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What Is a Law Enforcement Degree?
A law enforcement degree provides the foundational knowledge and skills for a successful career in law enforcement. Extending far beyond police departments, the field encompasses a vast system of local, state, and federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Homeland Security. While varied in their jurisdictions and approaches, all law enforcement agencies share the same broad goal: to uphold the law and to ensure public order and safety.
Regardless of your ultimate career goal, a degree in law enforcement serves as a common first step to a position in the field. The work can be demanding and dangerous, but law enforcement professionals are compensated with competitive salaries and comprehensive benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that officers and detectives of all types earn an annual median salary of $65,170, and careers in the field are projected to grow 5% from 2018-2028.
This page offers an overview of law enforcement programs, including the various types of degrees they offer, program admission requirements, typical coursework involved, and career options after graduation.
Why Get a Degree in Law Enforcement?
While a law enforcement degree is not always required to pursue a career in the field, a strong education can help candidates distinguish themselves in an often competitive job market, particularly for those hoping to advance to management and leadership positions. Additionally, some specialized law enforcement positions, such as FBI agents, typically require applicants to hold a college degree. The list below highlights three of the most common benefits of a law enforcement degree.
Career Advancement: Earning a degree can make you eligible for promotion to higher levels of law enforcement, including positions with greater responsibility and management duties.
Increased Job Opportunities: A law enforcement degree can also open up a wider assortment of job opportunities, including specialized positions with agencies such as the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Increased Salary Potential: Along with increased job opportunities, law enforcement degree holders can advance to higher paying positions with more potential for leadership.
Career and Salary Outlook for Law Enforcement Graduates
Law enforcement graduates can pursue an assortment of career paths at local, state, and federal levels, and most positions boast competitive salaries, generous benefits, and strong potential for career advancement. In general, applicants with a law enforcement degree can expect to earn a fair wage, with most mid-career salaries falling in the $50,000-$70,000 range.
Police officers, detectives, FBI agents, and other law enforcement professionals often advance through experience, but earning a degree or professional certification can help candidates distinguish themselves for higher level positions. Some departments and agencies may even fund continuing education opportunities for their officers in order to improve law enforcement practices.
The list below outlines five popular career options for law enforcement majors. Along with general job descriptions, you’ll also find an overview of average salary levels arranged by experience level.
FBI agents protect the country from threats both at home and abroad, working to prevent, investigate, and prosecute crimes of all types. The Bureau takes responsibility for a wide variety of threats, such as terrorism, cybercrime, white-collar crime, and foreign counterintelligence. FBI agents typically need at least a bachelor’s degree. Learn More
Investigating murders and assisting in the prosecution of perpetrators, homicide detectives play a vital role in any police department. Their typical duties include examining crime scenes, conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses, and pursuing suspects. They usually work alongside other law enforcement professionals, such as forensic examiners and police officers. Learn More
Taking a unique approach to law enforcement, victims advocates operate similarly to social workers, offering support and resources to the victims of crimes and guiding them through the legal system. Advocates may be employed at law enforcement departments, social services organizations, and state and federal legal agencies. Learn More
One of the most common careers in law enforcement, police officers serve the public by protecting both people and property. Their job typically involves responding to police calls (both emergency and non-emergency), patrolling assigned areas, making arrests, and testifying in court to aid criminal prosecution. Learn More
Criminal investigators perform crucial work at all levels of law enforcement, including local, state, and federal. Working with police departments as well as with agencies such as the FBI, these officers often investigate and prosecute specific types of crimes, such as narcotics crime, murder, or cybercrime. Learn More
Law Enforcement Careers: Median Salaries by Experience
Each type of program comes with different levels of commitment, cost, and time investment. A bachelor’s degree often takes about four years to complete, while many certificates can be finished in a matter of months. More involved programs typically lead to increased career options with higher salary levels. For most law enforcement careers, a master’s degree is the highest level of education required.
