Deciding to pursue higher education is a difficult decision, especially for working professionals who have been out of school for a while. Some argue that seeking more instruction is a waste of time and money in the law enforcement profession—that experience and commonsense are more important and that a degree won’t help you win a gun fight.
But the fact is more and more law enforcement positions are requiring advanced degrees. It’s becoming common for departments to require a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level position. And having a graduate degree will set you apart from others when pursuing promotion.
“As an operations officer, I used to say that street experience is more important than education,” says Nichoel Casey, a recent graduate from the University of Oklahoma College of Liberal Studies (OU), where she received a bachelor’s of science in criminal justice. “I had the experience and was good at my job, but I was wrong. Getting my degree not only widened my perspective on everything and taught me to look at things differently, but it also improved my confidence and helped me do my job better.”
The experience you gain from training and the street is invaluable. But many say obtaining a degree opens doors you didn’t know existed and allows you to take the next step in your career. Casey, like most others, pursued a degree to advance her career. “I had always wanted to finish my degree and eventually go to law school and work for the federal government,” she says. “I was working in business operations, but felt I could not progress any further without a degree.”
Pursuing a degree may also help you grow both professionally and personally. The information and skills you acquire—such as leadership, self-discipline, critical thinking and writing—can help you deal with coworkers, including subordinates and those up the chain of command, as well as interacting with the public.
Cindy Watts, a corporal at Foley (Ala.) PD, attended Columbia Southern University (CSU) where she earned a bachelor’s of science in criminal justice administration. Her motivation for going back to school was to finish something she started many years ago and gain a sense of completion. “I learned many things about many topics while attending CSU. Overall, I think the information I learned and use most is the interactions I have as a supervisor with the officers on my squad,” says Watts.
Taking classes also keeps you current with new processes, technology and information. This is important because law enforcement is frequently challenged with integrating innovative tech into the job.
Most importantly, completing your degree boosts confidence, which will serve you well in the law enforcement profession. “As a police officer, I say that experience is an awesome indicator of a person’s success and ability. Add education to that same person and they become empowered—not so much physically, but internally. An experienced and educated individual will accomplish more in their lives,” says Watts.
Whatever your reason and motivation to return to school may be, agencies know experience is paramount to success, but a formal education is a means for rounding out that base of experience.
Selecting a Program
Many schools have made it easier for working cops to go back to school by expanding their programs, hours and curriculums, and offering online programs to accommodate work schedules. For most law enforcement professionals who are working full-time, flexibility in scheduling is paramount.
Watts chose the program at CSU because of its flexibility. “The flexibility for online classes is endless. … I can go online 24 hours a day and work on my tests. I don’t have to attend class on a certain day at a certain time,” says Watts. “I work strictly night shifts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for 84 hours in a two-week period. Since my schedule is different every other week, the flexibility of online classes suited me best.”
Watts said the flexibility allowed her to spend more time on a topic if needed. If she got it the first time, then she could move on to the next unit. “My speed, my pace, my time of day,” says Watts.
Casey, on the other hand, had started out hoping for a brick-and-mortar school, but found everything she ever wanted in her online program at OU.
“OU’s online program is a great opportunity for people in the LE community because it works with them instead of expecting them to conform to a rigid program,” says Casey. “An online program does require more self-discipline, but I found that the ability to do classwork on my own schedule actually felt like it was less of a time commitment.”
Note: Even with the success of these LE professionals, online programs aren’t for everyone. Some may prefer interacting directly with students and professors in a traditional classroom setting to receive immediate feedback.
In addition to deciding between brick-and-mortar and online programs, also consider the following factors when selecting the right program for you.
Faculty: If possible, research your potential professors beforehand. Instructors with real-world experience will benefit their students by providing them with examples they may come across on the job. This allows students to understand how to better apply the information and theories they learn in class to the real world of policing.
Length of the program: No one wants to be in school forever. Find a program that accepts past credits so you don’t have to retake classes. Make sure you meet all the prerequisites and research what classes you need to take and when they’re available before enrolling to make sure you graduate on time.
Tuition: The ideal situation is to find a job/department that will pay for your tuition. But for many, you’ll need to pay for your studies, apply for scholarships or take out loans. Most schools will gladly help you navigate through your financial options and give you resources.
