Police Officer Education
Police officer education requirements are set by state-level Peace Officer Standards and Training Councils (usually, though not always, abbreviated as POST) and by local police departments. Local police departments may set stricter standards than their overseeing POST agency, but may not set more lenient standards. In all 50 states, the minimum education required to become a police officer is a high school diploma or GED. However, a growing number of police departments require at least some college credit, and some even require a college degree.
Even if not required for entry-level police work, a college degree is either required or strongly recommended for advancement into the supervisory ranks by many police departments. In addition to many municipal law enforcement agencies requiring college credit, federal law enforcement positions, such as FBI detectives and investigators, generally require applicants to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, and some even require a graduate degree.1 For these and other reasons discussed in more detail below, an increasing number of future police officers are including college in their career plans.
Table of Contents
- Overview of Police Education Requirements
- Police Officer Degree Levels
- Police Degree Specialties
- Police Academy and On-the-Job Training
- Police Education Requirements by City
- Police Officer Advancement with a Degree
- Frequently Asked Questions
Overview of Police Education Requirements
The most recent data available indicates that over 80% of police departments in the US require at least a high school diploma or GED, while only 1% of police departments require a four-year degree.1 The remaining 19% of departments require varying amounts of college credit, up to an associate’s degree (typically 60 credit hours).1 About half of police agencies that require college credit will accept military experience in place of the usual college requirements.1 In general, larger police departments (those serving one million residents or more) tend to require a degree more often than smaller departments.1
At the same time, while it is not a strict entry-level requirement in all departments, the number of officers who have a college degree is rising; estimates suggest that 30% to 50% of US police have a four-year bachelor’s degree–compared to 33% of US adults overall.1 This indicates that investing in four years of college to be a police officer is not uncommon. An estimated 66% of police chiefs and sheriffs have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 33% of these have a master’s or law degree.1 Aside from agency hiring requirements, suggested reasons for these statistics include:1
- Agency hiring preferences (78% of agency leaders reported they preferred candidates with a college degree in a 2014 survey)
- The common minimum police hiring age of 21 encourages high school graduates to attend college before applying for police work
- Competitive hiring processes that award extra points to college graduates
- Incentive pay for officers who achieve a college degree
- Advancement policies that are more favorable towards those who hold a college degree
- The growing complexity of criminal justice as an academic field, which has implications for police practice
Despite the relatively low number of PDs that require a degree, departments seem to be trending towards requiring at least some college credit.2 Many experts believe police officers should be required to have a degree of some kind. 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.2 Even before recent, widely-publicized incidents of 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. As recent studies have found that more highly educated officers tend to be more effective and less likely to resort to the use of force in their duties, it makes more sense now than ever for prospective police officers to pursue a degree.2,3
Police Officer Degree Levels
There are many degree options for prospective and current police who are interested in furthering their education. As previously mentioned, a successful policing career does not necessarily require a college degree, but pursuing a degree 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 move into a supervisory position. Before we look at the degree majors (also known as specializations, concentrations, and emphases) available for those interested in police education, let’s look at the police officer education levels available.
Post-Secondary Technical Certificate
According to O*NET OnLine, 27% of police patrol officers suggest that the minimum education needed to be hired as a police officer is a postsecondary technical certificate.4 Technical certificates usually require 15 to 30 credit hours 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, 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 postsecondary certificate, according to O*NET OnLine, the second-most common degree recommended for cops is an associate degree, with 24% of respondents recommending this degree.4 An associate degree is a two-year degree (with full-time study) that can be found as an Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Science (AAS), or an Associate of Arts (AA), comprising about 60 credit hours of coursework. 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. Similar to 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 in order 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 candidate 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 four-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 Quarterly2
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 majors for aspiring police 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. 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 levels. Students in law enforcement and 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. Law enforcement and 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 law enforcement or policing degree programs.
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 police officer college degree option 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. Sociology degrees are offered in on-campus, hybrid, and online formats. Courses in sociology programs may include Crime, Law & Deviance, Mass Culture & Collective Behavior, Sociology of Social Problems, Sociological Perspectives, and Global Political Economy.
