Minnesota colleges graduate dozens of newly minted military officers each year through the campus-based Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a nearly century-old program that has helped the military broaden and diversify its officer corps.

But ROTC units on two University of Minnesota campuses are facing federal scrutiny and possible cuts because they are failing to turn out enough officers.

The Navy ROTC unit at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus graduated only 13 officers in 2012, while the Air Force unit produced 10. Air Force ROTC at the U’s Duluth campus graduated seven officers. By contrast, the U’s Army ROTC unit in the Twin Cities graduated 40 officers.

Officials say that nationwide, Air Force and Navy units tend to lag behind Army ROTC, but in some cases, the numbers fall below 15 — the military’s cutoff for what constitutes underperformance.

Such underperforming units tend to incur far higher costs, with average training and education expenses per officer averaging $95,000. In units that produce 30 or more officers a year, the average cost is less than half that — $42,000 per graduate.

That has the Government Accountability Office questioning whether the U’s three subpar ROTC units are cost-effective.

Auditors from the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, are eyeing the effectiveness of 237 ROTC units nationwide that fell short of the mark in 2012, the most recent year with available data.

Pentagon officials charged with overseeing the nation’s ROTC program have pledged to carry out cost-cutting by July 2015, which could include consolidation.

The Defense Department is working to “establish a systematic process to routinely evaluate ROTC program performance,” Jeffrey Mayo, director of accession policy at the Pentagon, wrote in response to the GAO report.

University of Minnesota corps leaders say they are not rattled by the threat of looming cuts.

“There is no plan for us in place now, and I can conceive of a number of different scenarios where there would be no effect at all,” said Capt. Dave Ratte, Naval ROTC unit commandant at the University of Minnesota.

Budget battles

Calling on Congress to rethink military spending, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed a scaled-back, modern military that would trim the Army to its size before World War II.

Costs for the ROTC already are being cut. Last year the Army closed 13 ROTC units in 10 states. At least nine of those schools had programs producing fewer than 15 officers per year.

Consolidation also has become common. The University of Minnesota’s Army ROTC unit draws students from nine other colleges.

Sometimes such partnerships have helped boost enrollment.

The Army ROTC unit at St. John’s University in Collegeville, which also serves students from St. Cloud State University and the College of St. Benedict, graduated 20 officers, putting them above the 15-graduate cutoff for underperformance.

In other cases, the mergers have yielded less success.

The University of Minnesota’s Navy ROTC unit has students from two other schools but still only had 13 graduates in 2012.

Another round of cuts could lead to further consolidation or decommissioned units.

“It is difficult to conclude whether a small ROTC unit is a good idea without knowing more about the benefits,” said Ilia Murtazashvili, a University of Pittsburgh professor who co-authored “Arms and the University,” a book examining the role of ROTC on college campuses.

Campus and beyond

Minnesota ranks 25th nationally in turning out military officers through ROTC, with the three units at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus providing nearly half of the 130 graduates.

Elk River native Michael Driscoll, 26, served a tour of duty in Iraq before enrolling at the University of St. Thomas on an Army ROTC scholarship. He attends the U’s Twin Cities Army ROTC unit, which has more than 100 cadets on campus this year. But his peers in other programs face the threat of cuts as they prepare for military careers.

In-state reductions would complicate Minnesota National Guard efforts to recruit officers, said Capt. Eric Lewanski, the Guard’s lead recruiter.

Since 2010, roughly 25 percent of new officers in the state’s National Army Guard have come through the ROTC ranks.

Nationwide, more than 53,000 college students are enrolled in ROTC units, including hundreds in Minnesota.

The ROTC program provides 48 percent of the armed forces’ annual requirement for new junior officers — about twice as many as the nation’s service academies, according to the GAO report.

“If you take [ROTC] … that may turn away some otherwise fully qualified leaders from joining the military,” said Lewanski, a Gustavus Adolphus College graduate who completed Army ROTC training at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

“They consistently produce officers that are an important part of our force,” he said.


Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell