Opinion/Editorial: Making the Case for Law Enforcement Officers to Hold a College Degree
Loretto, PA (10/13/2023) — A recent executive order signed by Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania changed the hiring practices for state law enforcement officers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This executive order shifted the focus on hiring and employment while minimizing educational standards for state police officers. Essentially, a four-year college degree is no longer required for state police candidates.
The Pennsylvania State Police have a long and storied history of excellence in police services. The Pennsylvania State Police was established through legislation and signed into law by Governor Pennypacker on May 2, 1905. This agency was the first uniformed police service of its kind in the United States (Pennsylvania State Police, 2023). The "old" educational requirements for Pennsylvania State Police applicants "required a high school diploma or a GED, plus an associate degree or 60 semester credit hours at an accredited institution of higher education" (Pennsylvania State Police, 2023). The process now requires that applicants be at least 21 years old and a Pennsylvania resident. Eligibility requirements include applicants passing a written examination, polygraph, background investigation, physical, medical, and psychological screening prior to training at the academy.
Many police departments across the country do not require a college degree to become an officer. "Statistics indicate that 8 percent of police departments in the United States require officers to have attended any college at all and 83 percent of United States police agencies require officers to hold a high school diploma. With nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country employing 1.1 million full-time officers, data indicates that fewer than 200 police departments require their officers have a college degree" (Policeofficer.org, 2022). Having a requirement that requires a college degree for police officers may be discriminatory and interferes with the recruitment of applicants. Many individuals, both in the criminal justice system and outside the system, believe that a college degree is not necessary in law enforcement occupations. In fact, I have friends who do not have a college degree and they had successful careers in law enforcement.
While I understand the workforce realities that have brought our state to this decision, as a retired federal law enforcement officer myself, and a current educator, my thoughts are different. For my former federal position, a four-year degree was a requirement at minimum. Many officers employed in federal law enforcement have advanced degrees in higher education. I personally believe that the benefits of a college degree in law enforcement occupations are extremely important and essential. Reflecting on my own experience, the many benefits of education include a thorough understanding of the importance of establishing relationships with others, effective communication skills, problem solving abilities, the ability to think critically, decision-making, understanding of the law and civil rights, use of technology, conflict resolution, and critical writing skills.
Additionally, the college experience enabled me to have a better understanding and appreciation of diversity, culture, interpersonal relationships, time management, setting goals and priorities, as well as the ability to use discretion. The education process may also include an internship requirement at many universities. Internships are a valuable experience for students to learn about law enforcement occupations and often lead to career opportunities.
The benefits of a college education are many, and I believe that an educated law enforcement officer will be more effective in the work they do, understand the justice system, and be agents of change to improve the system. Previous research suggests that college-educated officers perform better in the academy, are involved in fewer traffic accidents, take fewer sick days, have fewer on-the-job injuries, have fewer citizen complaints filed against them, have fewer disciplinary actions taken against them, and use deadly force less often than officers without a college degree (Roberg & Bonn, 2004; Rydberg & Terrill, 2010). It has also been found that college-educated officers are less resistant to change and more likely to embrace new methods of policing, such as Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (Roberg & Bonn, 2004).
Additionally, studies show that educated officers are generally better at handling confrontations and are less likely to be involved in actions resulting in discipline or use of force. This is significant as the justice system stives to reduce use of force situations. According to a study reported in Police Quarterly (2010) law enforcement officers with some college education are likely to resort to use of force 56 percent of the time, and that those with no college education are likely to use force 68 percent of the time.
So where do we go from here? There are obviously strong points on both sides of the issue, so perhaps the conversation needs to shift to how new flexible models of education may better serve the overarching needs. For example, shorter training mechanisms such as micro-credentials and certificates can offer law enforcement the chance to tailor their training to respond to shifting societal conditions.
I believe in the educational process and strive to learn something new every day. Whether one agrees or disagrees with educational backgrounds is a personal decision. But we must remember that when your job is to "Protect and Serve" as cited on every cruiser in the Los Angeles Police Department, we must serve the public and do our jobs to the best of our educational abilities. Serve Well!
Dr. Mark Buckwalter, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania
About Pennsylvania State Police. (n.d.). Pennsylvania State Police. Retrieved September 12, 2023, from https://www.psp.pa.gov/About-PSP/Pages/default.aspx
Gardiner, C. (2017, September). Policing around the Nation: Education, philosophy, and practice. National Police Institute. Retrieved September 21, 2023, from https://www.policinginstitute.org/publication/policing-around-the-nation-education-philosophy-and-practice/
Roberg, R. and Bonn, S. (2004), Higher education and policing: where are we now? Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 469-486.
Rydberg, J., & Terrill, W. (2010). The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior. Police Quarterly, 13(1), 92-120. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611109357325
The Importance of a College Degree for Police Officers. (2022, September 15). Policeofficer.org. Retrieved September 15, 2023, from https://policeofficer.org/importance-college-degree-police/
A 2017 National Police Foundation study concluded that about a third (30.2%) of police officers in the United States hold a four-year degree, about (51.8%) hold a two-year degree, and (5.4%) hold a graduate degree.
Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA, is the oldest Catholic-Franciscan college in the United States. Its mission is to help students grow into compassionate, successful professionals through a culture of faith, generosity, respect, discovery, and joy. Saint Francis University offers traditional campus-based learning and competitive online and graduate degree offerings.