There are many reasons why law enforcement officers pursue continuing education. Some enroll in classes just for the joy of learning, others do it with the goal of moving up into the supervisory and command levels of their agencies or other agencies, and some do it with the goal of pursuing another career and/or assignment in or out of public safety.
It's important to know why you want to go back to school for a certificate or a degree before committing to a program. You need to define your goals and then find the program that will best help you achieve them.
Choosing a School
Every criminal justice program, whether it's offered at an on-campus school or an online school, is different. For this article, POLICE contacted two of the nation's leading online universities, DeSales University and Columbia Southern University. Both offer criminal justice programs and each offers something that the other does not.
DeSales University is both an online university and a campus-based university in Center Valley, PA. In the criminal justice program DeSales offers undergraduate, graduate, and associate programs. Areas of study include basic criminal justice core classes, law enforcement leadership, crime scene investigation, and digital forensics, just to name a few.
In addition, undergraduate students at DeSales who are not already law enforcement officers can get a head start toward their police careers during their final semester of the criminal justice program. Through a special DeSales program they can attend the Allentown Police Academy at no additional cost beyond their tuition. "It counts as five courses, so they don't have to take any courses that semester. They graduate from the academy and with a bachelor's degree from DeSales University at the same time," says Joseph Walsh, assistant professor of criminal justice at DeSales.
Columbia Southern University is an online university based in Orange Beach, AL. The criminal justice program offers associate, undergraduate, and graduate degrees with a focus on core criminal justice learning and law enforcement career development.
"A large majority of our students are working professionals," says Dr. Travis Smith, undergraduate lead faculty-criminal justice for Columbia Southern. "They have the job already; they're just looking to earn a promotion in their job."
Because there is so much variation in criminal justice education programs, it's important to do your research before applying. You want to choose a program that is interesting to you. You are going to spend years studying this topic, so make sure you want to do that before you enroll.
One of the most critical pieces of information that you need to know about a school before applying is whether the school is accredited. Accreditation means the classes and faculty have been vetted by a qualified accrediting entity such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Attending an accredited school can be critical to your further educational goals because if the school is not accredited you may have trouble applying to other schools for graduate or additional study. Also, if you want to teach once you receive your degree, you must attend an accredited university or college. Even if you think a bachelor's degree will be the end of your academic pursuits and you have no desire to teach, you should still choose an accredited university or college so that you will get a quality education.
Time and Money
Regardless of the reason why a police officer wants to go back to school, doing so requires a significant expenditure of time and money. It's an investment and one that frankly needs to be approached in some ways like a business transaction, especially in terms of return on that investment.
Your biggest investment when you pursue higher education is not money, it's time. Yes, classes can be costly. But you can find sources of funding. There are no sources for additional time. So one of the first things you have to know in order to get the most out of continuing your education is the time requirement. Do you have the time to give to the program and to successfully complete your classes?
Online educational programs have helped a lot of law enforcement officers find the time for their degrees. The great advantage to online classes over on-campus classes is that you don't have to be physically at a specific place at a specific time for lectures or labs. You can make your own schedule. And that can make it a lot easier for law enforcement officers to pursue educational goals. (Note: Some online classes do have set login time requirements, so make sure that you are aware of such requirements before signing up and that you can adhere to that schedule.)
And even with online classes, appropriate time investment is essential to success. So officers have to consider if they have the time before committing to a program. If you are working a lot of overtime and/or off-duty assignments, you probably want to delay enrolling in classes. Because the worst decision you can make financially when signing up for classes is not having a plan to successfully complete them. That's just throwing away money. In some cases, it can be a lot of money.
Paying For It
Which brings us to funding your education. This is the number one concern for many law enforcement officers and other working people who are planning to go back to school. Paying for higher education involves a significant outlay of funds and no one wants to incur too much student debt. There are, fortunately, a number of options that law enforcement officers can use to fund their educations.
Columbia Southern, for example, offers four scholarship programs specifically for law enforcement: the Atlanta Police Department Scholarship, the Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) Scholarship, the Criminal Justice Scholarship, and the New York Police Department Scholarship.
DeSales offers a 20% discount to working criminal justice professionals. And many schools offer payment plans for their students who wish to pay out of pocket. Of course there is also financial aid in the form of student loans.
One advantage that many law enforcement students have over most average college students is tuition reimbursement programs offered through their agencies. This can be an extremely valuable benefit, but many agencies require successful completion of the class before they will reimburse. And some universities and colleges require the student to pay up front. DeSales University, however, offers a special program for students that have tuition reimbursement. DeSales defers the billing until eight weeks after the class is completed to ensure that the student does not have to pay out of pocket while waiting on the check.
Another way that law enforcement officers can lessen the pain of paying for higher education is by earning college credit hours for professional training. Numerous schools, including Columbia Southern and DeSales, now have such programs. "If you have police professional standard training that you have received, we will look at those documents and help you get credit if possible," says Columbia Southern's Smith.
David Griffith is the editor of POLICE and PoliceMag.com.