Nationwide enrollment in the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps has slipped more than 16 percent over the past two school years, leaving the program, which trains and commissions more than six of every 10 new Army officers each year, with its fewest participants in nearly a decade.
The decline includes a drop of 10 percent from the 2003-04 school year to the term ending this spring. According to the Army's Cadet Command at Fort Monroe, Va., which supervises ROTC, 26,566 students are enrolled in the program now, down from 29,618 last year and 31,765 in 2002-03, the first full school year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Pre-Sept. 11 enrollments were also higher than they are now.
Ohio State University Army ROTC cadet Nicole Watkins pulls herself along an obstacle course during training in 2003, when enrollment was higher.
(Will Shilling -- AP)
At the same time, the number of officers commissioned through the program has been increasing, as students who joined ROTC three and four years ago rise to their senior year. But that increase has occurred as the Army has ridden the bubble of larger incoming classes from the beginning of the decade. Army and ROTC officials are concerned that flagging enrollments could soon strain the program's ability to meet its annual quotas for commissioned officers.
While it is unclear precisely why enrollments have dropped, Army officials and defense experts say the decline probably mirrors the problems the Army has had recruiting generally, as some potential recruits fear they will be sent into a war zone after earning their second-lieutenant bar at graduation. Some ROTC programs, such as the one at the University of New Hampshire, have seen more than 80 percent of their graduates fight in Afghanistan or Iraq over the past few years, and the Army's increasing need for young, capable officers has been drawing more ROTC graduates into the fighting ranks.
Army brass say their focus on officer recruitment is not strictly on the numbers of those enrolled, but rather on recruiting better-qualified cadets who are more likely to stay in the program and receive a commission. Maj. Gen. Alan W. Thrasher, who leads the Army Cadet Command, said the issue is "quality over quantity."
"It is a balancing act, that we want to make sure we're bringing in adequate numbers so that at the end of the day we'll be able to make our mission," Thrasher said in a recent interview. "We're always looking at our drop, but we also look at our ability to increase our retention. If we have a huge enrollment number, a large percentage will never make it past a year. . . . At the end of the day, we want to commission only top-quality officers."
Last year, the Army ROTC significantly exceeded the Army's request for 3,900 new officers. Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, commissions coming out of Army ROTC have grown from 3,308 in 2001 to 4,408 in 2004 -- an increase of 33.3 percent.
The drop in enrollment, however, concerns some campus recruiters because it could mean a deficit in years to come. ROTC factors in a fair amount of attrition when projecting how many recruits will make it to a commission at the end of their senior year. Non-scholarship students who join as freshmen and sophomores are not obligated to stay with the program; those who remain as juniors and seniors must sign contracts to join the Army upon graduation.
Edwin Dorn, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said defense officials should have increased their recruiting efforts two years ago.
"During Vietnam, the services lost a large number of very good but very disgruntled junior officers, and it took many years to recover," Dorn said. "The services may be creating a problem that will be with them for another generation if they don't solve the officer recruiting problem. You can't go out and hire a bunch of majors; you have to have commissioned a group of second lieutenants years earlier."
According to the Army, about 38,000 current officers were commissioned through ROTC as of last year, and more than 80 percent of them serve as majors or lower-ranking officers. ROTC graduates account for 56 percent of the more than 68,000 officers on active duty.
The Navy ROTC and Air Force ROTC programs have also experienced declines in enrollment since the surges after Sept. 11, 2001, but both programs' enrollments are larger than before the terrorist attacks. Air Force ROTC has slipped 10 percent since the 2002-03 school year -- when there was a decade-long high of 17,513 students -- but its current enrollment of 15,793 is 10 percent higher than that for the 2001-02 school year. Navy ROTC fell 1.4 percent over the past two school years.
Retired Lt. Col. Marian R. Hansen Kaucheck, recruiting operations officer at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Battalion, said her unit will commission nearly double its quota this year but that next year might not look so good. She said that to commission 20 officers into the Army, she might need 50 to 60 people enrolled at the start, figuring that nearly two-thirds of enrollees will leave the program or not meet physical requirements for a commission.
"The bottom line is, if you don't have enough enrolled in the basic course to allow for normal progression or normal attrition, if you don't start at the beginning, it's going to be hard to be successful," Hansen Kaucheck said. "For me, I understand the numbers are getting harder, which means I have to be very creative in reaching out and touching more students."
At the University of Oklahoma's Sooner Battalion, 1st Lt. Brian Lusty said ROTC recruiting has seen "a really strange couple of years." In early 2002, enrollment increased 200 percent; Lusty, a member of the Oklahoma Army National Guard, said he "looked like a recruiting stud." Then he deployed to Iraq, and upon his return, a large percentage of his recruits had fallen out of the program.
"As the war has drawn out, the numbers have gone down," Lusty said. "Parents are kind of pushing their children away from ROTC."
Maj. Martin Klein, an Army ROTC enrollment officer at Georgetown University, said his battalion, which also serves four other colleges in the District, is seeing fewer prospective cadets come through the doors. But he said those who do show up are more dedicated to serving and more likely to reach a commission. Klein said he spends half his time talking to parents about ROTC, dispelling myths, promoting opportunities available to their children and discussing the chances of serving in combat.
"What I've found is those students who are interested in our program will come to us, talk to us, engage us," Klein said. "Those students who were on the fence, they're just not coming anymore."
According to a U.S. military image study published in August, the three key barriers for prospective ROTC recruits were making a commitment to going on active duty after graduation, possibly ending up in combat and losing too many years to an Army contract.
Also mirroring general Army recruitment numbers for enlisted soldiers, African American enrollment in Army ROTC has dropped significantly over the past few years. This school year, 3,328 African American students are in the program, down 18 percent from last year and down 34 percent from a high of 5,044 in the 2001-02 school year. Army studies last year showed that the war in Iraq was more unpopular in the black community and served as a deterrent to enlisting.