“Nearly one in four local police officers worked for a department that required entry-level officers to have at least a two-year college degree.” –Reaves, “Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices,” Bureau of Justice Statistics5
Police Academy and On-the-Job Training
Another important aspect of police officer education requirements 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 typically include 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 field training, working under the supervision of a more experienced officer. After completing field training, officers are typically assigned to their first independent patrol.
Ongoing training requirements vary by department and by state. In Missouri, for example, all sworn peace officers must complete 24 hours of Continuing Law Enforcement Education (CLEE) per year, with specific guidelines on the subjects to be studied including legal studies and racial profiling.6 Similarly, in Oklahoma, certified peace officers must complete 25 hours of continuing law enforcement training each year.7 Note that individual agencies may require more continuing education than state guidelines. At a minimum, however, you should expect to be tested on physical fitness as well as firearm use and accuracy on an ongoing basis. Check with your local agencies for further guidelines on requirements.
Police Education Requirements by City
The education required for prospective police officers can vary widely between major cities. 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, Minnesota is the only state that requires a two-year degree to become a peace officer statewide, while most other states’ POST educational requirements are more lenient. The Arlington Police Department and the Tulsa Police Department have among the most stringent educational requirements for law enforcement recruits, as both require those without a military background to have a bachelor’s degree.
While only about 3% of local police departments serve populations of 100,000 or more, such police departments employ just over half (52%) of full-time sworn police officers in the US.5 The table below displays the minimum police officer education requirements by the number of semester credit hours and the required degree for major city police departments in the United States. Any additional educational requirements, such as the area of study or minimum GPA, are reflected in the third column. Some city PDs allow officers to substitute relevant military experience in place of ordinary 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 satisfied with an associate and a bachelor’s degree, respectively.
|City Police Department||Add’l Educational Requirements|
|Albuquerque||32 credit hours||—||Yes|
|Aurora (CO)||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Chicago||60 credit hours||—||Yes|
|Colorado Springs||60 credit hours||—||No|
|Dallas||60 credit hours||—||Yes|
|El Paso||12 credit hours||—||No|
|Fort Worth||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Houston||48 credit hours||2.0+ GPA||Yes|
|Kansas City||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Las Vegas||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Long Beach||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Los Angeles||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Memphis||Associate or 54 credit hours||2.0+ GPA||Yes|
|Minneapolis||Associate||in Law Enforcement or Criminal Justice||Yes|
|Nashville||60 credit hours||2.0+ GPA||Yes|
|New Orleans||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|New York City||60 credit hours||2.0+ GPA||Yes|
|Oklahoma City||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Portland||60 credit hours||—||Yes|
|Sacramento||60 credit hours||25 of 60 required hours applied from Police Academy||No|
|San Antonio||HS Diploma/GED||2.0+ GPA||—|
|San Diego||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|San Francisco||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|San Jose||40 credit hours||—||Yes|
|Virginia Beach||HS Diploma/GED||—||—|
|Washington DC||60 credit hours||—||Yes|
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.8 According to a study by 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.9 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.8 For example, the Austin Police Department pays police recruits with a high school diploma a starting salary of $60,453 after graduating the police academy, but officers with an associate’s degree receive an additional $100/month incentive; this rises to $220 per month for a bachelor’s degree and $300 per month for a master’s.11 At the Dallas Police Department, the starting pay for police officers is $61,367 per year, but officers who have a four-year degree can expect $64,967 per year.12 The Los Angeles Police Department pays full-time police officers without a degree or prior law enforcement or military experience $76,379 per year and those with an associate’s degree or above or prior law enforcement or military experience $79,344 per year.13
Many officers pursue a degree after they have joined a department and study while serving on the force, which can command a higher rate of pay and increase their chances of getting promoted. Some police departments, including Colorado Springs, Louisville, and Phoenix, offer education benefits, tuition reimbursement, and/or scholarships as benefits for officers.
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.”14 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 many state and local police agencies now incentivize higher education for officers in order to increase the number of educated cops across the country.14
“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)15
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. Research suggests that college-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, Minneapolis, and Tulsa, require an undergraduate degree to become a police officer and many others, like San Jose, Sacramento, Portland, Nashville, and Houston, require police applicants to have accumulated a certain number of college credits to apply. See the table above for an overview of educational requirements by city.
