Why Should I Get a College Degree When I Just Want to Be a Cop?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

The value of a college degree for people wanting careers in law enforcement has been debated for decades. While the research is not conclusive on the effects a college education has on police officer performance, there are a number of compelling reasons for people interested in law enforcement careers to obtain a college degree. So even if you say, “I don’t need a college education, I just want to be a cop” there are still good reasons to consider college.

One of the first reasons to consider college is the fact that many police departments have adopted educational standards that go beyond the high school diploma, and this number continues to increase. Today about 8% of local police departments in the US have some college requirement and about 1% of departments require a 4-year college degree. While this is a relatively small percentage these college requirements are most prevalent in medium to large sized police organizations. These agencies offer the best starting salaries and the most potential for advancement in the field. Also, if you are thinking about a job in federal law enforcement, it is nearly impossible to land one of those jobs without a college degree.

Another reason for college is that a degree makes you more attractive to the best law enforcement agencies. While there is little uniformity with regard to educational standards across all US police departments, some of the best agencies appear to have developed their standards based on the availability of highly qualified applicants—the more desirable the employer the higher the job standards. For example, the Tulsa Police Department requires every applicant to have a college degree; Multnomah County, Oregon requires a 4-year degree; Lexington, Kentucky Police require a college degree for advancement and even a graduate degree in most cases; and, the San Jose Police Department has required a minimum of 60 semester hours for employment since 1957.

Likewise, more and more police administrators are recognizing the importance of a college education. Johnston and Cheurprakobkit surveyed 100 police executives in Arkansas and Arizona and found that an overwhelming majority favored applicants with at least some college education. The police executives believed that a college education improves officer attitudes, reduce citizen complaints, and result in better decision-making.

Finally, when Polk and Armstrong examined the effects of a college education on advancement in Texas police departments, they found that it reduced the amount of time before an officer is transferred to a specialized unit. College education also resulted in officers being promoted earlier in their careers. Education, it seems, assists officers in career development and specialization. Specialized units in police departments include investigations, sex crimes, selective traffic enforcement, SWAT, criminalistics, and juvenile or community relations. Decisions to promote and transfer officers to specialized units are usually based on an examination of the officers' past work record and their education.

So if you want a good job in policing, you want to specialize, or advance in policing college education is always the right choice.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies

Published on January 29, 2013