provide them with some direction," Kantrowitz said.
Noyes disagrees, having decided almost four years ago that his career goals lie in the military.
He said the additional course work, mandatory physical training and ability to balance his time between student government and his fraternity are challenges, but welcome ones.
"It's made my college career absolutely amazing," Noyes said. "It's not easy, but it's great."