Don't expand ROTC. Replace it.
President Obama on Tuesday called for all college campuses "to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC," saying that it is "time to move forward as one nation." Similar calls have been issued since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," as many urge ROTC to return to the Ivy League and other leading universities to reconnect the armed forces with the upper tier of American society. But expanding ROTC into these institutions is the wrong approach.
First, we note that it is a myth that the privileged do not wish to serve. Many men and women from privileged backgrounds are serving with distinction. (The Buckley School in New York recently had one-third of two graduating classes serving in Iraq at the same time.) But military service is unlikely or inconvenient for many students at prestigious universities for several reasons. In addition to the dearth of ROTC units, there's the indifference of the services to recruiting officers from this part of the population and the near-elimination of Officer Candidate School billets for those without prior enlisted service.
And while some college leaders may want ROTC back, faculties are likely to be unenthusiastic. Given that the nation is fighting two unpopular wars, with the possibility of more in the future, the military will always be an outside, uncomfortable and largely isolated presence on college campuses. Nor will the Pentagon be eager to send uniformed personnel - who are in short supply - to costly locations where they will recruit and train what is likely to be a small yield of new officers.
Rather than expanding ROTC into elite institutions, it would be better to replace ROTC over time with a more efficient, more effective and less costly program to attract the best of America's youth to the services and perhaps to military careers.
Except from an economic perspective, ROTC isn't efficient for students. They take courses from faculty almost invariably less prepared and experienced to teach college courses, many of which do not count for credit and cover material more akin to military training than undergraduate education. Weekly drills and other activities dilute the focus on academic education.
ROTC was begun before World War I to create an officer corps for a large force of reservists to be mobilized in a national emergency. It has outgrown this purpose and evolved into just another source of officers for a military establishment that has integrated regulars and reservists into a "total force" in which the difference is between part-time and full-time soldiering.
The armed services should consider a program modeled in part on the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps to attract the nation's most promising young people. In a national competition similar to ROTC scholarships, students should be recruited for four years of active duty and four years of reserve service by means of all-expenses-paid scholarships to the college or university of their choice. Many would no doubt take these lucrative grants to the nation's most distinguished schools, where they would get top-flight educations and could devote full attention on campus to their studies.
Youths would gain their military training and education by serving in the reserve or National Guard during college (thus fulfilling their reserve obligation). Being enlisted would teach them basic military skills and give them experience in being led before becoming leaders themselves. As reservists during college, they would be obligated to deploy only once, which would not unduly delay their education or commissioned service. They could receive their officer education at Officer Candidate School summer camps or after graduation from college. This program could also be available to those who do not win scholarships but are qualified and wish to serve.
History tells us that the career retention of OCS graduates is essentially the same as that of graduates of the service academies and ROTC. This new program would not only be the least costly method of providing a quality, diverse officer corps but would also attract a variety of students inclined to serve their country, including those outstanding youngsters who want or need money for college but do not want to go to a service academy or be limited to those colleges that have, or are near, ROTC units. The Harvards, Amhersts and Georgetowns of America would probably have more students in military training than they do today or are likely to in the future with ROTC units on campus. And such a program would raise the visibility and attractiveness of military service at the institutions where many of the nation's future leaders are being educated.
Such a system would cost less while attracting more, and more outstanding, youth to military service, spare uniformed officers for a maxed-out military establishment, and reconnect the nation's leadership to military service - a concern since the beginning of the all-volunteer armed force.
John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, is an investment banker in New York and an overseer of the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering. Richard H. Kohn is a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former chief of Air Force history. Both served on the Independent Review Panel for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.