How a Degree can make Law Enforcement Officers Promotable

Whether they’re in the academy, on the street, or in a virtual classroom, a cop’s education never ends.

A study of police officers in Minnesota and Arizona, published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, found that 48% of officers took college courses for career advancement purposes.

“Executive ranks in all agencies often post for at least a bachelor’s degree and quite often a master’s or terminal degree,” said Frank Colaprete, Criminal Justice lecturer at New England College. “A criminal justice degree supplies the advanced knowledge that is required of police officers throughout the rank structure. Investigations, leadership, community policing, management, forensics and the like, all come from the advanced knowledge obtained while pursuing a degree.”

At one time, the fundamental skills gained from their time in the academy coupled with field experience would have been enough for law enforcement officers to advance.

But these days, many law enforcement agencies require new officers to possess an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or at the very least, some college coursework. A 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that 32% of police departments required new hires to have some college education, and 23% of local law enforcement professionals were employed for agencies that required at least a two-year degree.

According to Colaprete, some police departments require officers to achieve a certain level of education to test for a promotion (e.g., a police sergeant exam) or a specialized assignment.

The Minnesota and Arizona police study found a degree was necessary for officers to be promoted to higher positions:

  • In Minnesota, which requires new hires to have an associate’s degree, 13% reported a bachelor’s degree was required to be promoted to sergeant; 18% reported it was required to reach the rank of lieutenant, while 23% stated it was necessary to become a police chief or sheriff.
  • A four-year degree or higher was considered a requirement for promotion in Arizona.

Earning a degree online is a viable option for law enforcement professionals seeking additional education as they juggle the demands of an unpredictable work schedule.

“Online programs provide flexibility as well as time and place utility, so it is the perfect venue for those in law enforcement. Besides carrying the same weight and credibility, online programs have the advantage of avoiding classroom and travel requirements. Course options are often more flexible and allow for degree completion in minimum time frames so students can immediately put new knowledge to work for them,” Colaprete said.

New England College graduate Joan Bauer decided to earn a criminal justice degree online after watching younger officers advance. Although she trains police officers in Ohio, she realized that her academy training and years of experience was not enough to aid in career progression.

“Turning 21 and just going through a police academy, that’s not enough anymore. Times are changing and you’re going to get passed up,” she said.

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