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The NSCC was founded in 1958 by the Navy League of the United States at the request of the Department of the Navy. In 1962, the USNSCC was chartered under Title 36 of the United States Code as a non-profit youth organization with an emphasis towards the sea-going services of the United States. The law was amended in 1974 to allow female participation in the USNSCC.

In 2000, the US Congress found that the Naval Sea Cadet Corps and related programs "provide significant benefits for the Armed Forces, including significant public relations benefits".  Although under no obligation, a sizeable percentage of cadets go on into the military.

Members may receive an advanced paygrade of E-3 if they join the Navy or Coast Guard, and E-2 in the Marine Corps or any other service, due to the training they receive which is almost identical to the real Navy (like the correspondence course "Basic Military Requirements", which is exactly the same for the USNSCC and the Navy). This means a pay jump on other entry-level members and moves former Sea Cadets through the ranks at an increased pace.

Former Sea Cadets also represent a percentage of students at the five major Service Academies (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine), and maintain the highest graduation rate of any high school program, such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

The Naval Sea Cadet Corps is officially supported by the Navy League of the United States, and is endorsed by the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Coast Guard. The United States Coast Guard, through COMDTINST 5728.2C, USCG Public Affairs Manual, has designated the USNSCC as the Coast Guard's primary youth group, instead of a JROTC.

The National Headquarters of the NSCC is located in Arlington, Virginia. Captain Michael Ford, USNR (Ret.) is the Executive Director, the "Commander-in-Chief" of the NSCC. There are six field areas in all. Each field is headed by an NSCC NHQ Representative, who is usually the grade of a Navy Captain. Each field area may be divided into a region. These regions are headed by a Senior Regional Director, who is an NSCC Lieutenant Commander (LCDR). Each region can have sub-regions, depending on the size of the area and number of units in that region.

Each sub-region is headed by a Regional Director (RD), who is also an NSCC LCDR. Each RD will report to the Senior RD for any matters regarding the region and/or sub-regions themselves. RDs are also responsible to the NSCC NHQ Representative for matters regarding Petty Officer Exams, PO1 and CPO advancements, NSCC officer matters, and anything else that would be of importance to the NHQ Representative or to the Executive Director.

Each sub-region may be composed of anywhere between two to ten units. 
Each unit is required to have a complement of at least twenty-five cadets. They must be physically fit, have no criminal record, and have a good academic standard to become members. Each unit has a Commanding Officer and Executive Officer, and depending on the number of adult volunteers, may have other billets which cover different areas important to the operation of that unit. Some units have far more or far less than the required minimum, due to a vast array of recruiting issues. All units must have the minimum number of personnel in order to be commissioned into the NSCC.

Adult Leaders are volunteers with a multitude of experience ranging from active/reserve/retired military personnel to civilian parents of cadets. Adult volunteers must be 18 years and older. NSCC Officers, Instructors, and Midshipmen all must go through a thorough application process - including a background check - before they can be accepted as adult volunteers.

High School graduates aged 18, up through adults aged 21 may serve as Midshipmen (MIDN). Midshipmen are technically NSCC officers. NSCC MIDN are mostly former cadets, but can be ROTC, Service Academy, or other personnel with some type of experience relevant to the function of the NSCC and NLCC. Adults age 21 years and older can serve as NSCC Instructors, Officers, or Warrant Officers (Warrant Officer is only reserved to military personnel with specific qualifications). Cadets who are 18 years old can elect to remain a Sea Cadet up through high school graduation until 30 September in the year of their graduation.

The United States Navy and Coast Guard both support the NSCC to some degree, providing such resources as uniform assistance, use of military facilities, assisting with training courses, but most support comes from the volunteers and parents of the NSCC program. Most of the USNSCC's funding has come from the enrollment fees of its cadets and officers, the Navy League of the United States, private sources, and through appropriations from the DOD Military Budget. In recent years, the USNSCC has lobbied for, and obtained, through congressional support, between $1 - 2 million a year to offset the rising costs of supporting and running NSCC trainings.