Police Education Study: 35.1% of Chiefs Have Master’s Degree

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Does earning a master’s degree improve the job performance of law enforcement professionals? Does obtaining an advanced degree increase one’s earning potential in a law enforcement career?

Some important clues can be found in a nationwide study of police officer education levels that is the most comprehensive examination in many decades of the role of higher education in policing.

The 72-page report (“Policing around the Nation: Education, Philosophy, and Practice”) was compiled by Christie Gardiner, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice with the Center for Public Policy at California State University-Fullerton, with funding and support from the Police Foundation.

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It chronicles the results of a survey completed by 958 law enforcement agencies, small and large, from every state in the nation. Participating agencies answered a range of questions about officer education levels, education requirements for hiring/promotion, education incentives and training as well as questions about the organization’s philosophy.

“The main purpose of this study is to gain an accurate, contemporary picture of education in policing” and to generate data that provides insight into “how higher education might be relevant to the practice of policing,” Gardiner writes in the report, not to answer specific questions like those mentioned above.

Nevertheless, the report is chock full of data that will be of great interest to anyone who is considering working toward a master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership.


35.1% — Percentage of law enforcement CEOs who have earned at least a master’s degree, an important statistic to consider for law enforcement professionals who aim to climb the ranks into a top leadership position.

Advanced Education and Law Enforcement Leadership

One of the report’s most notable findings is how profoundly the educational level of a law enforcement agency’s “CEO” (the survey’s shorthand for police chiefs and sheriffs) affects how the agency operates.

For example, agencies led by a CEO with a graduate degree are significantly more likely to:

  • Offer higher pay for those who earn an advanced degree
  • Offer tuition reimbursement to pursue educational advancement
  • Require a specific level of educational achievement for hiring or promotion
  • Have collective bargaining (unionized departments are generally more likely to offer higher pay, educational pay incentives, tuition reimbursement, etc.)

Agencies whose top leader possesses an advanced degree are also more likely to offer specialized training in such areas as:

  • Implicit bias
  • Procedural justice principles
  • Community policing principles/engaging with the community
  • Problem oriented policing/problem solving
  • Intelligence-led or evidence-based policing
  • Handling mental health crisis situations
  • Handling non-violent protests/civil disobedience

Though not a specific focus of the study, Gardiner says the data that emerged about “the potential relevance of CEO education for virtually every issue examined” was “one of the most interesting findings of this research.”

Pay Incentives for Educational Achievement

Data from the report indicates that a majority of departments and agencies do offer pay incentives for advanced education. Key takeaways:

  • Nearly 40% of departments and agencies surveyed offer increased pay of at least 5% for officers who obtain a master’s degree.
  • And nearly 20% of those compensate advanced degree holders with increased pay of 7.5% or more.

Impact of Education on Job Performance

The study also examined perceptions about whether having a college education makes a law enforcement professional more capable at his or her job — revealing a perception that college-educated officers are better at certain important and fundamental tasks.

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The report found that college-educated officers are perceived to be:

  • Better report writers (significant given the importance of good report writing skills for arrest and prosecution) – 61.6% of respondents agreed;
  • Better able to efficiently use modern technology – 46.1% agreed; 1
  • More open to new policing methods and organizational change – 36.3% agreed;
  • Better problem solvers – 33.8% agreed;
  • Better able to solve complex crimes – 31% agreed;
  • More sensitive to cultural differences and community needs – 29.8% agreed;
  • Better able to identify crime problems/trends – 29.2% agreed;

As would be expected, the report said, “Respondent perceptions of college-educated officers was highly and significantly correlated with CEO education level.”

For example, while 51.1% of respondents from agencies headed by a CEO with a master’s degree or higher agreed with the statement that college-educated officers are better problem solvers; 54.4% of respondents from agencies headed by a CEO without post-high school education disagreed.

What’s Next?

In a Police Foundation article introducing the project, Gardiner notes, “This study is the first of its kind to look at this issue since 1988.” Gardiner said she is excited about the potential for other researchers to build upon this new data to learn even more about the relationship between law enforcement and higher education.

The report also provides a wealth of interesting and valuable information for law enforcement professionals who are evaluating whether it makes sense to earn a master’s degree.

Today, online graduate programs are an option preferred by many law enforcement professionals because the online format offers far greater flexibility, making it easier to balance an academic schedule around the demands of law enforcement duties and family life.

For example, the 100% online Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program offered by University of San Diego attracts high-ranking criminal justice professionals from across the country who cite the flexible schedule — combined with the leadership-focused curriculum — as key drivers of their enrollment.

“I like this program at USD a lot better than the last master’s degree program I completed,” reported alumni Ryan Flick, a Lieutenant Watch Commander with the Department of Defense. “I like how you get seven weeks for one class and then move into the next class. It gives you more time to direct all your focus and attention on one subject and allows you to better prepare for the class.”

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