For those students who aspire to get military training and earn a college degree, there are a number of colleges in the United States that are designed for you to pursue your military and educational goals simultaneously. There are three primary types of US military colleges: service academies, Senior Military Colleges, and Military Junior Colleges.
In this article, I'll describe each type of military college and explain the differences between them. Furthermore, I'll help you determine which type of college may be best for you.
What Are US Military Colleges?
Military colleges offer a combination of military instruction and higher education. Attending a military college can give you the opportunity to get a college education and a military job after getting your degree; some military colleges even require you to serve in the military after graduation.
As I mentioned above, military colleges can be separated into service academies, Senior Military Colleges, and Military Junior Colleges.
The 5 US Service Academies
The service academies are a great option for students who know they want to pursue a college education and serve in the military.
There are five Service Academies, each dedicated to a different branch of the armed services:
- US Military Academy (West Point, NY)
- US Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD)
- US Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, CO)
- US Coast Guard Academy (New London, CT)
- US Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, NY)
Graduates of the service academies receive a Bachelor of Science, are commissioned as officers in their branch, and are required to serve for a minimum of five years after graduation.
Getting in to the Service Academies
The service academies are very selective schools, and all of the academies, except the Coast Guard, require a congressional letter of recommendation to gain admission.
Students also have to submit typical requirements of a college application (application, transcript, test scores, recommendations, and college essay), and applicants to the service academies have to pass a medical exam and take a fitness assessment. The Air Force Academy and Naval Academy require interviews as well.
You’ll primarily be evaluated on your high school academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular achievement. The service academies are fond of students who have pursued leadership positions and shown a commitment to their communities. Also, they appreciate students who have excelled athletically and have obtained awards and leadership positions on their sports teams.
Financially, the service academies are undoubtedly an incredible deal. Tuition, books, board, medical, and dental care are fully paid for all four years. Additionally, you receive a monthly stipend to cover living expenses and pay for miscellaneous supplies.
Service Academy Life
In many respects, life for students at each of the military academies is very similar. The academies are known for being extremely strict, conservative, and requiring a great deal of discipline.
Underclassmen, especially, have very little freedom. They're rarely allowed to leave campus, and there are harsh rules and punishments regarding drinking and drug use. Typically, service academy students have mandatory activities from around 6:00 AM-8:00 PM. Then, they start studying and doing homework. Furthermore, they only get a few weeks of summer vacation as opposed to the three months students get at regular colleges.
Service academy students don’t get much freedom or free time, but they tend to get a great education, a unique bonding experience with their peers, and many future opportunities. In fact, Navy, Army, Air Force, and Merchant Marine Academy placed in the top 25 of Payscale's best universities and colleges by salary potential.
The academies also emphasize athletics. Students have to participate in varsity or intramural sports, and students are required to attend home football games.
The major differences between the academies are related to their locations and the respective branches they’re preparing you to serve in. Also, Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine Academy are much smaller than the other three academies.
Now, I’ll provide an overview of each of the academies to give you an idea of what makes each one unique and what you’ll have to do to get admitted. As part of each description, I summarized student reviews that come from Niche, a website that ranks and reviews schools.
Army commencement (The U.S. Army/Flickr)
US Military Academy
Also known as Army or West Point, the US Military Academy was founded in 1802 and trains cadets to become Army officers. It’s located in West Point, NY, which is about 50 miles from New York City.
- Location: West Point, NY
- Undergraduate enrollment: 4,594
- Acceptance rate: 11%
- Average GPA: 3.9
- Average SAT: 1320
- Average ACT: 30-31
- US News ranking: #9 National Liberal Arts Colleges
Students acknowledge that life for cadets is extremely stressful and busy, but many are grateful for their student experiences and that they're getting superb training for military careers. Also, they're appreciative of the friendships they've made during their time at West Point.
On the negative side, some lament their decision to go there because of the lack of freedom and draconian rules.
US Naval Academy
US Naval Academy students are trained to become officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. Naval Academy students are on active duty in the US Navy. The Academy is located in Annapolis, MD, where the Severn River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about an hour from Washington, DC.
- Location: Annapolis, MD
- Undergraduate enrollment: 4,528
- Acceptance rate: 7%
- Average GPA: 3.88
- Average SAT: 1310
- Average ACT: 29
- US News ranking: #6 National Liberal Arts Colleges
Many Naval Academy students enjoy the challenges that service academy life poses and the education they receive at Navy. They also tout the bonds they form with their peers, and they're grateful for the financial benefits and summer training they have an opportunity to receive.
However, some believe that the monotony and rigor of daily life can extinguish their passions and wear them down.
