Educational requirements for becoming a law enforcement officer vary from state to state and agency to agency. Some require a high school diploma, some an associate degree, and some even require a bachelor’s degree.
Regardless of what educational background an officer brings to their career, advancing that career often involves going back to school. This is especially true if an officer wants to pursue a specialty or rise into the ranks of command.
POLICE recently spoke with some experts working at two of the nation’s leading online universities that cater to the needs of public safety professionals and asked for some advice on what you need to do and what you need to know before enrolling.
PICKING YOUR PROGRAM
There are many factors to consider before applying to a school. That’s also true for online programs. One of the great benefits of online university programs is that your academic pursuits are not limited to driving distance from your home. You can apply to any school you want. But it’s important to do your homework first and consider these questions.
Does the School Offer What You Need?
Performing this analysis can be as simple as going to the school’s website and checking out the degree offering. You may want to study criminal justice or you may want to study business or management or some other field that you can apply to your law enforcement career or use as a stepping stone for another career. Be sure to look at all the school has to offer, including classes outside your major that you may want to take. Also, remember, within a major there can be areas of specialization. You might want to go after a criminal justice degree with a focus on forensics, or homeland security, or any number of specialties.
Do You Want to Learn from These People?
After conducting your initial research into the school and its programs. The next thing you want to know about is the faculty. Who are they? What are their qualifications? Do they have actual work experience in the field you want to study? Choosing a program can come down to wanting to learn from a specific instructor. However, be sure there are other instructors you want to learn from as well, since people can move on without notice.
Why is Accreditation Important?
It’s easy to think that the academic accreditation of a school or a department within that school is unimportant unless you plan to pursue a graduate degree at another institution. It’s easy to think that, but it’s wrong. You want an accredited program.
“Accreditation means the university is held to high standards of integrity and of quality of education,” says Dr. Ashley T. French, academic program director for criminal justice, homeland security, forensics, and military operations at Columbia Southern University.
Put simply, accreditation is an academic measure of the quality of your degree. Essentially, it’s a stamp that says your degree means something.
What is the Experience of the Students in the Program?
It would seem counter-intuitive but social engagement is critical for any university student’s experience, even for online students, who can easily feel alone in their endeavors. This is one reason why discussion groups are often part of any online class.
Another way that some universities are working to provide more connection for online students is through communication tools limited to their registered population.
Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Hays, KS, is both a brick-and-mortal and online school. It offers a computer app that students can use to discuss all manner of online and on-campus issues. Dr. Andrew Feldstein, assistant provost for teaching innovation and learning technologies at FHSU says the app has become a popular sounding board. “They can get on it and ask things like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of taking a certain class. What’s it like?’” he explains.
Is There Anybody I can Talk To?
The answer is probably. When someone plans to enroll in on-campus classes at a university, they can often sign up for orientation or a tour. Universities that offer online programs can’t really do that. But their staffs can make themselves available to answer your questions.
PAYING FOR IT
Going back to school as a working adult is daunting for several reasons, not the least of which is the cost. A degree is going to run you thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of dollars. That is stress-inducing stuff for working students who have to provide for themselves and maybe even for loved ones. So you have to look at all the options for paying the bill.
You Can Get Financial Aid
All universities—whether online, brick and mortar, or a combination of both—have financial aid offices. Contact them as soon as you can in the application process.
“As soon as they start thinking about school, I would encourage them to complete the FAFSA (free application for federal financial aid),” says Dr. Tamara J. Lynn, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at FHSU. “Even if they end up deciding not to go to school or to fund their education another way, at least this tells them how much assistance they qualify for.”
You May Receive Tuition Reimbursement from Your Agency
Paying back federal student loans can be financially draining. It’s in your best interest to avoid them or at least minimize the amount you will owe. This is one area where your career in law enforcement may be an advantage. Many public safety agencies offer full or partial tuition reimbursement for qualified employees.
Be aware that there are often stipulations on tuition reimbursement. You may have to achieve a certain grade point average, take a certain number of classes, and stay with your agency for a set number of years after you earn your degree. Even if your agency doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement, you may be able to persuade them to help you, if you are studying an area of need for your agency. If you can provide return on investment, your employer may be willing to help.
