What is Law Enforcement?
The term “law enforcement” is often misunderstood, which can be confusing for students trying to explore degree types and career paths in this field. The Macmillan Dictionary simply defines it as “the job of making sure that people obey the law.”
As we can see, the scope of law enforcement (or LE) is quite broad. It includes everything from protecting lives and property to investigating criminal activities, catching suspects, and entering them into the criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers may also be responsible for detaining suspects as they await legal counsel, bond, or trial.
There are literally dozens of jobs that fall under the law enforcement umbrella. Though each job features very different duties and responsibilities, a law enforcement degree can help prepare graduates for several LE roles, including:
- Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent
- Border Patrol agent
- Computer forensics
- Crime Scene Investigator
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent
- Diplomatic security
- Federal Air Marshal, Fish & Game warden
- K9 officer
- Police detective
- Transportation Security Administration screener
- And many more!
What to Expect as a Law Enforcement Major
It is common for students to have misconceptions about law enforcement degrees and what to expect from such a major. For example, some schools label their degree programs as “criminal justice and law enforcement.” There is, however, a difference between these two areas of study.
As noted by DifferenceBetween, law enforcement is actually an aspect of criminal justice. In other words, criminal justice is the overarching field “made up of the law enforcement, the courts, defense lawyers and attorneys, juries, the prosecutor’s desk, prisons, and probation agencies.”
Therefore, those majoring in “criminal justice and law enforcement” will have a broader understanding of the whole system and its processes vs. someone who focuses imply on law enforcement.
Interestingly, not everyone who works in a LE-related job was law enforcement major in college. Sometimes, students prefer to major in psychology, law, criminology, forensics, computer science, cybersecurity, or even accounting, while taking law enforcement courses as electives or as part of an academic minor or area of specialization.
College law enforcement programs aren’t designed to train students how to use weapons, nor do they necessarily provide all the preparation graduates need to work for law enforcement agencies. Instead, an LE degree is designed to lay the academic foundation an applicant will need on their path to a successful law enforcement career. Every agency has its own unique training that college grads must also pass, whether it’s on-the-job training or a full-fledged program.
Types of Law Enforcement Classes
There are several jobs related to law enforcement and just as many courses to choose from, depending on your preferred career and area of specialization. Some general LE classes include:
- Computer Investigation
- Conflict Management
- Crime Scene Management
- Criminal Justice Documentation
- Criminal Law
- Law Enforcement Operations
- Organized Crime
- Private Security
Law Enforcement Degrees
An associate in law enforcement or a related area of study (such as criminal justice or criminology) is essential for learning fundamentals of the field while knocking out lower-level general education credits like English, math, and science. Associate degrees require 60 credits’ worth of classes, with most classes counting for 3 credits (though some electives may only count for 1 credit).
Students can complete an associate at a community college or four-year college or university. If attending full-time, expect to finish an associate in roughly 2 years. Part-time students may take 3-4 years, depending on their course load.
While on-campus attendance offers many rewards, such as being able to participate in campus activities, many students who work or have family obligations prefer the convenience and flexibility of an online (or hybrid) law enforcement degree program. As an area of study, LE is quite conducive to distance learning, making an online law enforcement degree a highly attractive option!
To qualify for LE jobs beyond entry-level, students should consider completing a bachelor’s in law enforcement, criminal justice, or criminology. Note: if you know you’re going for a bachelor’s, then it isn’t necessary to apply for an associate degree at the midpoint. An associate is not a “prerequisite” to getting a bachelor’s.
Depending on the law enforcement college program you apply to, you may have the option to do either a bachelor of science (BS) or a bachelor of arts (BA). A BS is generally considered to be a more technical degree type, so which path you choose should depend on what type of job you’re going to seek after graduation. If the program you’re interested in offers both a BS and BA, take time to review the differences to see which is a better match for your goals.
