Back-to-School Basics

The world of academia exploded in scandal this year when news broke of celebrities and wealthy parents allegedly cheating the system to get their children admitted to Ivy League schools. Such stories can make college admissions sound like an ultra-competitive nightmare, but never fear: If you want to pursue a degree as a working professional, you’ll find that most institutions — especially those tailored for adult learners, like the members of the National FOP University Consortium — recognize the demands of balancing school, work and family, and try to make the admissions process accessible and accommodating. Of course, it helps if you do a little studying of your own. Here, admissions officials and graduates guide you through the key steps along the path toward higher education.

1. Set Goals
Why do you want to earn a degree? How will education benefit your career? According to the Police Foundation, more than half of the nation’s law enforcement agencies offer at least one incentive for continuing education, such as mandating a degree for promotion or offering greater pay for a four-year degree.

“I wanted to do something to not only advance in my current career, but also to make myself marketable after retirement from police work,” says Jacob Morris of his decision to enroll in Ashland University for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. The Lorain Police Department sergeant, a member of Ohio FOP Lodge #3, graduated in 2017 and has since completed a master’s program at Bowling Green University.

This is the stage to determine the scope of your educational goals. Decide on type of degree, area of study and whether you want a specialized concentration within the field.

2. Research Schools
Degree programs differ in coursework and instructional formats. Some are taught exclusively online, others require in-person attendance and some provide a hybrid of the two. Ask yourself which arrangement will suit your study style as well as professional and personal demands.

“It is important they research the program offerings, learning modalities, university support services and financing options available to determine the best fit for their individual needs,” says Jamie Jaynes, vice president for admissions at the University of Maryland University College.

Also, it’s advisable to stick with accredited institutions. “Regional accreditation is the highest level, and nationally accredited is a much lower standard,” says Erik Fritsvold, Ph.D., professor of sociology and academic director for the Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership master’s degree program at the University of San Diego.

Next, study the curriculum. “Is it specifically designed to serve law enforcement, or is it masquerading as law enforcement-centric to attract students?” asks Fritsvold. “Make sure the skills and content have practical value.”

Before finalizing your top choices, inquire whether previously earned credits, military service and/or work experience will transfer. “We evaluate many forms of nontraditional credit, including military training, certifications and learning evaluated by the American Council on Education, and various forms of public safety training. We also have a Prior Learning Assessment program designed to evaluate learning gained while working, although transfer credit is not guaranteed and depends on the student’s degree program,” says Dennis Porter, senior law enforcement education coordinator for American Military University.

3. Calculate Finances
Higher education comes with a high price tag, so investigate financial resources. According to the Police Foundation, nearly 75% of agencies offer tuition reimbursement for work-related college courses. Approximately 30% reimburse for any college class. Be sure to read the fine print — some departments ask for proof of passing grades before releasing funds.

Have you served in the military? Per the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, post-9/11 veterans with at least 90 days of aggregate active duty are eligible for education benefits. Many universities have counselors or representatives well-versed in these details to guide applicants through the documentation.

Also, nontraditional undergraduate students may qualify for federal student aid, including grants that don’t need repayment — graduate students can receive loans, but generally aren’t eligible for grants. The application period opens each October for the following academic year, and applicants submit data from the most recent tax return. Schools determine amounts based on need, accounting for nontraditional students’ economic circumstances, including the number of dependents, employment status and even medical bills. Note that unsubsidized loans accumulate interest as soon as monies are dispersed; however, interest on subsidized loans is deferred while attending classes at least half-time. Terms of private loans vary.

“I took out student loans because I didn’t want to work overtime to pay as I went. I thought that would be counterproductive,” says Kenneth Ehrman, an investigator for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, vice president of California FOP Lodge #77 in Sacramento and sergeant at arms for the California State Lodge. Ehrman received a master’s degree from the University of San Diego in 2017.

And, don’t forget about scholarships, available based on criteria such as organization membership, ethnic and cultural heritage, and financial need.

“If you spend 10 hours finding a scholarship that lands you $1,000, you just paid yourself $100 per hour,” notes Bernie Banning, director of graduate, online and adult admissions for Ashland University.

“The university awards a large number of scholarships once a year through a separate application process for Upper Iowa University students,” notes Dawn Novak, assistant vice president for enrollment management for Upper Iowa University.

Tiffin University also offers a long list of corporate partnerships, including discounts to FOP members. Other large discount programs include active military and their families, reserves and military retirees,” says Nikki Hintze, executive director for online Enrollment Management for Tiffin University.

4. Apply
It’s finally time to apply. Online forms are self-explanatory, but be prepared with names of schools and dates of attendance for previous studies. In most cases, working professionals will not have to provide ACT/SAT scores or take the Graduate Record Examination for online graduate programs. That said, institutions may mandate testing for course placement.

“There are much better tests to see where a person is at in two areas all majors require: English composition and mathematics. They will be tested to see where they are at and need to start,” says Andrew Coggins Jr., assistant director of admissions for the University of Cincinnati.

Don’t hesitate to contact an admissions counselor with questions.

“I never had a problem getting an answer. They were always available and eager to help,” remembers Brian Meek of his application process for a master’s degree in intelligence studies from the American Military University. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration diversion investigator is a member of Arizona FOP Lodge #14 and retired from the Phoenix Police Department in 2017.

5. Prep for Class
“Because financial aid increases with the number of courses taken, many students attempt to take too many courses to maximize aid,” says Porter. “They end up needing to drop courses, or worse yet, fail courses because they took too many at the outset. Being realistic with the time you can devote to your studies is absolutely vital to academic success.”

Be sure to build a strong support network. Notify supervisors in case you need scheduling accommodations. Arrange a homework routine with family. Also, engage the formal services offered by the school.

“With the Admission Office and Advising Office working side by side, students at Tiffin University will have a go-to person every step of the way,” says Hintze.

No doubt going back to school requires a big commitment of time, energy and resources; however, the return on investment can pay off throughout one’s career, both in and out of law enforcement.

See this story in the Winter 2019 FOP Journal issue.

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