Does an undergraduate Baccalaureate Degree improve policing?

Education is usually noted as one of the better avenues for improving professional skills in any field of employment. The type of education required, however, may vary across professions and according to the needs of the individual and the organization with which he is associated. Thus education may take the form of short courses facilitated by experts in the desired skill area, to practical training with desired skills and even to formal education.

Often in an effort to improve the human resource of the organization, companies either encourage or provide opportunities for employees to be better educated in knowledge and skills essential to the organization. In an effort to seek for improvements in the area of policing, some have suggested that advanced education, specifically up to the level of an undergraduate baccalaureate Degree, be encouraged among policing personnel. Some believe that possessing an undergraduate baccalaureate Degree is a key ingredient in realizing improvements to the field of policing.

Repeatedly there have been calls to elevate the basic requirements to enter the field of policing and to recruit personnel that have completed a four-year college education. Pustintsev (2000) advocates that a better educated force is the key ingredient for improvements. His ideas of how such education is to achieved are, however, quite vague, and do not point directly to an undergraduate Baccalaureate Degree. However the call for better education requirements for police may only be understood in context.

The discussions on the recruitment of university-educated police officers have been going on for almost 100 years, according to Roberg and Bonn (2004). They note that police departments across the United States are not inclined to change outdated standard requirements for new entrants. The minimum requirement to commence police training has traditionally been a high school diploma. When these requirements were initially introduced the majority of Americans were not high school graduates. Therefore, at that time, a high school diploma was high standard. Times have, however, changed since then.

According to 2000 statistics provided by the US Census Bureau, well over 24 percent of Americans older than 25 possess, at a minimum, a university baccaleaurate degree (as cited in Roberg and Bonn, 2004, p. 469). Roberg and Bonn (2004) emphasize that police departments have had a custom of recruiting individuals with “above-average education” (p. 469). Therefore since the gold standard of education is no longer a high school diploma but rather a four-year college degree or higher, Roberg and Bonn argue that police departments therefore need to raise their standards in order to continue recruiting the most qualified personnel.

No doubt a well educated police force may be desirable. In the Brazilian context Lino (2004) suggests that it is as a result of a lack of appropriately qualified personnel that the Brazilian force has proven ineffective. Despite there argument for university-educated police personnel, they provide little evidence that policing can and will be improved with higher requirements for entry in the profession. In fact Roberg and Bonn (2004) admit that “… a college requirement [can] not be quantitatively validated to show job relatedness” (p. 479).

Therefore, even though a university Baccalaureate degree may be desirable so as to uphold a positive image of police officers as highly qualified personnel, there is a lack of adequate supporting evidence that having this qualification does in fact impact policing whether negatively or positively. A counter to this argument however is that if the community has a better opinion of police officers because they are better qualified and are therefore being portrayed as professional, their attitude towards these personnel may reflect more respect and thus there may be improvements in how officers and the citizens they serve interrelate.

However this is strictly hypothetical and requires statistically reliable data to support this claim. Lee and Punch (2004) do offer some evidence in favor of increased educational qualifications for police officers. The researchers in this study conducted interviews among seven male officers of the Essex Police Force who had undertaken an undergraduate Baccalaureate Degree at the University of Essex. The Essex Police Force had developed a scheme where it funded the university education of serving officers beginning in the late 1960s in an effort to improve the professional image of officers.

Officers were not required to pursue a degree directly related or relevant to policing but were free to choose whichever area of study they desired. When asked about the impact their university education had on their performance on the job most respondents agreed that the impact was positive and that the education “… made them more self-reflexive and questioning, …gave them more confidence to challenge commonly accepted stances and shaped them to be more eager to look for evidence in arguments” (p. 245).

One respondent commented that “…lots of things I did afterwards were a lot better” (p. 244). However though this study reveals possible positive benefits of improved qualifications for policing, the research sample was quite small and thus not very representative. It is difficult to generalize from this study that possessing an undergraduate Baccalaureate Degree improves policing. Possibly a similar research could be carried out on a larger scale among officers who obtained their Baccalaureate Degrees in service.

These officers would be able to compare their effectiveness prior to and after completing the Degree program. This information would therefore guide police administrators in determining whether or not a university degree is desirable. The benefits identified by the police officers interviewed in the Lee and Punch (2004) study, did not indicate practical, job-specific benefits of having a university education. The study by LaGrange (2003) is commendable in that it examined a really pertinent issue to the field of policing.