Law Enforcement Certificate
Unlike degrees, which offer a comprehensive overview of law enforcement practices, criminal justice certificates typically focus on one area. They generally require the least amount of coursework and take less time to complete than other degrees (weeks or months, rather than years). Some certificate programs may serve those with little or no experience in the field, while more advanced options may be open only to professionals who possess associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees. Common certificates include:
Advanced crime analysis
Leadership in criminal justice
Associate Degree in Law Enforcement
An associate degree in law enforcement builds foundational knowledge and skills, often serving as the minimum education requirement for the field. Associate programs require applicants to hold a high school diploma or GED, and some may require test scores, such as the SAT or ACT. Most associate programs take around two years to complete and require 60 credits. An associate degree prepares graduates to enter the law enforcement field or to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Common associate degree options include:
Associate of science in criminal justice
Associate of science in law enforcement
Associate of science in criminology
Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement
A bachelor’s degree offers a more comprehensive overview of law enforcement practices than an associate degree, typically requiring 120 credits and at least four years to complete. Bachelor’s programs require applicants to hold a high school diploma or GED, and they may require SAT or ACT scores more frequently than associate programs. A bachelor’s degree prepares graduates to pursue most law enforcement career paths, though some advanced positions may call for a master’s degree. Common bachelor’s degree options include:
Bachelor of science in criminal justice
Bachelor of science in law enforcement
Bachelor of science in criminology
Master's Degree in Law Enforcement
Typically the highest level of education necessary in the field, a master’s in law enforcement builds both comprehensive and specialized knowledge of law enforcement concepts and practices. All master’s programs require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, and some may require scores from graduate exams such as the GRE. A master’s typically takes 2-3 years to complete, preparing graduates for leadership roles and other specialized positions. Common master’s degree options include:
Master of science in law enforcement administration
Master of science in criminal justice leadership
Master of science in law enforcement intelligence
Concentrations in Law Enforcement
More advanced law enforcement degrees, including those at the master’s and bachelor’s level, often feature concentration options that enable students to develop specialized skills. Concentrations typically focus on a specific law enforcement area or approach, building unique, advanced knowledge that can help applicants obtain specialized roles and distinguish themselves in a competitive job market. Pursuing a concentration can also open a wider selection of job opportunities for law enforcement graduates.
Common examples of law enforcement concentration options include:
A law enforcement degree builds both general and specialized knowledge of criminal justice concepts and practices. Most programs offer a wide variety of courses. As with many academic subjects, the curriculum for a law enforcement degree often features both core courses, which build foundational knowledge, and electives, which delve into more specialized topics. Some programs may also include capstone courses or other culminating projects.
This section outlines five common law enforcement classes, many of which may be found in programs of all levels. While exact course titles may vary between schools, the general content should stay the same.
Introduction to Criminal Justice
Most programs include a foundational course that introduces the study and philosophy of criminal justice and law enforcement. This course typically focuses on the roots of policing as well as the structure of the criminal justice system, covering police departments, courts, corrections, and social services.
Law Enforcement and Policing
This course explores the history of modern policing practices, framing law enforcement in a social, cultural, historical, and political context. These courses often focus on the development and evolution of policing practices, the changing role of law enforcement in society, and legal and ethical perspectives on enforcement strategies.
Introduction to Criminology
This course offers a broad theoretical approach to crime, criminal behavior, and their underlying causes. Most iterations of the course explore basic criminological theories along with concepts such as victimology. Many courses also offer an introduction to crime statistics and the role of statistics in forming and testing criminological theories.
Law enforcement frequently intersects with the legal system, and this course offers an overview of major topics in criminal law, such as criminal responsibility, criminal defenses, and criminal mental states. Many versions of the course also explore the practices and processes of the federal court system.
Criminal Justice Practicum
Given the hands-on nature of most criminal justice work, programs often include a practicum or internship component that enables students to gain experience in a professional law enforcement environment. Often completed at a police department or another law enforcement agency, this requirement helps students draw connections between coursework and real-life criminal justice work.
Selecting Your Law Enforcement Program
Prospective students should consider many factors when choosing a law enforcement program, including:
School size can have a major impact on educational experience. In general, larger schools may offer more comprehensive resources and wider course selections, while smaller schools may offer fewer academic options but more individualized student support.
Tuition and financial aid options rank among the top concerns for many students, regardless of their major. In general, public colleges offer lower tuition rates than private colleges, but tuition rates can vary widely among all institutions.
