The Air Force last week announced an expansive new ROTC scholarship available to third- and fourth-year Cadets intent on commissioning, with the goal of recruiting and retaining more future Airmen in the program.
The Brig. Gen. Charles A. McGee Leadership Award, named after the legendary Tuskegee Airman, provides either $18,000 per year in tuition or $10,000 per year in housing assistance to any Cadet not already on a scholarship who has completed field training and entered the Professional Officer Course by the start of their junior year. This is the point at which Cadets incur a service obligation.
“What it really boils down to is that every one of our Cadets now has an opportunity to get some type of scholarship—whether it’s a four-year scholarship, or … that two-year scholarship, the Charles McGee Leadership Award, to finish up their education,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told Air & Space Forces Magazine following a Jan. 27 ceremony introducing the award at the University of Maryland. This “not only helps them, but it helps us,” he added.
“For those that really desire to serve, they now have a chance to finish their education and continue their development to become either an Air Force officer or Space Force officer,” Brown said.
The new scholarship is part of what Air Force officials called a “rebalancing” of the ROTC scholarship programs—fewer awards will go to high school students and more will go to those who are already there and have demonstrated a further interest and intent to serve.
Cadets who receive four-year scholarships out of high school can drop out of ROTC program after their freshman year without needing to pay back funds, and sophomores not on scholarship do not incur a service obligation. By delaying more scholarships, the Air Force aims to deliver more funding to those who have the greatest likelihood of serving.
The Air Force typically selects around 75 percent of Cadets to attend field training after their sophomore year.
Already some 500 Cadets have activated the scholarship, according to Lt. Col. Kim Bender, spokeswoman for Air University. Prior to the introduction of the new award, only 40 percent of AFROTC Cadets received scholarships, almost all to high school seniors.
“You don’t sign your contract until you go into your junior and senior year,” Brown said. “And in some cases, if you didn’t have the money to go to school, you really wanted to continue in ROTC, but you don’t have the money to finish your education.”
It’s still too early to say exactly how many Cadets will be able to continue in ROTC because of the new scholarship, Brown said. But there are such cases, he said, and “now they don’t have to worry about, ‘Will I have enough money to come back to school at a later date?’”
Meanwhile, other Cadets have cobbled together funds to stay in school, working part-time jobs or taking out loans. The scholarship will have a significant impact for them as well.
“A lot of us are either working multiple jobs or trying to pay off student loans, and this is just a huge step forward,” Cadet William Fraher told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “Not only is this helping us as Air Force Cadets to be better prepared going into the Air Force, this opens the door for internships, career opportunities that we might not have had, just because we were so focused on trying to pay for school.”
Cadet Anthony Casello said reducing financial pressure will bolster the AFROTC community at universities. “Half our Cadets weren’t able to come [to this ceremony], because of classwork, because of work,” Casello said. “So lifting the burden, to not lose those opportunities, especially in the Cadet community and in AFROTC life—just committing yourself more to the programs and volunteering more and standing out and really enveloping yourself in this huge community.”
And as the Air Force, along with the other military services, continues to battle through a historically tough recruiting environment and dipping retention rates, the expansion of scholarships available to ROTC students builds a foundation for potentially more satisfied officers staying in the service down the road.
“You start that process early and you start saying things like, ‘Hey, we’re going to help you pay for housing or we’re going help cover tuition,’ all of a sudden, there’s just so much more of an incentive,” Fraher said. “[People say] ‘I want to get back to this organization, I want to serve more. Because this organization has taken care of me, I want to take care of it.’”
Such efforts are among the many “small things” the Air Force is pursuing to address longstanding problems like its pilot shortage, Brown said.
“There’s a number of things we’ve got to be able to do. Each one of these … is an opportunity, because you might have someone who wanted to become a pilot but didn’t have the means to finish school, now we keep them in the program so they can get commissioned and have that opportunity,” Brown said.
Cadet Cayla Williams, a junior at George Mason University who was recognized during the ceremony as one of the first recipients of the award, called in a commitment by the Air Force to “current students who’ve proven that they are committed to making this a career, not just a dream.”
The broader reorganization of ROTC scholarships started last spring, officials said, shortly after the death of McGee, one of the last living Tuskegee Airmen and a veteran of 409 combat missions. The decision to name the award in his honor was in keeping with his passion for helping young Airmen, said McGee’s daughters, Charlene and Yvonne.
“He would tell you, ‘I’ve had my final flight. I passed the torch. You are our future,’” Charlene McGee told the assembled Cadets. “He would go on to say that although it seems like it could be a daunting job to follow in his footsteps, you have what it takes to do it. And he would say, first of all, dream big. And then he would say, work hard because you have to be ready to work. And you’re putting in that work now. And he would say, never give up. … And finally he would tell you, help others along the way.”