“The College of Liberal Studies has its own financial aid department to help you navigate the main campus bursar’s office,” says Casey. “Also, OU allows for payment plans, so you can enroll in classes and then pay them over the semester.”
Watts had a similar positive experience dealing with her school. “The college [CSU] has a wonderful and knowledgeable group of people who work with every student about the loans and grants. They assisted with completing the FAFSA and all the necessary paperwork for student loans,” says Watts.
Location: Obviously, if you chose an online program, location won’t be as high a priority. But if you choose to attend a traditional school and plan to work full time, location of the school should be highly considered.
How to Make It Work
Once you decide which school best meets all your needs (see Educational Institutions below for a non-comprehensive list of schools), how do you make it work, especially if you’re working full time? Pursuing higher education is no easy task. It’s hard work and a big commitment, but here are some key ingredients to success.
Develop self-discipline: “Self-discipline is necessary for all classes, whether they are online or in a classroom. It all boils down to how badly you want it,” says Watts. Juggling school, work and play is difficult, especially if you’ve adapted to a particular lifestyle. It takes discipline to turn down fun activities when you have to study for a test.
“Being a single parent, I struggled with that. I did my studies while my son (a teenager) was at school and worked at night. I wanted to show him the importance of obtaining a degree,” says Watts.
Relieve stress: Stress is an inevitable part of being a student. As much as you may try to prevent stress, you’re going to have to learn how to relieve it. Finding a way to do so, whether it be exercising or enjoying a hobby, will keep you healthy and focused.
Manage your time and pace yourself: The most common worry about going back to school is how much time it would take out of your daily or weekly schedule. There are ways to make it work though. Watts suggests starting with a single class until you develop a pattern and adjust to setting aside time for your studies.
“I had two days a week that I committed to studies,” says Watts. “Sometimes it took all day and sometimes only a few hours. I tried to do a little each day and that didn’t work for me because I would get lost and have to repeat sections done the day before. So I set aside chunks of time, like two hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening.”
Casey also found it easier to compartmentalize. “I would work until 5 p.m., eat dinner and read and do research for a few hours in the evening. Then write my papers on the weekend. This worked for me,” she says. Both agree that staying organized is critical to time management and maintaining a healthy work/life/school balance.
Find your learning style: Not everyone learns material the same way. Find a learning style (visual, auditory, hands-on, etc.) that will help you process material in a way that makes the most sense to you. Online classes, for example, may be best suited for the visual learner, rather than the hands-on or auditory learner.
Communicate: Not everyone will understand the demands of being a student so communicate your schedule to your employers, friends and family. “Balancing school with family wasn’t always easy, but I spoke with my family before starting the program. It was a family commitment,” says Watts. Having support and encouragement is important so that you can focus on school.
And make sure to communicate if you don’t understand the class material. Ask questions. It’s a good skill to have and will help you succeed.
Stay positive: Sometimes it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but staying positive about what you’re learning and how it’s helping you develop professionally will keep you motivated. Focus on completing your goals, and don’t get discouraged.
Is It Worth the Money?
Attending school is an investment that pays off in the end. It can help you advance your career, develop skills to succeed at your job and shows your employer that you’re committed to improving yourself and your profession.
“I am so happy that I found this program at OU. For me, it was the best decision I ever made. It allowed me to reach my goals and continue to work and take care of my family,” says Casey. “It also helps me most in working with different people with different views. It taught me to look at different approaches and find a common ground.”
The benefits are rarely immediate. But sometimes you get lucky. “Was it worth the money? It was for me and it still is. I received a pay raise with a promotion!” says Watts. “When I was completing my degree, the police department announced openings for the corporal position. The information I learned during the degree program were the same materials posted for the written portion of the promotion exam. I placed first overall on the promotion board.”
What’s next for them? Cpl. Watts is currently finishing up her master’s degree in Emergency Services Management, which she started in October 2011. Casey is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Administrative Leadership while she completes a Juris Doctorate at OU Law.
The bottom line: Getting a degree requires sacrifice, but the return on investment can be worth the effort.
American Military University
California University of Pennsylvania
Columbia Southern University
Fort Hays State University
Penn State University
University of Arkansas, Little Rock
University of Cincinnati
University of Louisville
University of Maryland College
University of Northern Colorado
University of Oklahoma College
University of Phoenix
University of Texas, Arlington