Concentrations build specialized knowledge that can help students pursue different career paths and stand out from other job applicants.
Many schools offer accelerated programs that enable students to enter the workforce quickly. On the other hand, working students may prefer a part-time program that enables them to balance school with professional obligations.
Online vs. In-Person
Both online and campus formats offer different advantages and disadvantages. In general, online courses offer more flexibility but require more independence, while campus courses offer less flexibility and more structure.
Always ensure that a school or program holds proper accreditation from a reputable accreditation agency. In general, most schools offering criminal justice programs should hold accreditation from a regional accrediting agency.
Should You Get Your Law Enforcement Degree Online?
The flexibility, affordability, and increasing prevalence of online education have led to greater numbers of students earning their law enforcement degree online. Many criminal justice professionals pursue education to advance in their careers, and online programs typically enable students to complete their degree while maintaining a full-time job.
Online learning generally offers more flexibility than campus courses, but this comes with some notable tradeoffs. Online courses require students to be much more independent, completing assignments on their own time without the structure of weekly classroom meetings. Campus courses also offer more opportunities for face-to-face interaction with peers and faculty, which some students may find helpful.
For working students and those who live far from a college campus, online courses offer a convenient route to higher education that might otherwise remain inaccessible. For those who may be unsure about committing to online education, many schools allow students to “test drive” online courses before enrolling.
Accreditation for Law Enforcement Schools and Programs
When researching law enforcement programs, always be sure that a college possesses proper accreditation. Accreditation indicates that a school has met various standards designated by federally recognized accreditation agencies, ensuring the quality and reputability of their academic programs. Without proper accreditation, students may be ineligible for financial aid and unable to transfer their credits to other colleges.
A school should possess either national accreditation (typically reserved for trade and vocational education) or regional accreditation (typically reserved for academic and professional education). Most law enforcement programs are offered through regionally accredited colleges. If a school holds accreditation from one of the regional accrediting agencies, students can generally be assured of a quality education.
Some individual programs may also hold accreditation from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. While programmatic accreditation does demonstrate academic quality, many strong programs lack this type of specific accreditation. For law enforcement programs, regional accreditation still serves as the ultimate standard.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long will it take to complete a law enforcement degree?
Completion times can vary widely among programs and degree levels. In general, an associate degree takes two years, a bachelor’s degree takes four years, and a master’s degree takes 2-3 years. However, many schools offer accelerated and part-time options that can either shorten or lengthen the time it takes to graduate.
How much will I make with a degree in law enforcement?
As with any field, salary levels in law enforcement can vary depending on factors such as education, experience level, location, and position. The BLS reports an annual median salary of $65,170 for all types of police and detectives, though some positions, such as detectives and criminal investigators, earn more.
What kind of jobs can you get with a law enforcement degree?
Law enforcement graduates can pursue a wide selection of careers at federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Some common career paths in the field include working as police officers, detectives, FBI agents, fish and game wardens, and narcotics officers. In general, candidates expand their career options as they pursue further education or gain more job experience.
Do I need a law enforcement degree to be a police officer?
It depends. More and more jobs in the field of law enforcement are requiring some kind of formal education. 35% of O*NET respondents report that most police patrol officers need only a high school diploma to get a job, but many (27%) report that a post-secondary certificate is needed, while 24% report that an associate degree is required for a job as a police officer. Clearly, formal education is becoming a more common requirement for those entering law enforcement careers. Check the specific requirements for the law enforcement job you are considering to learn whether or not you will need a degree.
Scholarships for Law Enforcement Programs
Law enforcement majors have many options to finance their education, including a variety of scholarships available to students at all levels. These scholarships vary in their application requirements and award amounts, but they all support students pursuing an education in law enforcement or criminal justice.
Brian Terry Scholarships
Who Can Apply: Undergraduate students seeking a degree in criminal justice or a related field. Applicants must submit two recommendation letters and a personal essay.
Who Can Apply: LGBTQ+ students currently enrolled in any law enforcement training program. Applicants must demonstrate the qualities of a visible, positive role model in the criminal justice or law enforcement field.