Police Officer Education
Increasingly, police officer jobs require some college credit, and some even require a college degree. For example, the New York City Police Department requires that candidates have earned at least 60 college credits with a minimum GPA of 2.0 if they have not previously served in the military, and the Houston Police Department requires 48 semester hours of college with a GPA greater than 2.0 for non-military applicants. Currently, Minneosta is the only state that requires a two-year degree to become a peace officer state-wide, while most other states’ Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) educational requirements are more lenient. The Arlington Police Department and the Tulsa Police Department have the most stringent educational requirement for law enforcement recruits, as both require recruits without a military background to have a bachelor’s degree.
In addition to many municipal law enforcement agencies requiring college credits, federal law enforcement positions, such as FBI detectives and investigators, generally require applicants to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, and many even require a graduate degree.1
Still, the majority of police officers working today hold only a high school diploma or equivalent, says O*NET OnLine.1 35% of officers are high school graduates, while 27% hold a post-secondary certificate, and just 24% have an associate’s degree.1 In fact, according to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study, only 15% of local US police departments had a college requirement of some sort to be hired, and most accepted military service in lieu of education.2 Of those, 10% required a two-year degree, 4% required some college, and only 1% required a four-year college degree.2 In general, larger police departments (those serving 1 million or more) tended to require a degree more often than smaller departments.2
Despite the relatively low number of PDs that require a degree, departments seem to be trending towards requiring at least some college credit.3 This trend may be partially due to recent studies, such as one published in Police Quarterly, that suggest a correlation between higher education and police effectiveness.3 Even before the recent incidents of alleged police brutality that have contributed to growing tensions between officers and the people they serve, the occupation of policing has been moving towards a “community policing” approach, in which cops spend more time getting to know the people in the communities they serve and protect. If it is true that more educated officers tend to be more effective and less violent, as the Police Quarterly study suggests, then it makes more sense now than ever for prospective police officers to pursue a degree.
Table of Contents
- Police Officer Degree Levels
- Post-Secondary Technical Certificate
- Associate of Science or Associate of Arts
- Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts
- Police Academy and Field Training
- Police Degree Specialties
- Law Enforcement or Policing
- Criminal Justice or Criminology
- Police Education by City
- Police Officer Advancement with a Degree
- Frequently Asked Questions
Police Officer Degree Levels
For prospective or current cops who are interested in furthering their education, there are many degree options. As previously mentioned, a successful policing career does not necessarily require a college degree, but many police forces do require a minimum number of college credits (if not a degree) and many experts believe that police officers should be required to have a degree of some kind. Pursuing a degree in any field can benefit your career as a police officer, not only by helping you get hired, but also by putting you in a better position to be promoted and/or to move into a supervisory position. Before we look at the degree specialties available for those interested in police education, let’s look at the degree levels available.
Post-Secondary Technical Certificate
According to O*NET OnLine, the most common degree held by police officers (after a high school diploma) is a technical certificate, with 27% of respondents being certificate holders.1 Technical certificates usually require 15 to 30 semester credit hours (including general education requirements), and can be completed in as little as a few months to a year. If you choose to attend a certificate program in a subject such as law enforcement, law enforcement administration, or criminal justice, you can expect a broad overview of the field, with coursework covering topics such as an introduction to criminal justice, physical defense tactics, police officer survival, interview and interrogation techniques, and firearms. Many technical certificates in law enforcement fulfill some police academy requirements and may include a certain number of police training hours.
Associate of Science or Associate of Arts
Following close behind the post-secondary certificate, the second-most common degree for cops, according to O*NET OnLine, is the associate degree, with 24% of respondents holding this degree.1 An associate degree is typically a two-year degree (full-time) that is commonly classified as an Associate of Science (AS), and Associate of Applied Science (AAS), or an Associate of Arts (AA) and comprises about 60 credit hours of coursework. Students interested in a career in law enforcement may complete an associate degree in any subject, though degrees focusing on law enforcement, police science, criminal justice, or related fields like homeland security or forensic science provide the most useful training for prospective or current police officers. An associate degree in law enforcement may include courses such as Community Relations, Firearms, Criminal Procedures, Loss Prevention, and Forensic Investigation.
Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts
Another option for police officer education is the bachelor’s degree. Like an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree can be in the form of a Bachelor of Science (BS), a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS), or a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Bachelor’s degrees usually take four years of full-time study to complete, and prospective or current cops may choose to pursue a bachelor’s in any subject to fulfill most departments’ educational requirements. For students considering a career in federal law enforcement, jobs like CIA Officer or US Marshal may require a bachelor’s degree in a criminal justice-related subject, such as homeland security, criminology, or law enforcement. To be the most competitive candidates for these federal positions, many students pursue graduate degrees after obtaining their bachelor’s. Most bachelor’s degrees require around 120 credit hours to graduate, including foundational and specialized coursework. Law enforcement bachelor’s degrees may include courses such as Introduction to Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Ethics in Criminal Justice, Community Policing, Crime Analysis and Investigation, and others.