A bachelor’s program consists of general education courses, plus core classes related to one’s major and electives. Many schools require or encourage students to select a minor, as well. Ideally the minor supports the major in some way, such as an area of specialization. In terms of electives, some elective credits are needed to round out your major area of study. This allows students to customize their major to some extent. Other electives are considered free electives, meaning topics don’t have to be related to your major.
A Bachelor’s in Law Enforcement requires at least 120 semester credit hours of coursework, with 42-60 dedicated to general education. The major takes up ~36 credit hours.
Most LE bachelor’s programs are designed to be finished in 4 years, though some offer compressed schedules that can shave a few months off. Part-time students typically take about 5-6 years to finish, depending on the course load. It’s important to determine if the program has a maximum time allowed to complete all degree requirements.
A Bachelor’s in Law Enforcement is conducive to both in-person and online learning. The key is to decide what works best for your goals and needs. If your schedule doesn’t allow for on-campus attendance, a flexible online law enforcement degree could be right for you. If you want a fuller, more immersive college experience — and have the time (and money) to go for it — then physically attending a 4-year program can be an unbeatable opportunity.
To really boost your academic credentials and qualify for better-paying jobs, you might want to knock out a graduate degree! For most workers in the LE field, this means a master’s. As with a bachelor’s, some programs offer a choice between a master of arts (MA) or a master of science (MS). Students should closely review the post-graduation outcomes for each to determine which is better for their goals.
A master’s in any of the following look great on any resume and prepare you for advanced responsibilities in leadership positions:
- Law enforcement administration
- Criminal justice leadership
- Law enforcement intelligence
Courses will usually cover administration and leadership topics as well as finance, HR, policies, research, and even organizational management.
Some students may opt to start their Master’s in Law Enforcement right after finishing their undergraduate degree. Others sign up for part-time master’s classes while working a full-time job. It isn’t easy to work and go to college at the same time, which is why so many students do their master’s degrees online…even if they did their bachelor’s on-campus!
A master’s in law enforcement spans 30-45 credits and takes 2 years to complete if going full-time or 3 years or more if attending part-time. Some online programs are tailored to allow students to finish faster than they could if learning in person.
Earning a PhD is a commendable goal, but it isn’t necessary for the majority of workers in the law enforcement community. However, those who want to work in high-level research jobs, teaching jobs, or advanced leadership positions may opt to go for a PhD related to law enforcement to increase their knowledge, expand their skills, and qualify for such roles.
Many students are under the misconception that a PhD can be done in 2 years after finishing a master’s. In reality, it will generally take from 3-7 years, depending on many variables. The longest part of a PhD program is completing the dissertation, i.e. a lengthy academic research project.
Law Enforcement Careers And Salary Information
What Can You Do With a Law Enforcement Degree?
- Median Salary: $66,020
- Career Outlook: +7% (2020-2030)
Police officers protect lives and property, while detectives focus on gathering facts, data, and evidence to help solve crimes.
- Median Salary: $60,250
- Career Outlook: +4% (2020-2030)
Probation officers provide social services and rehabilitation to people who have been in trouble with the law.
- Median Salary: $59,380
- Career Outlook: +13% (2020-2030)
Private investigators perform a wide range of information-gathering services for individuals and organizations.
- Median Salary: $59,380
- Career Outlook: +13% (2020-2030)
Private investigators perform a wide range of information-gathering services for individuals and organizations.
- Median Salary: $61,930
- Career Outlook: +16% (2020-2030)
Forensic science technicians help collect and analyze data evidence and data related to a crime scene.
- Median Salary: $66,520
- Career Outlook: +5% (2020-2030)
FBI special agents “seek out cybercrime, infiltrate organized crime rings, and investigate terrorists,” among other duties.
Salary and Career Information by State
There are so many careers that fall under the umbrella of “law enforcement” that it’s hard to list which states are better for law enforcement career paths. However, here are a few interesting stated-based salary and career tidbits about some of the most popular law enforcement-related jobs!
