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Why cops should pursue higher education

Earning a degree is what’s best for your organization, your community and your profession


Researchers conclude that a higher education may positively impact officers’ abilities and performance.


At some point in your career, you may have thought, “I should go back to school to get that extra 5 percent educational incentive,” or “I need to get my degree so I can get that promotion,” or “I need to get the degree to boost my retirement fund.” But have you actually acted on those ideas?

Now is the time to seize on the notion and take action, and not just because it’s good for your career. Earning a degree is what’s best for your organization, your community and your profession.

For those aspiring to management or executive positions (captain, major, assistant chief/sheriff, deputy chief/sheriff or even chief or sheriff), a degree may or not be required, but it will certainly reduce the competition. Consider the complexity of today’s policing – managing millions of dollars in budgets, training academies, supplies, equipment, forensic labs, personnel, legal and mandated requirements, court decisions and policing diverse communities. Performing the basic police mission at the same time is a daunting role for anyone.

Despite years of research that appears to confirm a connection between education levels and police behavior and multiple efforts to establish a college degree as an entry-level requirement for police work, most departments require only a high school degree or GED for new recruits.

Myriad Benefits

In one study of disciplinary cases against Florida officers, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wrote that, “Officers with only high school educations were the subjects of 75 percent of all disciplinary actions. Officers with four-year degrees accounted for 11 percent of such actions.”

Another study held that officers with undergraduate degrees performed on par with officers who had 10 years of additional experience. Nationally, only about 1 percent of police departments require a four-year degree.

A 2014 study by Jason Rydberg and Dr. William Terrill at Michigan State University provides evidence that a college degree significantly reduces the likelihood that officers will use force as their first option to gain compliance. The study also discovered evidence of educated officers demonstrating greater levels of creativity and problem-solving skills. The researchers concluded that a higher education may positively impact officers’ abilities and performance and listed many potential benefits, including:

  • Better skilled in independent decision-making and problem-solving
  • Fewer on-the-job injuries and assaults
  • More proficient in technology
  • Less likely to be involved in unethical behavior
  • Less likely to use force as the first response
  • Less use of sick time (work ethic and seeing the big picture)
  • Greater acceptance of minorities (diversity and cultural awareness)
  • Decrease in dogmatism, authoritarianism, rigidity and conservatism
  • Improved communication skills (oral and written)
  • Better adapted to retirement and second-career opportunities

In another study by Rebecca Paynich (2009) college-educated police officers were more likely to:

  • Better understand policing and the criminal justice system
  • Better comprehend civil rights issues from multiple perspectives
  • Adapt better to organizational change
  • Have fewer administrative and personnel problems

According to the Police Association for College Education (PACE), other benefits of higher education in policing include:

  • Fewer citizen complaints
  • Promotion of higher aspirations
  • Enhancement of minority recruitment


It’s time we became serious about higher education for law enforcement. While nothing will replace the experience and street smarts of veteran officers, perhaps we should really listen to such voices as Sir Robert Peel (1829), August Vollmer (1916), the Wickersham Commission (1931,) the President‘s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967), the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1969), the American Bar Association on Standards for Criminal Justice (1972) and the Police Foundation‘s Advisory Commission on Higher Education for Police Officers (1978), all of which said essentially said the same thing: The path to true professionalism is through education.

When considering your long-term strategies, give serious thought to changing your agency’s educational requirements.

This article, originally published March 2016, has been updated.

Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

As director of KSA Ltd., (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using assessment centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from National University. He was also a Ph.D. candidate for the Union Institute and University.