Do you need a college degree to be a cop?
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 research suggesting that educated cops are more effective than their less-educated counterparts, many officer recruits are choosing to start their careers with a college education.
If I do go to college, what degree do I need to be a police officer?
There is no single “police officer college degree” option that will guarantee hire, and police departments generally do not look for a specific major, though they may require a certain number of credits or an associate’s degree (or even a bachelor’s degree). While the specific major that is right for you will depend on your desired career path, some of the best degrees for police include majors in law enforcement, policing, criminal justice, and social welfare. Consider arranging an informational interview or attending an open recruiting day at the police department(s) where you are considering applying to learn more about their education expectations.
Do I need a minimum GPA to become a police officer?
Of the major police departments we researched that 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, Houston, Memphis, and New York City 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.
What college subjects are needed to become a police officer?
Though the education needed for law enforcement varies by department, and although in many departments you can become a police officer without college, a college education may still be helpful to your career. University courses for prospective police officers typically include criminal justice, sociology, communication, and psychology. Some college programs offer specific law enforcement courses for future police officers, especially in formal law enforcement or policing majors. Check with the school(s) you are considering for detailed options.
What experience is needed to be a police officer?
In addition to police officer education level, some police departments also consider the experience level of prospective recruits. You might find that departments are looking for individuals who have at least one to two years of experience in a customer-facing role or in another role that requires good communication skills. As you plan your career, it’s a good idea to consider not only college courses to become a police officer but entry-level experience you can gain as well.
Can you become a police officer with a GED?
Yes. Most police departments accept applicants with a high school diploma or a GED. Departments that require college credit will generally not disqualify an applicant just because they earned a GED instead of a high school diploma. Some departments will also consider military experience or college credit instead of a GED, though a GED is itself typically a prerequisite to entering the military or college. Check with departments of interest for specific requirements and waivers that may be available.
What education is needed to become a police detective?
In contrast to entry-level police work, some formal education or experience (or, commonly, a combination thereof) is generally required in order to qualify for a detective position. Applicants who have a good track record of police experience and a college degree are generally better-positioned to apply for detective positions and other specialty ranks since these usually open via a competitive process.
What are the police departments that require a four-year degree?
Of the 56 largest cities in the US that How to Become a Police Officer tracks, only two police departments require a four-year degree: Arlington (Texas) and Tulsa (Oklahoma). That being said, there are smaller police departments nationwide that may look for college degrees; sheriff’s departments, state police agencies, and federal law enforcement agencies are all also more likely than average to require a four-year degree.
1. Cordner, Gary. “Police Education in the USA.” Policing, 0, 0, 2018, 1-12.
2. Police Quarterly, The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior: https://www.academia.edu/2907549/The_Effect_of_Higher_Education_on_Police_Behavior
3. Dr. Chuck Russo and Kevin Duffy, In Public Safety, “Do Cops Need a College Education?”: https://amuedge.com/do-cops-need-a-college-education/
4. O*NET OnLine, Summary Report for Police Patrol Officers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3051.00
5. Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices: https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd13ppp.pdf
6. Missouri Department of Public Safety, Continuing Law Enforcement Education Requirements: https://dps.mo.gov/dir/programs/post/edrequirements.php
7. Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training: https://www.ok.gov/cleet/CLEET_Training/
8. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Local Police Departments, 2016–Personnel: https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd16p.pdf
9. 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/
10. 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/
11. Austin Police Department: https://www.apdrecruiting.org/pay-benefits
12. Dallas Police Department: https://www.dallaspolice.net/joindpd/Pages/SalaryBenefits.aspx
13. Los Angeles Police Department: https://www.joinlapd.com/salary
14. Obama White House Archives, “President Obama Creates Task Force on 21st Century Policing”: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2014/12/18/president-obama-creates-task-force-21st-century-policing
15. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Higher Education and Local Law Enforcement: https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/higher-education-and-local-law-enforcement