Higher Education and Local Law Enforcement
Written by Susan Hilal, Ph.D., and James Densley, Ph.D.   
As tuition costs rise, payoff for education falls, and incomes stagnate, is a college degree a luxury that law enforcement officers no longer can afford? A local police officer’s median annual wage in 2010 was $55,010, but in small jurisdictions, salaries often start below $25,000. It costs an average of $7,703 annually to obtain a 2-year degree and $15,104 for a 4-year degree from a public school (including room and board). Officers throughout the country often pay out-of-pocket for advanced education. The question arises as to whether it is worthwhile to obtain a degree. Why would a police officer working outside a state that mandates a 2-year degree prior to licensure pursue a college education when there is no requirement and there are significant costs?

People attain college degrees for various reasons, such as making more money, broadening their horizons, networking, buying time, leading a more examined life, or satisfying themselves or others. Police officers are no different, but the catalyst often is a department incentive (e.g., promotion, increased pay, or a new assignment). Understandably, some agencies encourage education given that researchers correlate college degrees with such things as improved performance and decreased use of sick leave. A degree often is optional in local law enforcement; however, it is required among other helping professions, such as social work, nursing, and education. Moreover, some researchers report that degreed officers often have a career advantage over their colleagues who do not have degrees.

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