Being a police officer requires extensive training, a good education and a willingness to enforce the law. For many high school students who eventually want to become police officers, the path forward to get into this career is a bit mysterious. Should aspiring police officers go to college? If so, what level of degree will they need to be a cop, and what major should they study in preparation for this career?
Earning a Degree to Be a Cop
Part of what makes the preparation for a police officer job such a puzzle is that there aren’t any definite answers. Educational requirements for police officers vary from state to state and from police department to police department, as well as across different law enforcement jobs. There is no one specific course or program of study that is meant as a major for police officers.
However, there are some degree paths that are more relevant than others to the work of law enforcement officers. Many aspiring police officers choose to major in criminal justice, police science, political science, public administration, paralegal studies and homeland security or emergency management. These programs of study give you practical skills or foundational knowledge – or both – to help you be a better police officer.
For example, going to college for one of these majors may help you develop qualities like communication skills, perceptiveness, the problem-solving skills that lead to good judgment, empathy for others (including people who are different from you) and leadership skills, which the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported are among the most important characteristics for police officers. You might also learn the fundamentals of the most important knowledge areas for police officers, which O*NET identifies as public safety and security, law and government and psychology, among others.
One of the best ways to begin planning your preparation for a career as a police officer is finding an established cop you could talk to about your career plans, educational options and life as an officer. Many local police departments are launching outreach programs to build positive relationships between officers and communities. Attending an event and talking to an officer can help you get your questions answered.
Do You Need a Degree to Be a Cop?
A college education isn’t a strict requirement if you want to become a police officer somewhere, but not going to college could restrict you from pursuing this career path in certain states, municipalities and agencies. This may sound complicated, but it’s because different police departments and law enforcement agencies have different requirements. Whether you need a degree to be a cop depends on where you’re trying to get hired as a police officer.
Generally, the demand for a college education is stronger in more competitive law enforcement job roles. You’re least likely to need a degree to be a cop working in an entry-level role in a rural area of a state where law enforcement hiring is less highly regulated. You’re most likely to need a degree if you want to work in a prestigious precinct in an area with high competition for jobs, especially in a state like New Jersey, Nevada, North Dakota or Illinois, where state law requires officers to hold a bachelor’s degree. You’re also likely to need a degree if you want to advance to a higher-level role, like police chief or police captain. If you want a federal police job, no matter which state you would want to be headquartered in, then a bachelor’s degree is typically required.
One point to consider is that, even if police officers should have a college education, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to complete your college studies before joining the police force. Many officers take enough courses to meet the minimum educational requirements to qualify for acceptance into police academy training and then advance their education later. An officer of the New York Police Department, for example, typically needs 60 college credits, or the equivalent of an associate’s degree, to get hired as an officer. After joining the police force, the officer may pursue a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree, especially if they are eligible for educational benefits like college credits for academy training courses, special scholarships or tuition benefits.
Overall, the majority of police officers do have a degree or at least a college education of some kind. If you’re planning to become a cop, it’s generally a good idea to also plan to at least go to junior college or community college, even if you’re not convinced that a four-year college is right for you.
States are increasingly considering expanding degree requirements, so cops are even more likely to need degrees in the future. In California, for example, a bill was written in 2020 that, if passed, would require police officers to either have a bachelor’s degree or be at least 25 years of age to get hired, according to USA TODAY.
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Cop?
If you’ve come to the decision that college is probably a wise decision for realizing your law enforcement career ambitions, the next question to ask is what degree you need. Most police officer job listings don’t specify a college major or subject of study, but they may specify a level of education required for candidates to be considered.
The Level of Degree Needed to Be a Police Officer
Of police officer jobs that require more than a high school diploma, the degree level expected usually fits into one of the following categories:
- An associate’s degree or the equivalent amount of college credits (60). An associate’s degree is an undergraduate course of study typically completed at a community college or junior college. Full-time students can typically complete an associate’s degree in two years.
- A bachelor’s or baccalaureate degree or the equivalent amount of college credits (120). Bachelor’s degrees are usually offered by four-year institutions and provide a more comprehensive undergraduate education that includes upper-division coursework.
- A master’s degree or graduate certificate. Graduate-level study is more advanced and, often, more specialized than undergraduate coursework.
A 2017 report by the National Police Foundation found that an associate’s degree was the most common level of education for this career field, accounting for the highest level of education of 51.8 percent of sworn police officers in America. Just over 30 percent of cops reported having a bachelor’s degree, while more than 5 percent of officers had gone to graduate school. If you opt out of going to college entirely, your career prospects in law enforcement will be limited, and you will have to compete for jobs against candidates who are, for the most part, more highly educated than you are.