The researchers wanted to discover if higher education impacted officer’s knowledge of policing and protocol procedures in dealing with incidents that arise on the job. The focus was specifically on how officers related to and handle individuals who are considered mentally ill. The researchers interviewed 156 officers within six police districts of Cleveland, Ohio. The researchers sought to determine the officer’s level of knowledge about mental disorders and department, local and national policies that specified how these persons should be handled.

The researchers also required officers to recount incidents in which a mentally ill individual was involved. In analyzing the responses of the officers based on their qualifications, the researchers found a positive correlation between the level of educational qualifications and the quality of officers’ interactions with the mentally ill. Officers who only had a high school diploma were least likely to have a comprehensive knowledge of procedures and also less likely to follow such in dealing with situations involving mentally ill individuals. Those with some college education produced slightly better results.

However officers who possessed a university Baccalaureate degree were found to be more aware of and sensitive to the needs of the mentally ill. More often than not they were likely to recommend psychiatric assessment of these individuals, as outlined in the procedures as opposed to dealing with the situation informally as the high school and college graduates were most likely to do. A study among criminal justice majors also suggests that a university degree may contribute to producing better officers. The researchers presented criminal vignettes to a mixture of criminal justice majors and those in other fields of study across the university.

When the sentencing patterns in an auto-theft and a murder case were compared among both groups the researchers found that the criminal justice majors were more lenient in their rulings, at least in one of the cases. Carlan and Byxbe (2000) utilizes this finding to support their claim that a university education produces more humanistic police officers. However this conclusion is somewhat hasty. The subjects included in the study are not police officers but rather university students, most or all of which have never been involved directly in policing.

Their more lenient sentencing could be as a matter of a lack of adequate knowledge of relevant policies rather than an authentic sensitivity to the individuals in the cases. There are other factors that could also have impacted the findings and thus it is not fair for the authors to conclude from this limited study that a university Baccalaureate Degree improves policing. Wimshurst and Ransley (2007) present a contrary position, arguing that the position that a university Baccalaureate Degree improves policing is groundless and unsupported by research.

Thus when authors such as Schafer and Castellano (2005) recommend a four-year college education as the minimum standard for entry into the police profession, Wimshurst and Ransley (2007) object. Schafer and Castellano believe that the higher education institutions may be better in a better position to contribute to improve the professionalism of the police force because they possess the requisite skills to design and deliver appropriate programs. Wimshurst and Ransley (2007) examine disagrees with this recommendation and sees it as nothing more than a promotional campaign for university recruiting.

They examine trends in the field of education and policing and conclude that the calls for improved qualifications for police officers are most likely attributable to the universities. With the commercialization of education these schools of higher learning, anxious to recruit a wider base, have been pressing personnel in all fields, including policing, to pursue further education. They researchers argue therefore that though “… the extensive research literature from the United States over the past 30 years remains ambivalent” (p.

106), educators are still insisting that police officers undertake an undergraduate degree. Evidently the arguments on either side of the debate about the merits of an undergraduate Baccalaureate Degree to improved policing are divided. Researchers do not suggest that this sort of qualification is not desirable. The contention is whether there is an impact on policing, even if that impact is only minimal. However the arguments are inconclusive as neither side has proposed fool-proof arguments in support of their position.


Carlan, P. E. & Byxbe, F. R. (2000, Spring).The promise of humanistic policing: Is higher education living up to societal expectation. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 24(2), 235-246. LaGrange, T. C. (2003, Spring). The role of police education in handling cases of mental disorder. Criminal Justice Review, 28(1), 88-112. Lee, M. & Punch, M. (2004). Policing by degrees: Police officers’ experience of university education. Policing and Society, 14(3), 233-249. Lino, P. R. (2004, May). Police education and training in a global society: A Brazilian overview. Police Practice and Research, 5(2), 125-136. Pustintsev, B.

(2000). Police reform in Russia: Obstacles and opportunities. Policing and Society, 10, 79-90. Roberg, R. & Bonn, S. (2004). Higher education and policing: Where are we now? Policing, 27(4), 469-486. Schafer, J. A. & Castellano, T. C. (2005, Oct). Academe versus academy: Faculty views on awarding academic credit for police training. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 16(2), 300-317. Wimshurst, K. & Ransley, J. (2007, Mar). Police education and the university sector: Contrasting models from the Australian experience. Journal of Criminal Justice and Education, 18(1), 106-122.