It's a Naval Academy wedding. (Lawrence OP/Flickr)
US Air Force Academy
The Air Force Academy trains cadets to become officers in the Air Force. The Academy is located in Colorado Springs, CO.
- Location: Colorado Springs, CO
- Undergraduate enrollment: 4,181
- Acceptance rate: 12%
- Average GPA: 3.86
- Average SAT: 1350
- Average ACT: 31-32
- US News ranking: #18 National Liberal Arts Colleges
The students comment on the harsh rules and how it can be hard to adjust to the challenges if you're not from a military background. Many appreciate the bonds they've made and their teachers, but they seem to be looking forward more to the advantages they'll get as graduates of Air Force than enjoying their time there.
US Coast Guard Academy
The Coast Guard is the smallest of the service academies. Graduates become officers in the Coast Guard. It’s located in New London, CT, which is about two hours from Boston and New York City.
- Location: New London, CT
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,049
- Acceptance rate: 13%
- Average GPA: 3.92
- Average SAT: 1290-1300
- Average ACT: 27
- US News ranking: #1 Regional Colleges (North)
Students believe it's hard to fulfill all of their obligations and try to have a social life. However, they appreciate the education and future opportunities they're being given. Furthermore, they're complimentary of their teachers.
Coast Guard fun (US Coast Guard Academy/Flickr)
US Merchant Marine Academy
The US Merchant Marine Academy graduates licensed Merchant Marine Officers. The Merchant Marine is a fleet of ships that carries imports and exports during peacetime, and it becomes a naval auxiliary during times of war. The Academy is located in Kings Point, NY, about 20 miles east of New York City.
- Location: Kings Point, NY
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,006
- Acceptance rate: 16%
- Average GPA: 3.6
- Average SAT: 1310
- Average ACT: 28
- US News ranking: #3 Regional Colleges (North)
Again, students here acknowledge the rigors of service academy life. They accept that they have more responsibilities and are busier than regular college students. One unique component of the Merchant Marine Academy that students praised is Sea Year, which is a program during their sophomore and junior years when they train on vessels and get to travel the world.
Senior Military Colleges
Senior military colleges give students the option to pursue military training while they’re in college. There are six military colleges:
- Texas A&M
- Norwich University
- Virginia Military Institute
- The Citadel
- Virginia Tech
- University of North Georgia
Additionally, the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin University has an affiliated program.
At The Virginia Military Institute, all students must become cadets, which means they’re part of the military training program. At the other colleges, students can be regular civilian students or join the Corps of Cadets. Those who become cadets have a similar schedule and experience as students at the service academies. They have to keep to a strict schedule, have similar rules, and must undergo physical and military training.
Every cadet must enter the Corps of Cadets and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. At SMCs, cadets live in their own dorms and by a different set of rules, which ROTC students at traditional four-year colleges aren't subject to.
Unlike the service academies, at Senior Military Colleges, there is no service requirement after graduation unless you receive an ROTC scholarship.
Members of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets get to rock these boots. (bk1bennett/Flickr)
Getting Into Senior Military Colleges
Generally, when applying to SMCs, you have to submit an application, personal essay, transcript, and standardized test scores. You’ll be evaluated on your academic performance and extracurricular achievements.
The selectivity of the SMCs varies, but generally, if you meet their average GPA and standardized test scores, you have a good chance of getting accepted. Virginia Tech has an average GPA of 3.97, an average ACT score of 29, and accepts 56% of applicants. The Citadel has an average GPA of 3.77, an average ACT score of 25, and accepts 86% of applicants.
SMCs that give you the option whether or not to join the Corps of Cadets have different application procedures. At Texas A&M, you have to be accepted to the university as a regular student before you join the Corps of Cadets. At Virginia Tech, you indicate on your application if you’re intending to join the Corps. However, if you end up deciding not to join after stating your intention to do so, your application will be reevaluated.
Also, a big difference between the service academies and senior military colleges is that you don’t receive the financial benefits of the academies or get a full-ride scholarship for attending an SMC.
For the 2022-2023 school year, The University of North Georgia was roughly $21,000 annually for cadets applying in-state, and around $35,000 for out-of-state applicants. At Virginia Tech, the cost for in-state students was about $31,000, but it was about $52,000 for out-of-state students.
However, there are grants and ROTC scholarships available to cadets. Additionally, you can apply for need-based financial aid.
Military Junior Colleges
Military Junior Colleges are two-year colleges that allow cadets to become commissioned officers in the Army Reserves through the Early Commissioning Program after finishing the program. At the completion of the program, students will also receive an associate degree.
The students must still go on to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college to serve as a regular officer in active duty. However, while students are getting their four-year degrees, they can serve as reserve officers to help advance their military careers.
