From prom to patrol: Will a high school diploma get you there?

Disparities between the learning requirements of high school and those of the academy can cause recruits to struggle

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By David Wharry

Senior year is almost over. John is at his senior prom overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, savoring the moment. He isn’t thinking about his future, he’s at one of the last big events of high school, prom.

He and his buddies share their plans with each other and reminisce about the good times. Opening the door to his mom’s car, he has a nagging feeling that this is the high point of his life. Graduation day is in a week; he’s starting to feel unprepared for the next phase of life. He was a C+ student in English, skated by in history and failed Spanish class. He wants to be a cop but worries about the difficulty of the police academy. “Well,” he thinks “if all they require is my diploma, maybe I will be OK. Besides, I was an athlete, and can handle the physical part with no problem.” But he still worries if a high school diploma is enough to give him the life he wants after graduation.  

The lackluster academic performance of some high school students necessitates post-secondary remediation. What does this mean for police academy instruction?
The lackluster academic performance of some high school students necessitates post-secondary remediation. What does this mean for police academy instruction? (Getty Images)

Let’s consider the nature and quality of the education John received to see if it has prepared him for the police academy.

The state of education

The California Department of Education (CDE) requires a student to demonstrate proficiency in English, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education and either a foreign language or visual/performing arts, or a vocational program prior to graduation. [1] Many high school graduates, though, enter the job market unprepared. A 2015 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that over half (55%) of high school students feel ill-equipped for life after graduation. [2] This is due to the inequity between high school graduation requirements and the demands of higher education and/or the job market upon completing high school. Graduates lack basic scholastic skills such as reading, math and communication skills. [3] 

John realizes he was a mediocre, unengaged student in high school. He thinks his classes could have been more rigorous and wishes he had taken advanced placement (AP) courses. It is true that those enrolled in AP courses in high school do better in college and other endeavors. [4] While John met the standards for high school graduation, he is unsure if his educational foundation is sufficient. John’s worries are not without merit.

According to information released by the CDE in January of 2022, California K-12 students grapple with learning math and English. [5] While young adults are struggling in some areas after high school, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress test results showed that eleventh-grade students are faring better at listening than in previous years. Test results from the 2014-15 school year revealed that 21% of high school juniors scored below the standard when testing their ability to understand spoken information, whereas in 2021 scores showed 11.5 % fell below standard. When tested on their ability to understand stories and information they read, 21% of these students scored below standard in 2014-15 while nearly 16% scored below in 2020-21. [6]

The lackluster academic performance of some high school students necessitates post-secondary remediation. John must assess where he falls on the educational preparedness spectrum and anticipate changes to the educational requirements to become a cop in California. New legislation in California requires peace officers in a Peace Officer Standards and Training program to be at least 21 years of age upon graduation. [7] In addition to the age requirement, there is a push for more educated officers.

Socrates realized the importance of education for our peacekeepers. “Rulers of the state will need to be educated to be gentle towards their own citizens and fierce towards their enemies.” [8] Despite that, the minimum educational requirement to become a peace officer in California is only a high school diploma or equivalent. [9] Research has shown that more education can reduce police use of force and results in a higher academy success rate. A 2010 study found that officers with a bachelor’s degree were 40% less likely to use force when confronted with resistance. [10] John realizes that additional education is paramount to his success.

Why does this matter?

The goal of any law enforcement academy is not to produce cadets; rather, to produce officers. Cadets with an associate of arts degree have an almost 4% higher rate of graduating from an academy than those with a high school diploma. A bachelor’s degree increased the cadet’s graduation rate by over 18%. [11] Additionally, a study in which 71 police chiefs from Minnesota were interviewed revealed that “Some study participants indicated that a bachelor’s degree builds a more well-rounded individual because it shows critical thinking, maturity, and the ability to commit to something long-term.” [12] It seems a college degree is not only desirable but increases academy graduation rates.

John’s first step is to get into an academy. Once in, he must navigate the training program. In California, as many as 98.5% of applicants do not make it to an academy class due to questionable background results. [13] Nationally, attrition in these training programs is around 14%. [14] The attrition issue is compounded by the lack of interest in law enforcement jobs. The Police Executive Research Forum in 2019 indicated 63% of agencies polled had a reduction of applicants over the past five years. [15] This reduction in applicants amplifies the low acceptance rate into the training programs.

While there seems to be a dearth of research correlating the educational standards for high school graduation with the failure rate of academies, the relationship between the two is a logical starting point to address staffing. About one-fourth of college freshmen across the country must take at least one remedial class. [16] This signals a high school academic deficiency upon graduation. The significance of understanding the link of any learning gaps between the conclusion of high school and the commencement of an academy cannot be understated. For instance, 450 out of 1,750 (26%) cadets did not graduate from the Los Angeles Police Department Academy during the reviewed time period. [14] The few who meet the stringent requirements to enter the law enforcement training program need to possess the skills to graduate.