There are So Many Scholarships
Scholarships can pay part or even all of your educational costs. And there are many that people never apply for. Some online universities even offer scholarships specifically for law enforcement officers. “If you feel like, in any way, that you can qualify for a scholarship, then go for it,” advises Lynn. “The worst thing that will happen is you won’t get it.”
Minimizing Credit Hours
One very effective way to minimize the cost of a degree is to transfer credits. This typically involves transferring credits from a community or technical college or from a previous program at a four-year university or college. The school you are applying to will audit your transcripts, and decide what classes transfer.
One major difference in this process for law enforcement officers, military personnel, and other non-traditional students is that their professional training can qualify for college credit. Your in-service training is probably not going to qualify. But if you have a special training certification, it could qualify. Even work experience can qualify for credit at some schools.
Different universities have different requirements for number of credit hours that must be taken at that school for degree qualification. For example, the maximum number of transfer credits Columbia Southern will allow for a 120-hour undergraduate degree is 90. For a 36-hour graduate degree, the maximum transfer hours accepted by CSU is 18. Transferring credits can save you a lot of time and money.
Be Aware of Non-Tuition Expenses
Going to school on campus involves activity fees and lab fees and most expensively, books. Make sure you know the total cost of attending your online program.
Some online universities provide your books as part of tuition. The books are digital versions, but that’s also useful because it allows you to study anywhere you have your phone. “When I tell people that we supply books at no extra cost, they ask if I’m kidding,” says French. “I’m not kidding. Books are included.”
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Many working adults who enroll in degree programs online and on campuses never earn their degrees. Here are some tips for you to achieve the best results and avoid spending time and money without achieving your educational goals.
Manage Your Workload
Going back to school as a working adult can be challenging. So you may want to take it easy for your first semester or quarter. “I encourage law enforcement officers to start with just one or two classes,” says FHSU’s Lynn. “Then if they do well with one or two classes, then they can choose to increase the workload, if they want to and their schedule can accommodate it.”
Starting out slow has a couple of advantages for officers taking online classes. Since you are paying by the credit hour, not the semester or quarter, starting slow reduces your cost. Also, since you are not paying for room and board or other concerns of traditional college students, you really don’t have to rush, so taking fewer classes can give you a better chance at success. And keeping your credit hours manageable can save you money. Your initial outlay for classes will be lower, and you may be able to pay as you go or at least pay part as you go, which will reduce the need for loans and debt.
Just remember, if you are receiving tuition reimbursement or a scholarship, there may be credit hour requirements.
Manage Your Time
Experts consulted for this article say one major advantage that law enforcement officers and other working adults have over traditional students is they are more mature and more responsible. You know how to manage your time, which is good because going back to school while working as a full-time police officer is going to require discipline.
A major benefit of choosing an online education program is that it will be easier to fit your school work into your schedule. Many, if not most, online classes allow students to view lectures, take tests, participate in discussion groups, and conduct other school activities on their own schedules. You don’t have to be online at a specific time.
Also, programs that cater specifically to the needs of law enforcement officers, other public safety personnel, and the military tend to be flexible on deadlines.
CSU’s French says that she advises police officers studying in the school’s criminal justice program to build extra time into their schedules for assignments to account for unexpected job duties. She adds that CSU faculty are willing to accommodate officers who need to extend assignment deadlines.
Investing Time and Money
However, just because some degree programs will be willing to help you when your professional responsibilities take priority over your school work, that does not mean you are going to be able to be lazy and succeed.
Don’t think online classes are easy. They can be even more difficult than on-campus classes. And the workload is going to be college or graduate school level, depending on the degree level you are pursuing.
“It’s not easy, nor should it be,” says FHSU’s Lynn. “When a student receives a degree from Fort Hays State University, they have earned that degree.”
Enrolling in a degree program should not be taken lightly. It is an investment of time and money, and it will require sacrifice. “It’s going to take time that you want to spend with your family. It’s going to take your off time. When everybody else is watching football or going to a family event, you will be studying,” says CSU’s Lynn. “You have to have commitment to succeed.”