“Approximately 56% of the encounters involving officers with some college or a 4-year degree resorted to force, whereas nearly 68% of encounters involving officers with no college experience used force.”
-Rydberg and Terrill, “The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior,” Police Quarterly3
Police Academy and Field Training
Another important aspect of police officer education is on-the-job training, which includes police academy training. When officers are hired onto a police force, they typically attend a Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST)-certified police academy for a certain number of hours. During POST training, officer candidates learn skills relevant to policing, such as firearms training, defense tactics, community policing, traffic enforcement, and report writing. POST-certified basic law enforcement academies can include anywhere from three to six months of full-time training, for which officers are paid.
Some cities allow these POST training hours to be applied to the number of credit hours required to be hired as a peace officer. For example, the Sacramento Police Department requires 60 semester credit hours of college to be hired, but 25 of those hours can be applied after the police academy training is completed, so technically only 35 hours of college credits are needed beyond the academy training that all officers receive. After attending a police academy that satisfies the POST requirements, most officers begin in the patrol division of the force, where they continue to learn on the job as a new patrol officer in what is called field training.
Police Degree Specialties
While most police departments do not require a degree or college credits in a particular subject, it is still wise to consider pursuing a degree type that will help you in your law enforcement career. The most common degree types sought after by aspiring cops are degrees in law enforcement, criminal justice, or related fields such as homeland security or forensics. Some police officer degrees can be pursued online or in a hybrid format of online and on-campus courses. Check with your school(s) of choice to see if they offer any online components for police education.
Law Enforcement or Policing
One common degree specialty for those interested in a career in policing is law enforcement. Degrees in law enforcement are offered at the certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Students in law enforcement or policing degree programs learn about the history of law enforcement, focusing on an ethical approach to policing, the application of law, due process, tactical strategies, law enforcement technology, and the proper use of force. Policing degrees may be pursued in a traditional format, as well as in a hybrid or online format. Courses common to a degree in law enforcement include Physical Training/ Use of Force, Constitutional Law, Police Report Writing, Firearms, Law Enforcement Leadership, and Traffic Law. Courses taken at the police academy after being hired as an officer are typically similar to those found in a law enforcement or policing degree program.
Criminal Justice or Criminology
Another common degree specialty for cops is a degree in criminal justice or criminology. While the two fields are related, criminal justice is defined as the study of the system of US law enforcement, including courts and corrections, while criminology is the broader and more theoretical study of the social phenomenon of crime, including its causes and consequences. That said, an education in criminal justice may be best suited for prospective cops, but criminology can certainly be helpful too. Students in criminal justice and criminology programs will learn about the criminal justice system, criminology, courts, and the US correctional system, and coursework may cover research methods and statistics as well. Coursework may include courses such as Policing, Juvenile Justice, Corrections, Courts and Judicial Process, Research Methods in Criminal Justice, and Prisons: Punishment and Rehabilitation in America. Criminal justice and criminology degrees are available at all degree levels, from certificates to graduate degrees.
Another helpful degree specialization for police officer recruits is sociology. Sociology degrees are offered as certificates, associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees, and they usually cover the examination of social issues, theory, statistics, and data analysis. Sociology degrees can be helpful for students interested in peace officer careers by giving them an understanding of how individuals function in societies, which includes how those individuals relate to crime and punishment. Sociology degrees are offered in on-campus programs, online programs, or in hybrid programs incorporating both online and on-campus courses. Courses in sociology programs may include Crime, Law & Deviance, Mass Culture & Collective Behavior, Sociology of Social Problems, Sociological Perspectives, Global Political Economy, Self and Society.
“Nearly 1 in 4 local police officers worked for a department that required entry-level officers to have at least a 2-year college degree.”
-Reaves, “Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices,” Bureau of Justice Statistics2
Police Education by City
The table below displays the minimum educational requirements, in the number of semester credit hours or by the required degree, for each major city police department in the United States. Any additional educational requirements, such as the area of study or minimum GPA, is reflected in the third column. Some city PDs allow officers to submit relevant military experience in lieu of the educational requirements, and that data is reflected in the fourth column of the table. Finally, the last two columns represent the percentage of the required education for a given city PD that would be covered by an associate and a bachelor’s degree, respectively.
|City Police Department||Required Education||Add’l Educational Requirements||Military Experience Accepted ILO Education?||% Covered by Associate Degree||% Covered by Bachelor’s Degree|
|Colorado Springs||60 hours*||N/A||No||100||100|
|El Paso||12 hours*||N/A||No||100||100|
|Fort Worth||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Kansas City||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Las Vegas||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Long Beach||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Los Angeles||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Memphis||Associate Degree or 54 hours*||>C Average||Yes||100||100|
|Minneapolis||2- or 4-year Degree||in Law Enforcement or Criminal Justice||Yes||100||100|
|New Orleans||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|New York City||60 hours*||GPA>2.0||Yes||100||100|
|Oklahoma City||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Sacramento||60 hours||25 of 60 required hours applied from Police Academy||No||100||100|
|San Antonio||HS Diploma/GED||>C Average||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|San Diego||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|San Francisco||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|San Jose||40 hours*||N/A||Yes||100||100|
|Tulsa||Bachelor’s Degree||>C+ Average||No||0||100|
|Virginia Beach||HS Diploma/GED||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
*”Hours” refers to college-level semester credit hours (SCH) unless otherwise specified.
