Region’s universities buck national trend of failing to meet ROTC quotas
Seven Western Pennsylvania universities with Reserve Officer Training Corps headquartered there meet or exceed military quotas for officers — unlike half of college programs elsewhere, a recent Government Accountability Office report says.
Nationwide, ROTC programs are expected to commission 9,000 small unit leaders bound for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps this year. The college seniors swapped free tuition, room and board for a few years in uniform in active-duty or reserve components of the armed forces, including the National Guard.
After a dozen years of war involving American troops, however, these graduates and the cadets trailing them have run into uncertain times. A Capitol Hill deal reached this month caps Defense spending at about $500 billion for 2014, about $27 billion less than what the White House requested. Although the cuts were not as deep as expected, military officials must pare expenses, including the number of enlisted and commissioned troops. More personnel trims are expected as the Pentagon winds down combat operations in Afghanistan.
That makes ROTC a tempting target, especially at programs where tuition runs high and the annual tally of commissioned officers is low. Yet unlike a well-drilled platoon, the 479 ROTC programs at nearly 1,800 colleges nationwide “can’t turn on a dime,” said Army Lt. Col. Andrew R. Loeb, a combat engineer posted as professor of military science and director of the Three Rivers Battalion headquartered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus.
Loeb and other commanders rely on five-year plans scripted by the services: Congress sets a quota for the number of officers the armed forces need; ROTC programs begin wooing prospective freshmen to fill slots. Cadets spend at least four years earning degrees and attending military training programs in summer months.
The GAO report determined that half of ROTC programs nationwide between 2008 and 2012 failed to deliver their quota of officers in any given year, although the services overall met their goals. In general, the Pentagon expects ROTC programs offering four-year scholarships to commission at least 15 officers annually, but they’ll take a lower number of graduates if they’re armed with nursing, engineering or science graduates also coveted by the private sector.
Though the service academies annually produce about a quarter of the military’s incoming leaders, and officer candidate schools generate a quarter more, ROTC churns out roughly half of new commissions, shrinking or expanding to fit demand.
More than half of ROTC graduates are destined for the Army and the rest split between the Air Force and the Navy, which commissions Marine Corps officers. In Western Pennsylvania, most of the 234 officers produced in 2012 went to the Army.
The Three Rivers Battalion, for example, plans to produce 33 lieutenants this year. Encompassing more than 200 students at Pitt and 11 other colleges stretching from St. Francis University of Steubenville, Ohio, to Pitt’s Johnstown extension, the Oakland-based unit is known nationwide for its diverse base of soldiers and the high number of trained engineers it sends to the Army.
At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, ROTC remains so popular that nearly one in 100 students enrolls in the military science course — one of the highest rates in the country. IUP’s program is liberal arts-based but ships nursing grads. Unlike Pitt, IUP’s ROTC is blessed with its own building, an indoor live-fire range, and 63 years of uninterrupted tradition producing officers, including eight alumni who became generals.
“We know who we are and who we aren’t,” said Lt. Col. David Meyer, an armored cavalry commander who served in Afghanistan before arriving in Indiana. “Most of our students graduate in four years. They’re good scholars, good athletes, and they’re learning how to become good leaders.”
Meyer said strong patriotism among Western Pennsylvanians helps draw students to military careers. He is trying to change the racial mix of officer candidates at IUP, where their ranks traditionally are filled by white men from rural counties.
“We’re going to become more diverse — as diverse as the university is. That’s our goal,” he said.
As long as the high-tech Navy needs science grads, Carnegie Mellon University’s Steel City ROTC program likely will sail along. Headquartered at the Oakland campus but mostly drawing students from Pitt and Duquesne, 75 students were on Steel City’s rolls in 2012, according to GAO.
Thirteen midshipmen are on track to earn Navy commissions this year, and four are bound for the Marines. The Navy selected three for its prestigious Nuclear Propulsion Program.
“We have a strong demand for leaders with technical backgrounds,” Navy spokesman Michael Miller said. “But our strength also lies in our diversity, and that is a keystone of the NROTC program.”
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826 or [email protected].