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Online degree program prepares officers for the future of policing

Higher education has many benefits for law enforcement – here’s how to realize them while you work

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J.P. Montoya has served as a motorcycle officer and in numerous other roles for the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department. A criminal justice degree from Penn State’s World Campus will help him advance and enjoy a long, successful career.

Yiming Xu

Sponsored by Penn State World Campus

By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Everything about J.P. Montoya’s professional background suggests he’ll go on to a successful career in law enforcement.

In five years with Virginia’s Arlington County Police Department, Montoya has served as a patrol officer, motorcycle officer and member of the department’s honor guard. He’s done two years in its community engagement division and is the department’s Latino liaison officer. Before joining he was a Marine and earned a Purple Heart. His brother and several friends are cops.

In a department that values education, Montoya lacked only one thing: a college degree.

He’s now pursuing that – an online bachelor’s in criminal justice, developed as an option for working police officers and others – at Penn State University’s World Campus.

“Our department is very well educated, so it’s good to have a degree,” said Montoya. “We have a lot of people who have gone to Penn State, and we recruit from there. They make it really convenient and easy to get the degree while you work, and you really learn a lot.”


Higher education has been associated with numerous benefits for officers and their departments:

  • A 2014 study found a college degree significantly reduced the likelihood officers would use force as their first compliance option and that educated officers displayed greater creativity and problem-solving skills.
  • In another study officers with undergraduate degrees were found to perform similarly to those with 10 more years of experience.
  • Among disciplinary cases against officers in Florida, those with only high school educations accounted for 75%, while those with four-year degrees comprised just 11%.

Obtaining college degrees can help officers improve their communication and leadership skills, become more efficient and effective at their jobs and prepare to advance in their careers. Agencies benefit from officers who can make evidence-based decisions and use data to drive forward-thinking initiatives around community safety and the use of limited resources.

Delivering quality education remotely for officers on the job, however, requires bringing some key components together. It’s part faculty, part class, part curriculum and part support.

Penn State’s World Campus – which offers associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice – knits these aspects together with a commitment to giving officers the educational grounding to not only keep their communities safe but move them forward.

“We value law enforcement, and we want them here,” said Jennifer Gibbs, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State’s Harrisburg campus and program coordinator for the bachelor’s and associate programs. “They add so much value to our classrooms – it enriches all our courses when we have law enforcement practitioners involved. In many ways we get to learn from them.”

That’s the “class” component: As opposed to traditional younger students, working police officers have lived experience. They’ve encountered problems on the street and found solutions. They’ve improvised and adapted. They’ve identified best practices and lessons learned.

That’s a unique resource, and it fuels lots of classroom content and lively discussions.

“I teach the police administration class, and every week I give students these crazy scenarios that are impossible decision-making situations but all true,” said Gibbs, also professor in charge for the master’s-level program. “I tell my students, ‘OK, what are you gonna do? How do you move forward with a decision? How will it affect the crime rate in your area? How will it affect public satisfaction with police? How will it impact morale and your budget?

“I love having law enforcement in my classes because they’ll get on the discussion boards and talk about these things. ‘I know a guy that happened to’ – it brings so much legitimacy and really enhances learning for everyone.”


Like Gibbs, the faculty who teach in the Penn State World Campus criminal justice program come from the university’s physical campuses – students in the program learn from the same experts they would in Harrisburg.

It’s an elite group that includes leaders like Shaun Gabbidon, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice recognized as one of the world’s most influential criminologists, and Jonathan Lee, Ph.D., who works closely with regional police departments for crime predictive analysis and risk evaluation for offenders in the trial phase.

“All my colleagues are nationally renowned researchers and faculty,” said Gibbs. “We teach in the classroom, and we teach the same material online you’d get from us in the classroom. We just make it more accessible because we recognize most of our World Campus students are practitioners working full time.”

Such working police officers have some clear preferences for how they learn that inform how the curriculum is delivered. They like to be hands-on. They prefer simulations to lectures. They engage well with interactive approaches. A pair of dedicated instructional designers help create the World Campus courses and craft positive experiences for the students who take them.

The 120-credit Bachelor of Science degree Montoya is pursuing covers both the theoretical and practical aspects of crime control. It encompasses areas like criminology; law, police and corrections; ethics; security and police administration; psychology and sociology; juvenile justice; and alternatives to incarceration.

At 64 credits, the criminal justice associate degree provides a more basic grounding in the justice system and intersection of public policy, criminal justice and behavioral science. The Master of Professional Studies in Criminal Justice Policy and Administration prepares graduates for leadership roles, giving them a foundational knowledge of criminological theories and the grounding for advanced analysis of practices and policies.

Montoya’s found his classes challenging but fun. He feels he’s reaping the benefits not just of higher education in criminal justice, but a complete and well-rounded college experience.

“Between the professors and the feedback, I’m learning a lot in every class,” he said. “It’s not just checking boxes – you enjoy it, but you really learn something. For example, I’m taking criminology and learning a lot about the psychology part of that. I’m taking the history of World War II and learning a lot I didn’t know. So it’s not just criminal justice but the other classes too.”

The final component to a successful student experience is support. At World Campus that starts with faculty responsiveness – student emails are typically answered within 24 hours – and includes student chat groups and a robust academic assistance program. After graduation there are active alumni groups that offer lifelong connection.


Working law enforcement professionals who have had state or municipal police training, deputy sheriff’s training, or Act 120- or Act 2-certified training can apply it for up to 16.5 credits toward their degree. Those with military experience may be eligible for DSST credits.

While his department offers tuition assistance and other support for members pursuing degrees, Montoya used his GI bill benefits. That’s not the only World Campus option for those with military backgrounds.

“We’re also a military-friendly university and offer military grants in aid,” said Amanda Mulfinger, associate director of program planning and management at World Campus. “The criminal justice program is very popular with our military students. There are a lot of law enforcement career options within the military.”

Wherever law enforcement career options may lie, graduates like Montoya will be well-equipped to fulfill them effectively.

“When police officers are educated, they bring so much more to their departments,” said Gibbs. “There are so many positive outcomes that come with it – around interacting with the community, decision-making, communication skills, use of force. We’re able to help officers make better decisions and evaluate the policies and programs their departments offer. I think we’re able to help departments make more efficient decisions.

“Police are always being asked to do more with less. So if that’s our situation, let’s help our officers be able to come up with data-driven solutions to use their resources efficiently.”

For more information, visit Penn State World Campus.