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3 key elements to look for in an online degree program

Comprehensive programs include a blend of specific and general courses that help develop your critical thinking skills and promote professional growth


Look for a degree program that helps you gain a broad base of knowledge and develops your critical thinking skills in addition to providing practical expertise.


Sponsored by Norwich University

By Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Once you’ve made the decision to pursue your degree online, it’s important to choose a program that will give you a comprehensive educational experience for a positive return on your investment of time and money.

In addition to practical expertise, you want a program that helps you gain a broad, interdisciplinary base of knowledge and develops your critical thinking skills. Here are three key features to look for in an online degree program:

1. Look beyond your major

It’s tempting to focus solely on courses that directly apply to your current or desired job, but it’s important that your education help you gain a larger context in order to fully appreciate that information.

Look for a program that includes interdisciplinary courses in cultural studies, ethics, government and communication for a solid foundation of knowledge that supports supports your major or career focus. Learning to incorporate ideas from these disciplines will help you cultivate critical problem-solving skills and improve your ability to confront complex problems.

“It’s really those broad, core courses that help students find opportunity for trying out new ideas and developing creative solutions to problems,” said Tucker Harding, director of student success and retention for Norwich University’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

“If a student is able to confidently and competently engage with those higher-level questions, then on the day-to-day aspects of their job, they bring that bigger context with them and can become more effective problem-solvers,” he added.

2. Look for courses that will help you on the job

Critical thinking is important, but courses that provide practical knowledge you can apply to your day-to-day work are invaluable. Look for a program that offers courses in your specific areas of duty, as well as those you wish to explore.

For example, look for courses that focus specifically on law enforcement issues such as drugs and gangs, immigration law and policy or cold case investigations. Studying the protocols for cold case investigations can help if you are a patrol officer looking to make detective. A course in law enforcement administration that covers management, human resources and financial principles can help you move up the ladder toward becoming chief.

The study of immigration and customs law is especially relevant right now, as are courses that delve into the topics of drugs and organized gangs, says Allison Crowson, a former law enforcement professional who now manages the online criminal justice degree completion program for Norwich University.

“The immigration laws in this country are changing on pretty much a 24-hour basis right now, so it’s important to be able to understand what you’re supposed to do at any given time and why we make those decisions,” she said. “Same with the drugs and gangs course. There is not a corner of this country that is not touched by gang activity at the moment.”

The “who” can be as important as the “what” when it comes to these courses. Look for a program developed and taught by experts in the field. Instructors who are still working in law enforcement are especially valuable, as they bring current knowledge and practices to the discussion.

3. Leverage your educational experience for professional gain

It can be a challenge to transfer what you learn in an academic setting to situations in the real world, but education should help you make connections between ideas and experiences.

“The real test is what happens when you actually do attempt to solve a problem, not as an exercise but as the real thing,” said Harding.

Look for a program that provides an opportunity to combine academic knowledge with real-world experience to maximize the potential for professional benefit. A field study course or capstone project can provide a valuable opportunity to leverage your academic efforts for professional growth.

Crowson says these projects provide a chance to study a problem that you care about and propose a solution that can be presented to your agency. She has seen students develop disaster response plans and grant applications as their capstone projects that were eventually adopted for the benefit of their agencies and communities.

“They become more than just a paper you turn in for a final grade,” she said. “They come out as these really useful, working documents.”

Choose a comprehensive program

Continuing your education can set you apart from your colleagues when applying for promotions, as well as increase your salary. For the best return on your investment, look for a well-rounded program that provides both the practical expertise you need to succeed on the job and broader courses to provide context and help develop your problem-solving prowess.