Police Officer Advancement with a Degree
Patrol officers who acquire experience and who have a degree are more likely to be promoted into managerial positions.4 According to the University of San Diego, there is a shortage of officers in law enforcement leadership positions, so pursuing a degree to become a police officer has never made more sense.4 Even if they do not require a college degree to apply, many police departments offer higher pay rates to officers who have an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree as an educational incentive.5 For example, the Atlanta Police Department pays police recruits with a high school diploma a starting salary of $40,000, but starting officers with an associate’s degree receive a starting salary of $41,400 and those with bachelor’s degrees can expect a salary of $42,800. At the Dallas Police Department, the starting pay for police officers is $49,207, but officers who have a four-year degree can expect $52,807. The LAPD pays the Police Officer II position $70,240 for those without a degree or prior law enforcement or military experience and $72,976 for those with an associate’s degree or above or prior law enforcement or military experience.
Many officers pursue a degree after they have joined a department, while they serve on the force, in order to either command a higher rate of pay or to increase their chances of getting promoted. Some police departments, including Colorado Springs, CO, Louisville, KY, and Phoenix, AZ, even offer education benefits, tuition reimbursement, and/or scholarships as a benefit for officers. In a 2014 study from Michigan State University published in Police Quarterly, evidence suggests that cops who hold a college degree are less likely to use force on the job.3 The study also found that college-educated officers are more competent in problem-solving, better at technology, act more ethically overall, and have better communication skills than less educated cops.3
In 2014, President Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in order to “strengthen community policing and strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”5 One of the task force’s six main pillars was Training & Education, which emphasized the importance of both training and education for all police officers, not only at the beginning of their careers in law enforcement, but throughout their careers as a way to become better leaders. One of the recommendations that emerged from Pillar 5: Training & Education was that both the Federal Government and state and local police agencies incentivize higher education for officers to increase the number of educated cops across the country.5
“In the present study, almost half of the respondents earned a college degree and took college-level classes while employed as an officer.”
-Hilal and Densley, “Higher Education and Law Enforcement,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (LEB)6
Frequently Asked Questions
What education is needed to become a police officer?
Typically, a high school diploma is the minimum educational requirement needed to become a cop. However, some experts contend that this standard is changing. More and more research suggests that educated police officers are more effective at their jobs, so many police forces are incorporating higher education either in their requirements to become an officer or incentivizing it in their benefits programs. Some cities, such as Arlington, TX, Minneapolis, MN, and Tulsa, OK, require an undergraduate degree to become a police officer and many others, like San Jose, CA, Sacramento, CA, Portland, OR, Nashville, TN, and Houston, TX, require police applicants to have accumulated a certain number of college credits to apply. See the table above for the educational requirements by city.
Do police officers need a college education?
Not necessarily. While a growing number of prospective law enforcement officers are seeking a college degree or college credits before becoming a cop, the majority of police departments still only require a high school diploma as a minimum educational requirement. Still, pursuing an education, especially one focused on an area such as law enforcement or criminal justice, can increase an officer’s chances of getting hired and certainly help them be promoted later in their career. For this reason, and also because of the research suggesting that educated cops are overwhelmingly more effective than their less educated counterparts, many officer recruits are choosing to start their careers with a college education.
Do I need a minimum GPA to become a police officer?
Not necessarily. Of the major police departments we researched that do require a degree or some college to apply, few specify a minimum GPA to join. Many departments simply require a certain number of college credits or a degree to become a cop, but there are some exceptions. Cities such as Dallas, TX, Houston, TX, Memphis, TN, and New York, NY require a minimum GPA of 2.0 or a “C” average for their college credit requirement. Check with the departments to which you are interested in applying for more details.
1. O*NET OnLine, Summary Report for Police Patrol Officers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3051.01
2. Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd13ppp.pdf
3. Police Quarterly, The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior: https://www.academia.edu/2907549/The_Effect_of_Higher_Education_on_Police_Behavior
4. University of San Diego, Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership, “Moving From One Generation To the Next: The Shift in Law Enforcement Leadership”: https://onlinedegrees.sandiego.edu/shift-in-law-enforcement-leadership/
5. University of San Diego, Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership, “Going Beyond the Bachelor’s: Why Police Officer Education is So Important”: https://onlinedegrees.sandiego.edu/why-police-officer-education-is-important/
6. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Higher Education and Local Law Enforcement: https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/higher-education-and-local-law-enforcement