It’s worth noting that, even though more than 85 percent of officers reported having at least an associate’s degree in 2017, the majority of police departments surveyed – 81.5 percent – required only a high school diploma for a candidate to be considered for a job. This illustrates that many police officers are choosing to go to college even when earning a degree is not mandatory.
The Best College Majors to Be a Cop
If you’re working toward becoming a police officer, consider the following options for your choice of college major.
If there’s one college major most closely tied to the police officer career, it’s criminal justice. Criminal justice degree programs exist at the associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. Generally, this major is an interdisciplinary field of study that combines coursework in law and law enforcement, public administration, psychology and other subjects. Your core coursework as a criminal justice major might include criminal and constitutional law, the principles of criminology, criminal evidence and procedures, criminal investigation methods, juvenile justice and corrections and rehabilitation.
People often think of police science or police studies programs as identical to criminal justice programs, but they are slightly different. In fact, police science programs are somewhat more specialized than typical criminal justice programs. In a police science program, you would likely take some of the same core coursework that you would find in a criminal justice program, but you might also encounter more specialized classes, such as police administration and police operations.
Political science is another option for aspiring police officers. This program of study generally focuses on the government and political policies, so it teaches you about law enforcement in some form. Political science is a good choice of major if you’re not completely sure that you want to be a cop and you would rather keep your options open to explore careers like policy analyst, political consultant or legislative assistant. Majoring in political science will likely mean taking courses in American politics and government, constitutional law, international relations and the politics of different regions of the world, political analysis, comparative politics and issues in politics and policies.
Public administration is a degree path that’s meant for students who are planning a career serving in the government. Public administration majors might take classes in constitutional law and state and local government structures as well as courses in organizational supervision, performance management and financial management and budgeting.
If your interests are more generally relating to law than to enforcement of the law, consider majoring in paralegal studies. Paralegals provide support to attorneys in both criminal and civil legal matters. Most paralegals have an associate’s degree, according to the BLS. In a two-year paralegal studies degree program, you would likely take classes in legal research and writing, legal technology, electronic discovery and the fundamentals of paralegal studies and practice. While paralegal studies majors will likely take a lower-division class in criminal law, they should expect to take a lot more coursework in other areas of law, such as civil litigation, real estate law, estate law, intellectual property law, tort law, family law, employment law, immigration law, environmental law and bankruptcy law.
Homeland Security and Emergency Management
Studies in homeland security and emergency management – often combined – are ideal for preparing students for careers protecting the nation and handling emergency situations. Typically, homeland security and emergency management majors complete courses in domestic security management, international and domestic terrorism, crisis management, disaster management, network defense, information security and border-transportation security. While some of the coursework in this major pertain to police officer roles, such as classes in conflict negotiation and interviewing and interrogation, many of these courses prepare students to work in other government agencies, like the FBA, the Secret Service, FEMA and the TSA.
Police Officer Preparation Beyond the Degree
Before an officer officially joins the police force – and regardless of their college major and level of education – they go through intense training at one of the many police academies. Police academy training programs can take anywhere from 12 to 24 weeks, so new officers should plan to spend months training for their role in law enforcement. Training in a police academy typically involves learning about local ordinances, constitutional law and civil rights, as well as the skills to investigate accidents and crimes. Everything aspect of police work, from traffic control to self-defense, is taught in the training academy to make sure that new officers are prepared for work on the job. Being a cop is tough, so for training to be valuable, it must be comprehensive and challenging, too.
If you have a good education, earn great grades and pass the police academy training program, you will likely find success in getting hired as a police officer, no matter what major you choose. Being familiar with the law and the criminal justice system prior to applying to work as a police officer can certainly hold value, but choosing a specific major isn’t a prerequisite to the academy training program where you will learn the fundamentals of police work.
Why Is a Police Officer Degree Needed?
If you’re wondering why police officers are more likely to need college degrees than they used to be, that’s a good question. Police matters have become more challenging, so it makes sense that law enforcement officers need a greater understanding of the law, legal and investigative procedures, and complex sociological, psychological and cultural issues. Researchers have discovered that police officers who complete a minimum of two years of college study are statistically less likely to use force unnecessarily or to be the subject of misconduct complaints, according to The Hill.
From a purely practical perspective, many officers pursue a degree even when it’s not mandatory because of incentives that include pay bonuses and salary increases.
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