Most employees are motivated to seek a promotion over the span of their career and law enforcement officers are no different. While the underlying reasons may vary, the ambition is the same: career advancement. A college education is one of the primary means by which officers can improve their eligibility for promotion.
College degrees can be the key to the development of one's working knowledge and are often essential to an officer's professional advancement. Over the past 50 years, educational standards have slowly become a norm for police officer hiring requirements. In the late 1960s, recommendations from federal and state government sectors emphasized the importance of bachelor's degrees for all officers to provide them with decision-making skills. They also suggested graduate degree standards for police administrators as a means to better equip them for leadership responsibilities.
In more recent years, the 2015 President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing identified education as a primary tenet of professional policing to assist officers in developing the skills needed to be effective in the diverse communities in which they serve.
Benefits of Education
When police officers invest in higher education, they can potentially gain assignment changes, pay increases, personal growth, and promotions.
From a practical standpoint, college experience assists officers in accomplishing their responsibilities more effectively. Many officers say that the writing skills they obtained through college classes are invaluable when it comes to the numerous reports they complete in their daily duties. Officers also report the dual benefit of obtaining a bachelor's degree or a graduate degree while working. There is the immediate reward of an up to 10% pay incentive, but also the delayed reward of preparing for a second career when they retire or exit from the police force.
The benefits of college-educated officers are not limited to pay and promotion. Volumes of research over the past 20 years illustrate that police officers who possess higher education exhibit greater analytical thinking, better communications skills, and increased maturity in comparison to those who do not. Studies indicate that while approximately 1% of law enforcement departments require a four-year degree for an entry-level officer, roughly 40% to 50% of officers hold a degree, many of which were obtained while employed as a police officer.
Law enforcement departments encourage their employees' pursuit of education through pay incentives, shift adjustments for class attendance, and tuition reimbursements. According to a 2013 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 31% of U.S. law enforcement agencies provided pay incentives to officers who completed college degrees. In an era of higher education where classes, degrees, and entire universities are readily accessible through online education, officers should take advantage of such departmental support and accommodations.
Promotion via Education
Just as law enforcement agencies vary on educational standards for hiring, they also differ on promotion requirements. Some departments require a four-year degree for any promotion, while others require a bachelor's degree for positions such as sergeant and lieutenant. Some may require a master's degree for captains or chiefs.
Barry Walker, a former police lieutenant, obtained a graduate degree in leadership while he was an officer. He says his education assisted him in achieving his promotion to lieutenant.
"I was prepared to answer the questions in the interview, and I could also write well," Walker says. "The degree didn't get me promoted, the knowledge from the degree did.
"There has been a fundamental change in leadership style that has occurred over the past 15 years. Where law enforcement used to be paramilitary and autocratic, it has now transitioned into a much more empowering model where decisions are pushed down to the lowest level," Walker adds. "During my time in police management, I also adopted a leadership model where I focused on my stars instead of trying to fix the broken officers. This allowed me to recognize and reward those officers who stepped up."
While a college education may position an officer for promotion, those whose primary goal is upper management—or those who already possess a bachelor's in criminal justice—may find that a leadership-focused program provides the knowledge and skills to excel.
Organizational leadership emphasizes the idea that power and responsibility within an organization are to be distributed rather than held by one person. When organizational leadership exists, the mission, focus, and culture of the organization are not solely dependent on the chief. Instead, the leadership rests among many, providing a democratic voice and stability through change.
Organizational leadership education focuses on topics such as developing missions and goals, communication and decision-making skills, supervision, ethics, and most importantly, leadership.
This particular focus of study prepares officers to participate in the shared leadership roles within their departments. A degree in leadership allows the student to become aware of his or her communication skills and to develop necessary speaking, writing, listening, and interpersonal skills to become an effective supervisor.
Additionally, the emphasis on learning to delegate responsibilities helps to empower employees and allows officers to practice these skills in their department. This rewards the organization with officers who gain ownership of their roles and gain the power and autonomy to make decisions, ultimately producing an environment of higher morale and greater commitment from all.
Sherah L. Basham is a professor at Columbia Southern University. She holds a master's degree in criminal justice from the University of West Florida, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Pensacola Christian College, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. She has more than 20 years of experience in the criminal justice field in investigations, campus security, and education.