Further education increases the propensity for academy success as evident by a Florida academy study from 2011 to 2013. This study found that those possessing a bachelor’s degree had the highest graduation rate, 83.46%, about 18% higher than those with only a high school diploma. [11] More stringent educational standards have been argued. In 1973, the National Advisory Commission of Criminal Justice Standards and Goals set a target for all police officers to earn a four-year degree by 1992. In 2019, only 1% of law enforcement agencies in America required this benchmark. [17] So, what does all this mean to John? Well, to better prepare himself for his future career he should seek higher education.

What can agencies do?

Disparities between the learning requirements of high school and those of the academy will cause John to struggle. John didn’t know there was no research correlating the attrition of trainees with academic performance. By digging into the reasons for failure, however, law enforcement leaders may better concentrate their efforts. Educational administrators and law enforcement leaders working together could minimize any scholastic disparity between high school and academy training. John’s own academic insecurities cause him to wish law enforcement training programs included remedial training. The local police department offers a college tuition reimbursement program for current employees, which piques his interest. While a college degree has already been proven to increase academy success, a combined approach may be implemented and measured to determine its impact on academy attrition.

There are three things agencies may consider, though, to help John and others:

  1. Law enforcement collaboration with educational administrators: Law enforcement leaders should work with the CDE to ensure high school graduates are prepared for the academic challenges of the academy. Pedagogy and content need to be assessed. This alliance could increase the graduation rate of law enforcement training facilities.
  2. Augmented academy training: Department heads should review the reasons for academic failure at academies and adjust. Remedial educational opportunities would increase the propensity of success. While this may increase the length of the academy, it would ensure a higher probability of graduation.
  3. Agency-sponsored college degree: Law enforcement agencies should reimburse current employees as they earn a college degree. A portion of their employment compensation would be tuition reimbursement. Upon obtaining a degree students would enter the law enforcement academy with more scholastic discipline.

John realizes the most statistically supported approach to ensure his success in the academy is having a bachelor’s degree. The data backs up John’s insight. The importance of post-high school education is evident in the increased academy success rate associated with the obtainment of a college degree. High school graduates have a 65% academy graduation rate, Associate Degree holders have a 70%, and those with a bachelor’s degree have an 83% graduation rate. [11] Additionally, requirements to become an officer seem to be headed toward more education. Working with the CDE to address scholastic weaknesses would better prepare students for both academies and college. As these shortcomings are resolved, less remedial curriculum will be needed in the recruit academy, and create a future where almost all of those who enter the academy can graduate from the program.

Why now?

Staffing our police force has become more challenging. Highly publicized use of force instances caused protests throughout the United States, negatively impacting recruitment efforts. Now more than ever we must ensure those interested in a criminal justice career successfully navigate the academy training.

After prom and a summer with his friends, John started working as a community service officer for the River Rock Police Department. He also started taking classes at the local university. His agency offered a tuition reimplement program to encourage further education. John’s parents could not believe their son’s good fortune. He would be paid to explore his career interest while earning a college degree at minimal cost to him. He is now on his way to becoming a well-rounded, educated officer.


1. California Department of Education. (2020). Graduation requirements.

2. Pang R. (September 15, 2021). The things I never learned in school but should have.

3. Weisberg D. (November 2, 2016.). What’s the value of a high school diploma? Las Vegas Review Journal.

4. Chen G. (May 20, 2022.). Are public school students prepared for the “real world?”

5. Esquivel P. (January 7, 2022.). First comprehensive data in two years show big academic setbacks for California students. Los Angeles Times.

6. California Department of Education. (2022). California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.

7. A.B. 89, 2021 Jones-Sawyer, 2021 Reg. Session (Cal. 2021).

8. Sophiaomni. (1999). The education of the guardians. Sophia project philosophy archives.

9. How to become a police officer. (2021). How to become a police officer in California

10. Armstrong G, Boufard L. (June 8, 2020.). 5 reasons police officers should have college degrees.

11. Nevers K. (2019). Predictors of successful police academy recruits and rationalizations for attrition. Police Practice & Research, 20(4), 343–359.

12. Hilal S, Densley J. (2015). Police chiefs discuss the most important commodity in law enforcement. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 33–38.

13. Smith S. (June 2016). A crisis facing law enforcement: recruiting in the 21st century. Police Chief Magazine.

14. Wendt R. (August 7, 2018.) How to survive the academy. Police Magazine.

15. Mostyn S. (September 2019.) The workforce crises and what police agencies are doing about it.

16. Sedita J. (February 1, 2015.) Too many college freshman need remedial courses.

17. Cordner G. (2019.) Rethinking police education in the United States. Police Practice & Research, 20(3), 225–239.

About the author

David Wharry has worked in law enforcement for the past 26 years. Prior to entering the criminal justice profession, he worked as an accountant within the semiconductor industry after earning a degree in finance and economics. 

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