- Correctional Officer - USA Wage notes that the “highest-paying states for Correctional Officers and Jailers” are: California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, Alaska, New York, Washington, Hawaii, and Illinois. However, cost of living factors must be taken into consideration.
- Fish and Game Warden - Per BLS, the states with the highest employment levels for Fish and Game Wardens are: Florida, Texas, New York, Tennessee, and California. California leads in terms of highest mean wages, at $82,120 (compared to Florida’s $27,030). However, cost of living factors must be taken into consideration.
- Homicide Detective - It’s logical that Homicide Detectives are most needed where there are the most murders. For 2023, the states with the highest murder rates are currently cited as: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and Alaska.
- Police Officer - Per WalletHub, the top 10 states to be a Police Officer in the US, based on 30 ranking metrics, are: Connecticut, California, Illinois, District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado, and Ohio.
- Special Agent - Many federal agencies employ Special Agents of all kinds. Zippia points out that the best states for Special Agent jobs are Montana, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Maryland, Arizona, Rhode Island, Louisiana, North Dakota, Michigan, and Delaware.
Best Law Enforcement Colleges
Ready to start looking for law enforcement college degree programs? We’ve assembled a list of the Best Law Enforcement colleges in the U.S. for 2023. Here are our top 5 picks!
What better place to learn about law enforcement than a school dedicated to criminal justice? Founded in 1965, New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice is part of CUNY, the City University of New York. The college features numerous bachelor’s degree majors and minors related to law enforcement, as well as several graduate programs. It’s also linked to six community college programs through the CUNY Justice Academy partnership. Competition to get in is sometimes fierce, and U.S. News reports a 37.4% acceptance rate.
Founded in 1899, Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois is home to an internationally known Bachelor of Science in Law Enforcement and Justice Administration program. Per WUI’s website, over 1,400 agencies partner with the school to take interns. Students have the option to attend on-campus or 100% online and many graduates receive jobs with federal agencies and in major cities around the country.
Kentucky’s University of Louisville is the first city-owned public university in America. Established in 1798, the school has its own Department of Criminal Justice featuring several flexible degree paths. There’s even a Police Executive Leadership Development Certificate option. The campus is also home to the acclaimed Southern Police Institute, which provides “educational and career development programs that are designed to challenge and to prepare law enforcement practitioners for the demands of today and tomorrow.”
University of Massachusetts - Lowell is a research school hosting five colleges with over 18,000 students. Its School of Criminology & Justice Studies is focused on “emerging issues confronting the criminal justice system” and is ranked #2 by U.S. News for Best Online Graduate Criminal Justice Program. UMass - Lowell’s BS in Criminal Justice and Criminology features optional concentrations in Police, Crime & Mental Health, and Homeland Security. There’s also an accelerated BS to MS program, three master’s options, a PhD, and graduate certificates to select from.
Columbia College in Missouri is a non-profit, private liberal arts and sciences school featuring an interdisciplinary History, Philosophy, Political Science and Criminal Justice Department. The department offers several LE-related education and training options, including an associate in Criminal Justice Administration, a Crime Scene Investigation certificate, programs for corrections and law enforcement, and bachelor’s and master’s degree paths.
Law Enforcement Scholarships
Need help paying for college? Use our handy scholarship tool to find law enforcement and criminal justice-related scholarships! Here are a few examples of what’s available:
The FLEOA Foundation Scholastic Awards Program offers financial aid to high school “children of current, retired or deceased members of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.” Award amounts range from $500 - $1,000. Applicants must submit an application form, transcripts, and an acceptance letter from a college or university. Submissions are usually due in June each year, with winners announced by July.
The Park Law Enforcement Association’s Newell S. Rand Jr. Memorial Scholarship is for high school students with a 3.0 GPA (or, if enrolled in college, a cumulative 2.5 GPA). Award amounts are based on funding, but aer usually in the $1,000+ range. Applications are due by June 1 and must include an essay, letters of recommendation, and a summary of school/community service activities. Qualifying majors include Environmental/Park law enforcement, Criminal Justice with classes in environmental areas, and Criminal Justice administration in parks and recreation.
Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE) offers scholarships to law enforcement students, with varying award amounts that have gone as high as $10,000. Scholarships may also be renewable. Applications are judged on “academic potential, achievement, and commitment to serving communities in the field of law enforcement.” Candidates must have finished a year of college and will submit a 500-word essay, transcripts, and a letter of sponsorship from a community leader or police official. The deadline to apply is May 3.
How to Get Started on a Law Enforcement Degree
Students have a lot of decisions to make because there are so many ways to break into the broad field of law enforcement! Let’s do a quick review…
What Law Enforcement Job Do You Want?
Your specific career goal is the first thing to consider before applying to any college program.
Spend enough time reviewing the different job opportunities available. Make a list of the ones you’re strongly interested in, then do some homework to learn all you can about each. Dig into the details related to specific work duties and responsibilities to ensure it sounds like something you really want to do for a living.
Do You Qualify for the Law Enforcement Job You Want?
It is critical to objectively assess personal criteria needed to qualify for any LE job. Agencies may run criminal background checks to ensure applicants don’t have disqualifying factors or incidents in their past. There might also be drug screenings or personal background checks for security clearances.
In addition, a lot of law enforcement agencies require workers to pass stringent mental health and physical examinations. The CIA has perhaps the lengthiest list of requirements that applicants must meet!
Is the Job Right for You in the Long Term?
Law enforcement jobs often have hectic work schedules as well as rigorous physical fitness requirements. Some roles involve working in very high-stress or potentially hazardous environments. Such jobs may sound exciting or adventurous, but they aren’t always conducive for long-term stability, so do your homework and know what to expect.
As you review each job, don’t just focus on the short-term. Take into consideration how your career might look in 5, 10, or even 20 years. Will the job require you to be away from home a lot, or to move from state to state, or even out of the country? How will that impact any family obligations you may have? There are important things to think about!
What Type of College Education Will You Need?
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of jobs you want the most, start exploring the educational requirements and salary potential.
Determine whether you want to pursue a certificate, associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree. Next, start reviewing your school choices. There are many factors to consider when deciding upon a law enforcement degree program and school, including application requirements, deadlines, and of course cost of tuition and other expenses.
Do You Qualify for a Law Enforcement Degree Program?
Just as you must qualify for a job, you also have to qualify to get accepted into any college program.
For undergrad programs, this means possessing a high school diploma or equivalent, having a high enough GPA, and, depending on how selective the program is, being competitive in other areas such as extracurricular activities. Grad school is even tougher and may require letters of reference, personal essays, or even interviews!
Figuring Out School Specifics
As with any college hopeful, you’ll need to ask yourself several questions while trying to figure out your college roadmap.
Does your schedule and budget allow for on-campus, full-time attendance, or will you need the flexibility of an online law enforcement degree program?
If going online, make sure your school is accredited and double check whether there are any in-person requirements or not. Many programs list that they are online, when in fact they are “hybrid” because they have some short residency requirements.
If going on-campus, will it be as a full-time student or part-time due to work or family obligations?
Also, if you want to attend school in person, determine whether or not you want to go in-state or out-of-state. Out-of-state tuition generally costs more than in-state. There are, however, various ways students may qualify for an in-state rate, such as establishing residency ahead of time or going to a school that participates in a reciprocity program.
Plan out well ahead of time what your post-graduation life is going to look like. Many law enforcement agencies have their own training programs that college grads have to complete prior to beginning work. As students attend college, it is important to always keep in mind any requirements that an agency has in terms of qualification (or disqualification).
For instance, although legal in many states, the use of cannabis can, in some cases, potentially disqualify an applicant from CIA service. In addition, the CIA notes that “lack of candor” is the “number one reason” why they disqualify applicants during the hiring process.
Be sure to review all requirements for the job you want in advance, then bear them in mind as you complete your college education!
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