Financial aid is one of Harvard’s greatest recruiting tools—and also one of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps’ biggest draws. As Harvard celebrates its first commencement in nearly 40 years with an officially sanctioned ROTC program, it should take steps to mitigate the extent to which its generous financial aid undermines the military’s ability to recruit Harvard students to ROTC. The University should marshal its resources and apply some of the financial aid money that ROTC cadets forgo to enhance their four years at Harvard.
With the official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this past fall, Harvard and other top colleges including Yale, Columbia, and Stanford officially recognized ROTC for the first time in four decades. In the words of University President Drew G. Faust, this move “affirms the vital role that the members of our Armed Forces play in serving our nation and securing our freedoms.” Faust is right—the University should support those who make the courageous decision to serve their country after graduation.
Yet the elite campuses to which ROTC is returning are dramatically different than they once were. Perhaps the most striking difference is the socioeconomic diversity attributable in large part to dramatic expansions in financial aid. Nowhere is this truer than at Harvard, which spends $166 million dollars annually to fund one of the most generous financial aid programs in the world. Next year, families with annual income below $65,000 have no expected parental contribution, and families with incomes up to $150,000 have an average expected parental contribution of less than 10 percent of their income.
Yet for all of the many virtues of the College’s generous financial aid, it undermines one of ROTC’s greatest draws: a scholarship providing full tuition support as well as allowances for books and fees in return for four years of military service. Harvard treats ROTC scholarships as any other non-Harvard scholarship: it first reduces students’ term-time and summer earnings expectations and uses any remaining funds to replace Harvard grants. For many families, the net effect of an ROTC scholarship is still positive, but the financial benefit of ROTC is far smaller than at institutions without such generous financial aid. Students with Harvard aid packages who are interested in military service might find it more flexible to pass on ROTC and either enlist or attend Officer Training School after graduation—if they are still interested.
Harvard should take the lead among top colleges by using its institutional resources to reward students who forgo Harvard financial aid for a ROTC scholarship. While giving students cash would be against the spirit of financial aid, Harvard can still do a great deal to encourage ROTC service.
For starters, Harvard should expand financial aid “extras” for ROTC cadets—from funds to attend campus activities to winter coats. These types of extras are typically not fully covered by the military stipend. More broadly, the University should consider other ways in which an ROTC scholarship should be treated differently from a standard outside scholarship.
Harvard should also create a program that funds internships or international experiences during the summer or J-term for ROTC participants. Such a program would be along the lines of the Presidential Public Service Fellowship Program, which supports 10 undergraduates and graduates to pursue public service for a summer, or the Institute of Politics Director’s Internship Program, which uses Harvard’s connections in the public and non-profit sectors to offer undergraduates unique summer internships. In short, such a program would use the University’s connections and financial power to enable ROTC students to do something unique that they might not otherwise be able to do in their four years at Harvard and make lasting connections that pay dividends over a career of public service.
There are many alumni—particularly those with connections to the military—who would be happy to help place and support ROTC students during the summer or J-term. And given the current size of Harvard ROTC—in the last two years there were 15 ROTC graduates—the cost of the program would be minimal compared to Harvard’s financial aid budget and vastly outweighed by the money financial aid recipients save Harvard by accepting an ROTC scholarship.
Expanding support for ROTC students at the margin may not induce many low income students to join ROTC. However, financial support would make many more students at least consider ROTC and help change the standing of ROTC on campus. More importantly, it would send a very visible and clear signal that Harvard supports ROTC, intends to expand it, and is doing its part to make sure that it does not undermine the incentives for students to join ROTC. Harvard’s leadership would also have ripple effects at other institutions.
Some may argue that ROTC scholarships should be treated the same as other non-Harvard scholarships. But ROTC scholarships are different. They come with a quid pro quo of four years of military service that makes them a singular recruiting device for a unique form of service the University has deemed particularly honorable.
In welcoming ROTC back to campus, President Faust said that official recognition “broadens the pathways for students to participate in an honorable and admirable calling and in so doing advances our commitment to both learning and service.” If this is the University’s position—and it should be—then Harvard should do more than simply “broaden the pathway” for students who forgo University financial aid to participate in ROTC. Harvard should do its best to make sure they are rewarded for their service and sacrifice.
Adam M. Guren ’08, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Harvard University.