Some Military Junior Colleges offer other programs in addition to the Early Commissioning Program like the Service Academy Preparation Program, which offers students one year of preparation to transfer to a service academy. Other schools will offer two years of a cadet/ROTC program independent of an Early Commissioning Program.
There are four Military Junior Colleges in the US:
- Valley Forge Military Academy and College
- Marion Military Institute
- New Mexico Military Institute
- Georgia Military College
Getting Into Military Junior Colleges
Military Junior Colleges require you to submit an application, your high school transcript, and some require SAT/ACT scores. Even those schools that don’t require standardized test scores may use them for placement purposes.
If you want to enter an Early Commissioning Program, there are minimum GPA and SAT/ACT requirements that vary by school. If you have a 2.5 GPA and a 920 SAT score or a 19 ACT score, you’ll meet the minimum requirements for all of the programs.
Additionally, for an ECP, you need to pass a medical exam, the Army Physical Fitness Test, and you must complete military training after high school. You can do Cadet Initial Entry Training in the summer after high school before enrolling in the ECP.
The costs of Military Junior Colleges vary. At Marion Military Institute in Alabama, the annual cost of attendance is about $16,000 for in-state students and about $22,000 for out-of-state students. However, there are scholarships and grants available. For example, if you receive a Military Junior College Scholarship, you’ll have full tuition and fees paid, and you’ll receive money for books, your uniform, and a monthly stipend.
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Is a Military College Right for You?
There are a number of factors to consider before you commit to attending a military college as opposed to going to a regular college. Most importantly, how motivated are you to get military training and serve in the military? If you're not fully enthusiastic about serving, you should think twice before deciding to attend a school that requires you to spend years serving in the military after you graduate.
Also, can you handle the incredibly structured and disciplined environment of military colleges? Do you need more free time and a laid back environment, or are you excited by the thought of getting pushed physically and academically? Do you want to feel the unique camaraderie you'll experience with fellow cadets?
Personally, I briefly considered attending West Point. I was recruited by the Army for gymnastics, and when the coach called me and sold the academy to me, I was intrigued. The financial and potential professional benefits of going to Army sounded great. However, I hadn't ever considered joining the military previously and I was hesitant to commit to the five years after graduating. Also, I didn't think I would thrive in such a strict environment; I wanted more freedom to pursue my varied interests.
How to Choose Which Type of College Is Right for You
If you’re interested in military training and getting a college education, you have a number of choices. On top of the service academies, Senior Military Colleges, and Military Junior Colleges, you can join an ROTC at another college or join a cadet program at some maritime colleges.
There are a number of factors to consider when deciding which type of school you want to attend:
How committed are you to pursuing a career in the military?
If you're completely sure that you want to serve in the military after college, then the service academies may be a good option for you. If you're interested in military training but haven't fully committed to a military career, then perhaps a Senior Military College would be better for you.
Do you want to be around civilian students or immerse yourself in a military environment with other cadets?
If you want the balance of feeling like a normal college student and get military training, then joining an ROTC program at a traditional college is probably your best option. If you want to be in an environment that is completely dedicated to preparing you to serve as a military officer and share that experience with your peers, then you may want to attend a service academy.
If you mostly want the military training experience but still want some exposure to regular college students, then maybe you should consider one of the SMCs that has non-cadet students.
If you want a cadet experience and a regular college experience, you can go to a Military Junior College and then transfer to a 4-year college.
Are you a competitive applicant?
It's very difficult to get into the service academies. If you don't have excellent grades and test scores, you may not be able to secure a nomination or get into one of the academies. If you're not close to the average GPA or test scores for the academies, you may want to consider one of the less selective SMCs.
Another option is to go to a Military Junior College, where you can join an Early Commissioning Program, or you can do a Service Academy Preparation Program if you're determined to go to a service academy.
How do finances affect your decision?
Hopefully, finances won't play too much of a role in your decision, but money is almost always a factor. Without grants or scholarships, the service academies offer the best financial deal by far. However, with financial aid, you may be able to get a comparable situation at a Senior Military College or a Junior Military College.
How to Select a College
On top of the type of school you decide to attend, it's important to select the specific college that's the best fit for you. Learn how to choose a college. Also, make sure you do ample college research before you apply.
Some factors to consider as you’re doing your research are the location, undergraduate enrollment, selectivity, academic programs, and on-campus culture of the schools.
You can use college websites, finders, guidebooks, ranking lists, and search websites to help with your research.
Additionally, you may want to consult with counselors, teachers, current students, and alumni to help you with your college decision.
As you're navigating your way through the college selection process, learn how much it matters where you go to college.
Also, you need to figure out where in the US you should go to college.
Finally, you should check out this article for helpful advice about which colleges you should apply to.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.