Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Law Enforcement Salaries and Opportunities Spike with a Master’s Degree

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Academic Director, M.S. Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Working in law enforcement has traditionally required very little formal education past high school or community college. But times are changing and more and more public safety professionals are choosing to pursue higher education, even going so far as to attain a master’s degree in law enforcement or criminal justice — increasing not only their leadership skills but also their law enforcement salaries. And most would agree that this is a good thing.

The right higher education program can offer law enforcement professionals the tools they need to better handle disputes, think critically, problem solve, communicate effectively and resolve conflicts through a variety of means.

In a New York Times article, “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” Walter Stroupe, a retired police first lieutenant, acknowledges that no one needs to get a master’s degree in law enforcement. He concedes that in many communities no college degree is required to become a police officer. Yet, Dr. Stroupe sees the many benefits of higher education for police officers, even if it isn’t required. “As a law enforcement officer, you can get tunnel vision and only see things from your perspective,” he says. “What does a police officer do when they go up to a car and someone is videotaping them on a cellphone?” Stroupe hopes today’s master’s degree programs in law enforcement will deal with these types of current issues.

But with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting the average law enforcement salary of a police officer or detective coming in at $58,630, some people wonder if they can justify the investment a master’s degree requires. So is getting an advanced degree worth it in the long run?

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Will Higher Education Pay Off? A Look at Law Enforcement Salaries

Even if the cost of tuition is covered by your GI Bill or other scholarship money, completing a master’s degree takes time and commitment.  Will it be worth it? If you are interested in moving up the ranks, getting a salary increase and developing your leadership, communication and management skills, then the answer is yes. When it comes to promotional opportunities, higher education is one of the best ways to enhance your resume and beat out the competition. When employers are evaluating candidates, experience, educational attainment, and military experience often carry the most weight.

Let’s first examine pay. In many agencies and departments, financial incentives and payscale ladders are tied to higher educational attainment. Translation: even without a promotion, getting your master’s degree might put you on a higher pay scale.

Not only that but getting your master’s degree accelerates the speed at which you are able to attain intermediate and advanced POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certifications. And most departments will reward intermediate and advanced POST certification with additional bumps in pay.

For example, in Burbank, California, officers receive an additional $150 per month for having a master’s degree and an additional $565 per month for having an advanced POST certificate. Here is how Burbank’s incentive pay breaks down:

Other related benefits: (paid monthly)
Bilingual pay $100.00
Education AA Degree $50.00
Education BA Degree $100.00
Education Master’s Degree $150.00
Intermediate POST  Certificate $314.00
Advanced POST Certificate $565.00

Similarly, in El Paso, Texas, employees holding a master’s degree from an accredited college receive an additional $175 per month, which translates into an extra $2,100 annually. With an advanced POST certificate employees get an additional $105 per month ($55 for intermediate).

In some Massachusetts towns, police officers with an associate’s degree get a 10 percent bonus. If they have a bachelor’s degree they get a 20 percent bonus and if they have a master’s degree they get a 25 percent bonus. Depending on where you’re starting, that could equate to a lot of extra money.

These are just a few examples of departments that reward educational attainment. Overall, this type of pay incentive scale based on education level, certification achievement and years of experience is quite common.

Promotions Often Tied to Education

When it comes to promoting up the ranks, law enforcement isn’t too different from every other occupation. But in order to promote from an entry-level cadet or police officer to a detective or sergeant, and eventually land a command staff position, you need education and experience. While an associate’s degree used to get you far in most criminal justice agencies, today the standards are much higher.

A master’s in criminal justice can help a law enforcement officer get promoted, sharpen critical skills for someone in a criminal justice-related field or serve as an entry point for a competitive job, such as a position at a federal agency. Plus, getting your master’s shows motivation and passion for the field, which always looks good to employers looking to promote or hire.

Cost of a Master’s Degree

The cost of higher education is often one of the most important considerations for anyone thinking of pursuing an advanced degree. Now that you know what a masters degree is worth, let’s examine how much it will cost to get that degree and options for reducing the financial impact.

On average, most people finish their graduate degree with $57,600 in debt according to U.S. World & News Report, but that range can sometimes top the $100,000 mark. That’s a huge range and varies according to a number of factors including the length of the program, specific degree and school type – state, private or online.

When it comes to getting a master’s degree in law enforcement, however, you shouldn’t have to shell out anywhere close to $100,000. In fact, you will probably find a number of programs that offer tuition rates below $30,000. For example, at the University of San Diego, tuition for the online MS in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership is $699 per credit with a total of 31 required credits. That equates to just $21,699. The University of San Diego also offers a law enforcement discount, further reducing the overall cost.

Degree programs that are administered online typically cost less than in-person programs because they require less investment in infrastructure for the university. A number of regionally accredited and highly ranked universities now offer online master’s degree programs in law enforcement or criminal justice, making the financial commitment far more affordable.

[RELATED] Comparing Programs: What Criminal Justice Master’s Degree is Right For You? >>

Bringing Down the Cost of a Degree

In order to bring down the cost of a master’s degree, it is important to consider financial incentives and alternative funding options. In addition to traditional student aid, there are a number of scholarship programs and tuition assistance programs available, especially if you’re a veteran.

GI Bill Entitlements

Many law enforcement professionals come into the field after serving in the military. Consequently, they have GI Bill entitlements that offer funding for education. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs:

“If you have at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001, and are still on active duty, or if you are an honorably discharged Veteran or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days, you may be eligible for this (GI Bill) VA-administered program. For approved programs, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of education benefits, generally payable for 15 years following your release from active duty.”

One student at in the University of San Diego’s online master’s program remarked that for a number of years he didn’t even realize he had GI Bill entitlements waiting for him! So if you have served, fit the qualifications listed above but aren’t sure if you have GI Bill entitlements, be sure to check. It could potentially cover the full cost of your education.

Yellow Ribbon Program

Some universities take part in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which offers veterans additional financial funding on top of any GI entitlements they may have earned. For example, if you use all of your GI entitlement money to fund your education but still have a balance, the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship Program could help cover the remaining costs. At the University of San Diego, the program offers graduate students up to $7,448 toward their educational costs. And to make the deal even better, the Department of Veteran Affairs matches the University of San Diego’s contribution, for a total of $14,896.

Tuition Discounts and Grants

Some universities will offer reduced or discounted tuition for specific groups, such as members of law enforcement and public safety associations or unions, active duty military, veterans and military spouses. For the Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership at University of San Diego, tuition is discounted from $699 per unit to just $649 for those who qualify – and they even extend this benefit to military spouses. When considering a school, be sure to ask if you might qualify for reduced tuition rates.

Employer Tuition Assistance

If you are considering a master’s degree, especially in law enforcement, you are likely a current professional working in the field. In order to encourage professional and personal development, many employers offer some form of tuition assistance. Be sure to ask your agency or department what tuition assistance benefits they offer.

If being promoted into law enforcement leadership is your goal, a master’s degree is always going to be worth it. A top tier criminal justice master’s degree will help you develop your skills in budgeting, finance, staffing, decision making, conflict resolution, and other key areas of organizational leadership. In fact, in many agencies you’ll have a hard time promoting to a command position without a master’s degree. The key is to find a degree program that will help you achieve your goals by offering you a current and practical curriculum that prepares you to serve your department, and your community, more effectively.

Programs like the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership deliver robust content in an online environment, which is ideally suited to the unpredictable schedule of someone working in law enforcement or public safety. While many master’s degree options exist for current and future leaders, finding a program that is focused specifically on law enforcement can have the added benefit of connecting you to a powerful network of other law enforcement leaders from agencies across the country.

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